A New Internet Idea: Google Divine Images

Below is my imaginary open letter to Sergei Brin, the co-founder and owner of Google.

Dear Mr. Brin:

As an avid consumer of Google’s search engine services, I thank you for creating this enormously powerful information tool. Your invention is an outstanding example of your passionate commitment to unfettered access to information in the pursuit of strengthening democratic freedoms across the globe. As a Jewish man whose family left the former Soviet Union to seek those freedoms, you know better than most people how they foster and protect human dignity.

It is the protection of human dignity that moves me to write to you. This past week, Jews throughout the world began reading in our synagogues the majestic biblical story of creation which tells us that God created human beings in the divine image and likeness. This idea is a foundation of our most cherished beliefs concerning human freedom and equality because it posits that every human being is a reflection of God and therefore deserving of dignified treatment. It is so important in Jewish ethics that one Talmudic sage asserted that it, not the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is the most important principle of Judaism. What he possibly meant is that loving one’s neighbor is too inconsistent a way of guaranteeing that we will treat each other with decency and respect. If I decide that I do not love my neighbor or myself, I might too easily forego my obligation to treat him or her in the proper manner. Viewing my neighbor as a reflection of God – regardless of my love or hatred for that person or myself – makes it harder for me to mistreat him or her.

The meaning of being created in the divine image, as God’s reflection, is the subject of much debate in Jewish sources. One famous Jewish teaching contrasts God’s creation of human beings with a coin maker stamping coins. The latter can make many silver dollars but they will look exactly the same. When God, the ultimate Coin Maker “stamps” human beings, each of us looks different from the other, a powerful way of expressing how miraculous human uniqueness and diversity are. This coin making concept has ancient roots in the practices of near eastern monarchs who would stamp official documents with their royal seals – their images – that identified them authoritatively. Every person is like a royal seal representing God’s presence on earth. Medieval Jewish thinkers were quite uncomfortable with the belief that we are somehow physical reflections of an incorporeal God. They felt that creation in the divine image refers symbolically to the uniqueness of the human soul and intellect. Nonetheless, some Jewish sources still hold that the human body and likeness are literal reflections of God’s “face” or image.

Whatever the creation of people in God’s image actually means, it steadfastly holds that human beings have unconditional worth and a right to each other’s respect. Google already plays a role in fostering that respect by fostering human freedom. I suggest another role for it to play in this regard. My searches on Google Images using the key words “divine image” result mostly in pictures of Jesus, angels in clouds, or images of the comedian and drag queen, Divine. Why not create Google Divine Images, a search engine devoted entirely to honoring humanity by presenting the portraits and stories of individual human beings, in order to highlight their suffering, struggles and successes?

Imagine encouraging Google users throughout the planet to upload the photos, names and brief histories of men, women and children hiding behind the numbing, faceless statistics of populations brutalized or destroyed by racism, misogyny, and political repression. They could also highlight individuals in the tiniest corners of the world, whose decency and kindness make a difference to even one other human being. Flag, categorize, and archive every uploaded photo and story in order to create a massive “divine image” database. Add a link to Google Divine Images on the Google applications section at the top of every Gmail page. As I browse, I would be able to look up and learn about people listed by country, conflict, and compassionate or courageous types of behavior. Judaism teaches that the divine image is enhanced or damaged whenever any person’s life is enhanced or damaged. Each image and story would stand as tribute or as terrifying testimony to that teaching. Finally, I would not only become better informed by Google Divine Images. It would also give me the opportunity to upload my own photos and stories, to write about defending human dignity and life, and even to sign petitions and donate to causes that help me to do this.

The great scholar and social activist, Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote that “The mark of Cain in the face of man has come to overshadow the likeness of God.” Your company’s motto is “Don’t be evil.” Human evil is the toxic descendant of the world’s first act of brutality, when Cain murdered his brother, Abel, thus permanently damaging God’s image and likeness. Mr. Brin, whether or not you accept my proposal and whatever you believe about God, I challenge you and others with your level of immense power and influence. Never stop helping to restore that image and likeness. No less than human survival depends upon it.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.
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