Noah 5774: Protecting the Image of God

Following the flood, the Torah returns to a theme that we encountered in the first chapter, צלם אלהים, “the image of God.” We are accustomed to reading this expression metaphorically, since we believe God to be disembodied—אין לו דמות הגוף ואינו גוף God has no body image nor body, as our prayer “Yigdal” puts it. But that claim flies in the face (as it were) of the Bible’s description of the divine body and the image of the divine body, which is apparently human.

Uninsured people in Mississippi, James Patterson for the NY Times

Uninsured people in Mississippi, James Patterson for the NY Times

Tikva Frymer Kensky, z”l, wrote a fascinating essay on the image of God entitled, “Religious Anthropology in Judaism and Christianity.”  She noted that statues of kings were erected around the ancient Near East, and that these likenesses were protected (as was the case in later empires like Rome, and in many regimes down to our day). The Akkadian word for statue is tsalmu; in Assyrian, the king is known as tsalam ili, “image of the god.” Mesopotamian gods and kings had statues of wood and stone. The God of Genesis had something far better: walking statues that could reproduce. 

It is no coincidence that the same texts which describe humans as the image of God also command them to be fruitful and multiply. When God made Adam in “his image as his likeness,” the pattern was established. Adam “begat” Seth, and the child was described as “in his image as his likeness” (Gen 5:3). People look sort of like their biological parents, and also, apparently, sort of like God. Human procreation is a way, perhaps THE way, to magnify God’s presence in the world. In contrast, murder is an assault not just on an unfortunate human, but also on God, whose image the person bears. These two points are linked in our parashah at 9:6-7, which declares, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in His image did God make man. Be fertile, then, and increase; abound on the earth and increase on it.” (I apologize for the gendered translation; it is that of JPS, and in this case it would be hard to hear the Torah’s poetry without reflecting its use of gender). The topic of the divine image has been studied extensively in recent years by James Kugel, Yair Lorberbaum and our own Professor Benjamin Sommer.

Tikva Frymer-Kensky writes, “Each human is to be treated as the representative of God. In this way, the concept of ‘image of God’ creates a sense of the inviolability and sacredness of human life.” Still, this concept remains somewhat metaphorical—we understands the “image” to refer to the “essence” of a person, that is, the soul, rather than to the exterior body. Christianity took the image concept more literally, claiming that Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God. This application is quite alien to us, though in fairness, there are midrashim that claim that Jacob looked just like God, leading the angels at Beth El to wonder at the similarity between the boy asleep on the ground and God in heaven. In Bereshit Rabbah 68:12 the comparison between the “icon”or image of Jacob and of God is made explicit with a parable of a king who is observed in two separate places. The anthropomorphism is softened somewhat by the idea that Jacob’s visage was inscribed on the divine throne, not the divine face, but still, we do have an idea of the divine image appearing in the perfect human form of Jacob/Israel.

Rather than deifying its eponymous ancestor, Israel developed the biblical concept of divine image into the foundation of the commandment to protect human life (pikuah nefesh), and also human dignity (k’vod habriot). Midrash Mekhilta on Yitro/BaHodesh (8) explains that the ten commandments were arranged with five on each tablet so that “I am the Lord,” and “Do not murder” would headline each set, because killing a person diminishes the image of God.

There is, of course, a paradox to Genesis 9:6, which prescribes the death penalty for murder. If killing one person diminishes the divine image, doesn’t killing the killer simply double the outrage? Two solutions come to mind. Perhaps the act of murder simultaneously erases the divine image in both the victim and in the perpetrator. The killer is therefore no longer fully human—he is more like a zombie that walks and acts but has no soul. Attractive as this notion is, especially for Hollywood, I doubt that this is what Genesis had in mind. Rather, allowing a murderer to walk about brazenly despite having destroyed a divine image is an ongoing outrage to the Creator. The murderer becomes a rival to the creator, boasting by his very breathing that he has undermined the divine order. He must be killed, the verse says, “because in His image did God make man”. God accepts the destruction of one additional image in order to protect “the brand value” of the image overall. (This biblical concept does not necessarily support capital punishment in our day; Judaism has long been ambivalent about execution, and we possess effective alternatives today to penalize a murderer without destroying the divine image. Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky has a responsum on this subject before the Law Committee this month).

