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Parshat Bereishit: In the image of God

Would it be heretical to believe that the Creator has an actual body? Yes. And no. (Parshat Bereishit)
The so-called Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. (Public Doman/ Wikimedia Commons)
The so-called Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. (Public Doman/ Wikimedia Commons)

The so-called “Rainbow Portrait” of the 69-year-old queen Queen Elizabeth I is filled with symbolism of her wisdom, her eternal youth and her status as Gloriana, the Virgin Queen.

It was painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger just a year before Elizabeth’s death. During her 70-year reign, which was the longest of any British monarch until Victoria and only the second by a woman, she faced threats from without and within. She saw off several Gran Armadas sent by the Catholic King Philip II of Spain (and later by his son Philip III), dealt with the constant fighting in Ireland, supported the French King Henry III and the Dutch and other Protestants in Europe against Philip, while at the same time battling her advisers who never accepted that a woman could rule a country as well as a man.

True, she was petulant, untrustworthy, demanded constant flattery and never fully got over the fact that she had her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, executed.

But she brought stability to England and Wales following the tempestuous reigns of Henry VIII, Edward and Mary; and she established the Church of England, that her father had created, as the dominant religion. Although she never married and there were many claimants to her throne, she took steps to ensure that James VI of Scotland, her executed Catholic cousin’s Protestant son, ruled after her and united the crowns of England and Scotland.

The Rainbow Portrait of the queen is interesting, not only for its symbolism, but also because it portrays the queen not as she truly looked, but with airbrushed, eternally young features. In place of the artificial bright-red wig, the rotten teeth, the wrinkles and skin conditions caused by her heavy makeup, the painted queen remains eternally young.

Elizabeth had hundreds of portraits made, including an unfinished portrait miniature, used as a pattern for engravings of the queen. Some were lifelike, many were as she wanted her subjects to see her. All were images of the Queen but not all were in her likeness.

Elizabeth I portrait, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger c.1595. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Which brings us to the creation of humanity in this week’s Torah reading, and a fundamental dispute about the nature of God.

The Torah states that on the sixth day of creation, God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, as Our likeness… And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them,” (Genesis 1:26-27).

Let Us make man in Our image, as Our likeness… And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them

What does it mean to be created in the image of God? What image does God have?

The 12th century Rabbi Ya’akov ben Shimshon, a student of Rashi and teacher of Rabbeinu Tam, wrote a commentary on Pirkei Avot (printed in Machzor Vitri). He writes there (on Avot 3:14) that, “One who explains: ‘In his image, in the image, God created him,’ we suspect that he might be a heretic.”

Rabbi Moshe Taku, one of the Tosafists who cites this commentary, explains in his work Ketav Tamim that by inserting the comma between “image” and “God” it implies that God created man in man’s image and not in God’s image. The only reason for changing the simple meaning of the verse would be if someone held that God does not have a physical image, and this, according to Rashi’s student, would be heresy.

Likewise, Rabbi Moshe Taku points out that at a wedding, one of the blessings is explicit that humans are created in the physical “form” of God. “Blessed are You… Who made man in His image, in the image of the likeness of His form.”

Rashi himself on the verses in Genesis appears to say two contradictory ideas:

When God suggests making mankind “In Our image” Rashi explains as “In Our shape.” But in the next verse, when God creates man and woman, Rashi explains “In the image of God he created them” as “in the form that was made for him,” i.e. using a human-shaped mold.

In his book Nimukei Chumash, Rabbi Yishaya di-Trani (Tosefot Rid) asks why Rashi did not explain the second time that it was in the physical image of God. He answers that: “Certainly man is not made in the image of the Creator… The reason he explains here ‘In the image of God’ is that when God appears to people He takes on the form of a person. But the image of God is not known.”

In other words, Rashi and his students thought that God’s image is unknowable, but nevertheless, at times God can appear in physical form. (See also Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 95b and Rashi’s commentary which explains that God Himself took a razor and shaved Sancheriv. See also Rashi’s commentary on Deuteronomy 21:23.)

However, the third of Rambam’s Thirteen Principles is that every Jew must believe that God has no physical form or body.

In his Mishne Torah (Hilkhot Teshuva 3:7), Rambam goes even further, stating that, “Five categories of people are called heretics…. Someone who says that there is One God but that He is physical and has form.”

And in his Guide for the Perplexed (1:1) Rambam explicitly rejects the view espoused by Rabbi Yaakov ben Shimshon, Rabbi Moshe Taku and Rashi:

“Some have been of opinion that by the Hebrew word “ẓelem” the shape and figure of a thing is to be understood, and this explanation led men to believe in the corporeality [of the Divine Being]: for they thought that the words “Let us make man in Our image” (Genesis 1:26) implied that God had the form of a human being, i.e., that He had figure and shape, and that, consequently, He was corporeal.”

Rambam’s view, which is based on Aristotelian logic and goes against the plain meaning of the Bible and Rabbinic texts, seems to have become the dominant view in modern Judaism (though echoes of corporealism are found throughout kabbalistic and Hasidic thought). But it is nevertheless interesting to note that once there was a very strong and vocal alternative rabbinic view (and some of those rabbis excommunicated Rambam — partially due to his view on the incorporeality of God).

I’ll end with the words of Rabbi Avraham ben David (Ra’avad: Hilkhot Teshuva 3:7) who argues with Rambam, saying that although he does not endorse the view, one who believes that God has a body is certainly not a heretic.

Why does he call this person a heretic? Many greater and better people than he followed this line of thought, based on what they saw in the Biblical verses, and even more so in what they saw in the words of aggada which confuse the intellect.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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