In the Image of God

December 1, 2003
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By Jonathan Schofer
IN PRESENTING HER TEN sensibilities, Vanessa Ochs is doing what Jewish intellectuals have done for centuries — interpreting biblical and rabbinic concepts through ideals and values that capture the ethical imagination of her own time and place. Each of these concepts, though, has a wide range of meanings and applications in the broader Jewish tradition, and considering that full range both provides a context for understanding Ochs’s particular choices and may open up possibilities for Jewish thinking that are currently latent.

For example, the idea that people are made in the image of God — tzelem Elokim — is at the same time anthropological and theological, asserting some correspondence or association between the human and the Divine; one is a metaphor of the other. A crucial point, though, is that there is no fixed referent for this metaphor. We cannot answer the question, “What does it mean in Judaism for humans to be in the image of God?” The phrase, rather, opens up a particular terrain for reflection and debate, being a discursive space of immense significance that can be filled in all sorts of ways, often with strong rhetorical purposes. When Ochs says that tzelem Elokim means dignity, she is one of countless Jewish thinkers who are filling that space in ways that speak to her community.

This flexibility is present in the Bible itself. Neither of the two key verses in Genesis specifies exactly what part of humans constitutes the Divine image. Both, however, cite the motif to uphold particular practices, but not the same practices. The first case appears in the account of the sixth day of creation. God created human beings in the Divine image, and because of this, they shall have dominion over the creatures of the earth. In the second case the issue at stake is quite different: “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.” This second usage supports the prohibition of manslaughter and the relevant legal retribution. Several cases of rabbinic exegesis build and intensify on this point, though we also find the interpretative move of highlighting the end of the verse to generate a new teaching: being in the image of God confers a responsibility to bear children.

Other rabbinic teachings quote these biblical verses for vastly different purposes, often with a strong focus on human embodiment. One cites Genesis 1:27 to argue that Adam was among a number of figures who were born circumcised. Another example begins with two stories of Hillel in which the sage states that going to the toilet and bathing fulfill commandments. How so? The justification centers on a parable: if a king pays a person to polish and shine the statues in the palaces, how much the more that humans should care for themselves, since God made humans in the Divine image. The entire human body is the image of God, which gives reason to uphold mundane activities of caring for the body. The text has a political charge as well: while a foreign king may claim to be a god, the sage asserts that the Jewish God’s deity is greater than any king and that all people are in the Divine image.

VANESSA OCHS’S CONTEMPORARY formulation, then, resonates with some of these ancient sensibilities. She glosses the motif of being in the image of God as a matter of dignity, which is deeply intertwined with respect, freedom, education, appearances, and support for others. Like many ancient writers, she never states exactly what parts of humans constitute the image of the Divine, but she highlights both bodily and intellectual features, and she emphasizes ethical implications of the theological motif. At the same time, there are ways that one could draw upon other aspects of traditional sources in support of her larger concerns. Her concern with freedom, for example, might be expanded through dialogue with the ancient political implications of the motif. More broadly, given that she has a strong concern with medical ethics and practices, the ancient embrace of the body as Divine, and the upholding of its care as a sacred act, could provide inspiration for people engaged in healing today.

While I have focused on only one of the ten sensibilities, this exercise could be done for any of them. When considered from the perspective of the tradition as a whole, distinguishing, turning, honoring, and the other concepts do not have univocal or fixed meanings, but rather a set of resonances, scriptural associations, and debates over the course of centuries.

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Jonathan Schofer is the Belzer Assistant Professor of Classical Rabbinic Literature in the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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