What does it mean to us to view the bodies of people of all faiths and identities around us as being the divine image? To take this concept seriously is utterly to alter every human interaction. We are most aware of this when encountering another person, but it is not only in close proximity to another that the doctrine of the divine image must guide our action. Public policy can either protect or undermine the value of the divine image. This week, as our government has shut down over the opposition of House Republicans to President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act, it is appropriate to ask what our responsibilities are to the divine image. While the President’s plan may not be perfect—one senses that even he would have preferred a more expansive program—it is designed to extend the benefits of health and financial security to tens of millions of people. Perhaps there are better ways to accomplish this, but one does not hear coherent alternatives from the opposition. Rather, they seem to be focused entirely on defeating the President with extraordinarily florid language (“one of the worst laws in history”). It is not only in Congress that this stalemate is undermining the promised benefits to health. As the Times reported this week, millions of the poorest Americans live in states controlled by Republican governors and assemblies that have refused to accept the expansion of Medicaid that would be paid for by the Federal government (100% for the first 3 years; 90% after that):  “A sweeping national effort to extend health coverage to millions of Americans will leave out two-thirds of the poor blacks and single mothers and more than half of the low-wage workers who do not have insurance, the very kinds of people that the program was intended to help, according to an analysis of census data by The New York Times.” Every one of these people who suffers from debilitating disease or injuries, and every unnecessary death, is an assault on the divine image. What can we do about it?

When Israeli Knesset member Stav Shaffir spoke after Minhah this week about the wave of activism the swept across Israel two summers ago and led her to run for office at age 28, I found myself wondering what we American citizens can do to motivate our elected officials to stop the irresponsible posturing and get back to the people’s business? I don’t have answers, but don’t want to sit still either. I would welcome your suggestions this Shabbat as we think about “My Body, My Self” and envision a society that honors the divine image that is visible in the people all around us.

Shabbat shalom and Hodesh tov,

Rabbi Danny Nevins

בראשית פרק ט 

ו) שפך דם האדם באדם דמו ישפך כי בצלם אלהים עשה את האדם:

ז) ואתם פרו ורבו שרצו בארץ ורבו בה:

בראשית פרק ה

ג) ויחי אדם שלשים ומאת שנה ויולד בדמותו כצלמו ויקרא את שמו שת:

מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל יתרו – מסכתא דבחדש פרשה ח

כיצד נתנו עשרת הדברות: ה’ על לוח זה וה’ על לוח זה. – כתיב אנכי יי’ אלהיך וכנגדו לא תרצח, מגיד הכתוב שכל מי ששופך דם, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו ממעט בדמות המלך; משל למלך בשר ודם שנכנס למדינה והעמיד לו איקונות ועשה לו צלמים וטבעו לו מטבעות; לאחר זמן כפו לו איקונותיו שברו לו צלמיו ובטלו לו מטבעותיו ומיעטו בדמותו של מלך; כך כל מי שהוא שופך דמים, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו ממעט בדמות המלך, שנ’ +בראשית ט ו+ שופך דם האדם וגו’ כי בצלם אלהים עשה את האדם.  

בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשת ויצא פרשה סח

ר’ חייא רבא ור’ יניי חד אמר עולים ויורדים בסולם וחרנה אמר עולים ויורדים ביעקב, מאן דאמר עולים ויורדים בסולם ניחה, מן דאמר עולים ויורדים ביעקב מעלים בו מורידים בו אופזים בו קופזים בו סונטים בו שנ’ ישראל אשר בך אתפאר (ישעיה מט ג), את הוא שאיקונין שלך חקוקה למעלן עולים ורואין איקונין שלו יורדין ורואים אתו ישן, למלך שהיה יושב ודן בפרור עולים לבסילקי ומוצאין אותו ישן יורדים בפרור ומוצאים אותו יושב ודן,

Soncino translation of Ber Rabbah 68:12.

R. Hiyya the Elder and R. Jannai disagreed. One maintained: They were ASCENDING AND DESCENDING the ladder; while the other said: they were ASCENDING AND DESCENDING on Jacob. The statement that they were ascending and descending the ladder presents no difficulty. The statement that they were ascending and descending on Jacob we must take to mean that some were exalting him and others degrading him, dancing, leaping, and maligning him. Thus it says, Israel in whom I will be glorified (Isa. XLIX, 3); it is thou, [said the angels,] whose features are engraved on high; they ascended on high and saw his features and they descended below and found him sleeping. It may be compared to a king who sat and judged in a judgment chamber; people ascend the basilica and find him sleeping, they go out to the judgment chamber and find him judging.

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