Parashat B’reishit — The undefinable image of God

God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ וְיִרְדּוּ֩ בִדְגַ֨ת הַיָּ֜ם וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבְכָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃

“Let us make man in our own image,” says God. To whom was He speaking? Rav David Ish-Shalom once offered a lovely explanation of this enigmatic phrase: “God was speaking to human beings: Let us — you and Me together — create human beings who will live in My image.”

That human beings are created “in the image of God” lies at the very foundation not only of the Jewish worldview, but of halakhah and practical law as well. And yet, we don’t have a clue what it really means. Or rather, we have a myriad of ideas what it means, many of them contradictory; and some of them self-contradictory. Rabbis, textual scholars, and philosophers have written reams on the concept, and yet, it remains as enigmatic as ever.

What is Tselem Elohim?

In his lyrical philosophical work, The Body of Faith: God in the People Israel,  Michael Wyschogrod throws an interesting light on the topic.  While some of the foremost Jewish philosophers, in particular the Rambam, saw Tselem Elohim as referring to the human capacity of reason, Wyschogrod disagrees…

[T]he biblical view of man cannot focus on reason because reason is not the domain in which the fundamental task of man lies. Man’s fundamental project is not understanding but obedience to the divine command. It is, of course, true that obedience is possible only for a creature who has understanding, but it is not in the domain of understanding that man’s uniqueness is to be sought. Man is not a defined essence but an undertaking of possibilities who chooses himself as he constitutes his moral self. The focus on rationality is particularly incompatible with such a view because reason, particularly as understood by Plato and Aristotle, structures a world of necessity lacking the contingency of the historical. If the Bible is willing to assign essences to animals, this is so because animals do not participate in history. The essence of man, in contrast, remains open. (The Body of Faith, p. 5.)

Tselem Elohim, according Wyschogrod, refers to man’s unboundedness, his lack of completion. In the terminology of mathematical systems, man is “autonomous”—he is potentially infinite, even while being finite.

Is mankind “good”

The fact that we are created in the image of God sets up a paradox: God has no image. In fact, as we learn through the name with which God names Himself, God has no fixed nature: “I will be what I will be”. God is a free agent; not only can we not predict what He will do, but what he will do is not predictable in principle.

And, like God, man too is unpredictable. In the Song of Creation, every creative act ends with the refrain: “God saw that it was good”. This refrain is missing from the creation of man; there is no statement that man’s creation was seen by God to be good. Perhaps this is because man is never completed—as a free agent, he can never be a finished product. From the moment he left the Garden, he became a partner in his own creation. Human freedom partakes of the chaos at the heart of creation—the capacity for evil as well as for good.

Just as God will be what He will be, so human beings create their own future. In the act of choosing this or that path, we alter the outcome of all future moments, and those moments in turn lead to more choices, until the whole cascading chain of consequences runs far beyond any ability to predict. The only power in our hands—and it is an overwhelmingly serious one—is the power to choose in this moment! Each such tiny decision brings its own cascading reality with it. And so individuals, civilizations, and species all hang by the thread of a decision by one person.

And that one person is each of us.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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