וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ
And G-d created man in His own image, in the image of G-d created He him. -Genesis 1:27
Created in His image. I had always perceived that to be awkward phraseology. What exactly does it mean to be created in His image? Off hand, I can tell you what it doesn’t mean. It certainly doesn’t refer to the Christian concept that G-d is man (or vice versa, sometimes you just can’t tell which one it is). But you might say to me, “what else can image possibly mean? It’s what the Bible says.”
First, let me just say that is not what the Bible says. The best translation for the word is not image, but form. As Maimonides brings up in Guide for the Perplexed (1:2), there are two words in the biblical Hebrew that signify form. The first word, תאר, refers to a physical form. תאר is used in such verses as Genesis 39:6, 1 Samuel 28:14, and Judges 8:18, are all references to a form in a physical sense.
On the other hand, the word צלם means form in a more abstract sense. The word צלם denotes non-physical similarity. Let's look back at the top of the blog entry and look at the word which is used in the text, which, by the way is צלם. If G-d wanted to state that He had a physical form and that we were "molded" in that fashion, He would have used the word תאר. But since He used the word צלם, it cleary references something else.
So, if “in His image” does not refer to a physical similarity, to what does it refer? In Jewish tradition, most enounced in the Kabbalistic world, humans have two souls: an animal soul and a G-dly (or divine) soul. Whether you see it as two distinct entities or the soul merely as one entity with two facets is irrelevant. The point that Jewish tradition accurately points out is that we are part animal and part divine. Since we know that this cannot be referring to a physical image, this begs the question of what separates us from the animals, i.e., what does it mean to be G-dly or G-d-like.
Rabbi Obadiah Sforno comments that being “in His image” means that we are endowed with free will. Animals are creatures that solely act on impulse and instinct. Animals lack the self-restraint that humans have. We are able to make choices. Of course, this is not the choice between chocolate and vanilla ice cream. True free will is the ability to choose between right and wrong. Each action we take is of utmost importance because it either brings us closer or distances us from G-d. That is why Judaism strongly believes that what we do "in the here and now" matters greatly.
As stated above, Maimonides certainly didn’t believe in the corporeality of G-d. For him, “created in His image” meant something else. Unlike animals, we humans are creatures capable of rationality, logic, profound thought, and common sense. From a Maimonidean perspective, “His image” refers to humans not only having divine-like intelligence, but also the duty to use it. With this ultra-rationalism in mind, it is no accident that Maimonides believed that what most people in religious circles call “divine providence” is the usage of the intelligence that G-d gave humans.
Concluding thoughts: Do R. Sforno’s thoughts contradict Maimonides’ thoughts? Absolutely not! What we see are two different, but nevertheless equally Jewish manifestations of what it means to “be created in His image.” Since Judaism strongly stresses the incorporeality, and thus the infinitude, of G-d, there is no way to directly connect to G-d. Stating that one can directly connect with G-d is nothing short of heresy.
[Just as a side note, some of you might find my usage of the term heresy as harsh. The definition of heresy is the rejection of an already accepted belief. Although Judaism is more action oriented than other religions, it nevertheless holds certain beliefs, the two most notable ones being G-d’s existence and G-d’s infinitude. Historically, there is much debate and discussion amongst other Jewish beliefs, such as the belief in resurrection, but these two concepts are decidedly Jewish, and any deviation from them are, by definition, heresy.]
This, however, does not mean we cannot have a meaningful relationship with G-d. It just means that any connection made with G-d has to be done indirectly.
R. Sforno and Maimonides actually provide us with the two methods of indirectly developing a strong relationship with G-d. R. Sforno shows us that the way to develop G-d is via imitatio Dei. By partaking in the mitzvot, not only do we elevate our mundane actions to a divine level, but we grasp a sense of divinity by “walking in His ways.” Let us add a Maimonidean twist to this concept. Maimonides did not view the mitzvot as either G-d-oriented or man-oriented. To say that G-d needs us to perform a mitzvah, or anything for that matter, is tantamount to saying G-d is lacking something, which, of course, is heretical. That is why Maimonides divides the mitzvot into two categories: that which refines the individual, and that which refines society as a whole. The former is what most Jews would call “divinely oriented commandments.” Maimonides obtained this idea through the Midrash that the purpose of Torah is to refine man, which I agree with. This idea aggravated, and to a large extent, still aggravates many. Aside from the fact that so many people want to have an unfeasibly direct connection to G-d, this also breaks the Jewish concept of a chuk, i.e., a Jewish law that was “created without reason.”
Aside from knowing G-d through His commandments, we can also develop an indirect relationship with G-d another way. Maimonides would call that “knowing G-d” through His works via divine intellect. Rather than science being an impediment to religiosity, I have always found it to be an enhancement to understanding the divine. Just looking at the complexity of a cell or that of an eyeball alone can show us the wonder and splendor of the divine. Understanding cosmology, physics, and other sciences help us understand His creations. We do have to keep in mind that Maimonides was a scientist, and thought the study of science was the way to study Torah. For him, if there seems to be a conflict between the two, you either don’t understand science or don’t understand the Torah. Although I agree with Maimonides when he says that understanding science is a way of understanding Torah, I also opine that the use of divine intellect goes beyond natural sciences. It has to permeate in every study, whether that would be history, politics, economics, or the usage of common sense and wisdom in our daily lives because even in those areas, one can see divinity.
By imitating G-d and by using the divine intellect that G-d gave us, we can indirectly develop a relationship with G-d by truly understanding what it means to be created in His image.