Of the many messages that leap out of the first chapters in Genesis, perhaps, none hold more importance than the declaration that man was created in the image of God. “God created man in His image; in the image of God, He created him. Male and female, He created them” (Genesis 1:27.) The Torah repeats this notion later when God warns the post-diluvian humans not to kill, “One who spills the blood of man, by man his blood shall be spilled; for in the image of God, He made man.” (Genesis 9:6)
For the sages of the Mishna, the creation in God’s image becomes a defining characteristic of what it means to be human. In a grand universal statement, Rabbi Akiva proclaims, “Precious is Man for he was created in the divine image, even more precious is he that he was informed that he was created in the divine image.” (Avot 3:14)
The universal claim regarding man’s nature applies to all humans, no matter race, creed, politics, or religion. The importance of this concept explains why the rabbis emphasize the danger of harming other human beings. During capital cases, the judges warn the witnesses that,
You should know that capital law cases are not like monetary law cases. In cases of monetary law, if a person testifies falsely, the money can be returned, and his sin atoned for. In capital law cases, if one testifies falsely, the blood of the accused and the blood of his offspring that he did not merit to produce are ascribed to the witness’s testimony until eternity. The proof for this is as we found with Cain, who killed his brother, as it is stated concerning him: “The voice of your brother’s blood [demei] cries out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10). The verse does not state: Your brother’s blood [dam], in the singular, but rather: “Your brother’s blood [demei],” in the plural. (Sanhedrin 4:5)
Cain killed his brother. But the tragedy of the death of Abel is not limited to the one son of Adam and Eve. Abel’s death cuts off the lives of all his potential offspring. Abel’s family’s future will never come to fruition. The heartbreak transcends time.
Further in the same mishnah appears one of the most celebrated rabbinic sayings, “the first man was created as an individual, to teach you that anyone who destroys a life it’s as if he destroyed an entire world. Anyone who saves one life it’s as if he saved an entire world.” (Sanhedrin 4:5) While there are two versions of this mishnah, almost all authorities agree that this is the correct text. Another version limits the statement to Jews. Most likely a scribe amended the text during the Middle Ages in the wake of the Crusades or Almohad persecutions. The more accepted version declares that saving the life of any human being is akin to saving an entire world. All subsequent generations that come from that one life last far beyond the present. We are all precious in God’s eyes, and losing any life is tragic for eternity.
Of course, the converse, the horror of taking a life, ruins that person’s future. Murder destroys the divine image, as does desecration. The rabbis teach that leaving a corpse out overnight violates God’s image.
Unlike some other religious traditions, almost all Jewish sources support the idea that God balanced man between two poles. Man was created with an inclination to do good and another inclination to do evil. In describing the creation of man in Genesis chapter two, the Torah states, “And God formed man.” (2:7.) However, the verb “formed” is written surprisingly with two first letters – “yod yod.” One of the explanations the sages suggest is that each letter “yod” stands for a separate desire: good and evil. The Torah repeats in numerous places that God gave man free will to choose. The Torah’s clear preference is that one should choose good. Choosing to oppose the divine will can potentially impact the person’s status. Choosing evil can potentially harm God’s image. We can choose to celebrate the divine image or deface it. The choice is ours.
The divine image can be effaced or harmed in two ways. One impacts God’s image in other people. Cain chose the evil path of murder. He and Abel were equal. But due to jealousy or some other reason, Cain destroyed the divine image in Abel by killing him. The blood of all of Abel’s future descendants cries out as the rabbis say. The impact, however, is not only ending the victim’s life and defacing God’s image. Cain didn’t just kill Abel. The perpetrator of the crime has also desecrated the divine image in himself. By destroying and not creating and sustaining life, Cain ruined his reflection of God. One who commits murder or other heinous criminal acts, through defacing the victim’s humanity, has ruined his own.
The operatives of Hamas chose the way of Cain. Their actions are a desecration of the divine image of those they murdered, raped, and kidnapped. They spared no one: young children, the elderly, civilians, mothers with babies, teens enjoying life, and, of course, soldiers they captured, executed, and whose bodies they mutilated—all of these atrocities they filmed and posted on social media. The horrors are still coming out. The victim count is beyond measure, and the brutal way they perpetrated their evil crimes evokes international outrage. They chose to erase the divine image in Israelis and, hence, in themselves. Like the evil members of ISIS, Hamas and its supporters have sacrificed their humanity.
There is a tendency to dehumanize evildoers, to call them animals or monsters. But that hides the truth. Unlike animals or monsters, the agents of Hamas were given free will. Unlike animals who act on instinct, Hamas are humans. They and their multitude of supporters chose the path of evil and destruction of their own volition.
Others attempt to rationalize the horror. “It was bound to happen given their circumstances and the problems of the occupation.” But that is nothing but the soft racism of low expectations. Such rationalizations remove Hamas’ agency.
In college, I had the privilege to study political theory with Prof. Dennis G. Dalton. In his course, he compared Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler. Both found their historical moment during a time of crisis for their country. The British regime oppressed and impoverished India as the Treaty of Versailles and the allied powers did to Germany. Gandhi chose the path of peaceful resistance, and Hitler chose the Holocaust. Historians can debate if Dalton went too far. What is clear is that Hitler and others like him chose the path of evil to desecrate the holy divine image in other human beings. Despite other options for peaceful resistance, they chose the path of destruction. In choosing evil and brutality, Hitler and the Nazis desecrated their own divine image. Similarly, Hamas has chosen evil and cruetly when they could have built Gaza. God gives us all free will to choose.
The rabbis instruct the Jewish people that when one comes to hurt them, the potential victim should strike first. The Israeli army will, please God, find the culprits and end Hamas’ ability to harm Israelis in the future. But beyond the defensive issue is the complete corruption of God’s image which should disturb all humans to our core. The numerous videos circulated by Hamas and its supporters of terrorists committing horrendous acts to innocent civilians and crimes against humanity demonstrate the complete corruption of their divine image. Like Cain, Hamas has destroyed their own humanity. The terrorists and their many supporters have shown the world the depth of evil a human can choose.
Despite believing that the young state of Israel had no legal cause to try the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, philosopher Hannah Arendt suggested that he deserved to die. What she said about Eichman can apply to Hamas and their supporters, “just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people …as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world – we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 131)
God created Hamas and its supporters, like all other human beings who descend from the first Adam and Eve, with free choice and in the divine image. Given the opportunity to choose a path of good and light, they have chosen one of darkness and death. All humans who respect the humanity of others must support Israel’s fight against the desecration of the human-divine image within us all.