Bereishit: In the Image of God

“And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him …” (Genesis 1:27).

With these words the Torah introduces man, and in so doing, conveys that man’s most salient feature, the one most fundamental to his purpose in creation, is his having been created in “the image of God” (tzelem Elokim).  What exactly is this “image of God” and why is it so important?

Maimonides opens his renowned “Guide for the Perplexed” by explaining that the “image of God” has nothing to do with the physical and everything to do with the intellectual, with the ability to reason and reason morally (Soloveitchik, Worship, p.46).  The “image of God”, then, can be said to refer, in some sense, to man’s moral faculty.

To gain a deeper understanding of the moral faculty, and, indeed, to appreciate why the Torah highlights it as the defining feature of man, we turn to a number of recent studies designed to determine just how the moral faculty operates (See: The Emerging Moral Psychology).  In one study, researchers posed moral dilemmas to subjects while monitoring their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging.  Among the dilemmas posed were the following two classic moral problems:

  • The Trolley Problem: A trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. You can save the five people by throwing a switch to divert the trolley to a different set of tracks that has only one person on it, but if you do this that person will be killed.  Should you throw the switch?
  • The Footbridge Problem: As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you push the fat man?

In the Trolley Problem, wherein five people can be saved at the expense of one without direct violence, the overwhelming majority of subjects opted to save the five.  On the other hand, in the Footbridge Problem, wherein the violence is direct, the calculus of five against one is not so persuasive and the vast majority decided against saving the five.  Most telling were the brain scans which showed that, while the Trolley Problem evoked activity in the part of the brain responsible for cognitive reasoning, the Footbridge Problem generated activity in the part of the brain associated with emotions.

Now, as strange as it may seem that cognitive reasoning is sometimes bypassed in moral decision making, further studies indeed revealed that it is not on his conscious reasoning that man relies for moral judgment but on his intuition.  One such study, the “Moral Sense Test” by Harvard University, was conducted through a website in which subjects logged-on to respond to a series of moral dilemmas.  The conclusions of the study note that people faced with unfamiliar moral dilemmas appeal to their intuition – intuition that appears to be governed by “principles [that] are an innate and universal part of the human moral faculty.”

Shaken by the possibility that intuition and not reason drives my moral judgment, I logged onto the website to take the test (not as part of the research, it having long been concluded, but for personal edification).  Upon taking the test I discovered that for dilemmas wherein I could parallel to cases addressed in Jewish law, I responded with the confidence of reason; however, for scenarios wherein no precedent was apparent to me, I began to sweat and, indeed, found myself relying on intuition.

Is there any basis to rely on intuition as moral guide?  And if so, is there any benefit to studying morality, to inculcating oneself with moral values?

Returning to the parsha, God provides an important piece of moral advice to Cain: “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be exalted? And if thou doest not well, sin coucheth at the door; and unto thee shall be its desire, but thou mayest rule over it” (Genesis 4:7).  This verse, explains the Talmud (Kiddushin 30b), is used again by God to explain how man is to maintain his moral character:

My children! I created the evil inclination, but I [also] created the Torah, as its antidote; if you occupy yourselves with the Torah, you will not be delivered into its hand, for it is said: “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be exalted?” But if ye do not occupy yourselves with the Torah, ye shall be delivered into its hand, for it is written, “sin coucheth at the door.”

But if it is the Torah that is to provide moral guidance, how can Cain – who did not have access to the Torah – be held accountable?  With what Torah, asks Rabbi Keidar, was Cain supposed to occupy himself?!  Rabbi Keidar responds by bringing another Talmudic passage that derives the seven commandments given to Noah from the verse “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat …”  Now, besides the fact that this verse speaks only of eating in the Garden of Eden and not of murder, theft, and other commands to Noah, we are also faced with a chronological incongruence, for Noah lived ten generations after Adam to whom this verse was said.

Rabbi Baruch Epstein explains that, clearly, the Talmud does not mean to imply that the seven commandments of Noah are learned from this command to Adam, but rather that these seven laws are the basis of natural morality incumbent on all humanity – starting with creation of the first man.  Rabbi Keidar expands:  “The sages understood that the seven commandments to Noah are known to man, if he but look to his tzelem Elokim … for, indeed, the recognition of what is moral is embedded in man in his being created in the ‘image of God’.”

As such, the “image of God” within man – his tzelem Elokim – is the innate intuitive capacity to achieve moral understanding, to make moral decisions without access to reason.  Nevertheless, as learned from Cain, it is not enough to have this innate moral sense to insure moral action.   It is not even enough that man intuit a code of morality to follow by force of reason; for reason, explains Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, can only describe what is, it cannot prescribe what ought to be.  It is only the objective command of God that gives reason the obligation that man cannot rationalize away.  “A law instituted by a will of relative authority admits of compromise for the sake of expediency; the law of absolute authority will not be overruled by such considerations.”

But how, then, are we to approach the myriad moral dilemmas not explicitly addressed in the Torah – the “unfamiliar moral dilemmas”?  Rabbi Wurzburger responds:

…in matters not concretely spelled out in the Torah, we must rely on our own moral perceptions for guidance as to how we can best obey the divine imperative of doing “what is right and good”.  To be sure, these moral perceptions, in turn, should reflect the value system underlying the various particular norms of the Torah.  It is expected, that as a result of exposure to specific ethical norms, we gradually develop the capacity to intuit theonomous moral requirements that extend beyond the range of the explicitly stated specific norms of the Torah.  … The fact that we acknowledge absolute principles in no way dispenses with the need to fall back upon intuition to determine the moral requirements for a given situation.

The moral faculty, then, can be said to comprise the cognitive and the intuitive – reason and tzelem Elokim – each influencing the other.  Given this, we can now understand why the Torah introduced man as having been created in the “image of God”, for it is with this, his tzelem Elokim at the core of his moral faculty, that man is to navigate his way through creation.  And it is with this book, the Torah, that man is to develop and shape this amorphous faculty until he can intuit the very will of God – as did Moses[1] of whom the Torah concludes was not just a man created in the image of God, b’tzelem Elokim, but a man who achieved the title: Man of God, Ish HaElokim.

[1] See Rashi (Deut. 34:12), “He raised his heart”.  Compare to Pascal, “The heart has reasons that reason does not know.”

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at