I love Bereshit, the Torah’s annual recollection of our cosmic beginnings, precisely because I know better than to take it literally. I need not imagine that the people who composed it knew anything whatever about the way the world began. I read it for the claims they made about the human condition.
Their boldest claim was that human beings are made “in the image of God,” a guarantee we never tire of repeating, and rightfully so. The idea that there is something God-like about a species that somehow evolved through the randomized process of natural selection is spectacular.
But what exactly is this God-like part of us?
The most common response is provided by the Italian commentator Obadiah Sforno (c. 1475-1550), for whom the mark of the divine is rationality. Sforno was well read in the sciences, a physician himself, and had even translated Euclid into Hebrew. Like Aristotle, he believed that “man is a rational animal.”
Sforno noted that the word for “God” in “image of God” is not Adonai but Elohim — a word used also for angels. Angels, he concluded, are beings who have perfected reason because, being bodiless, they have no material needs to distract them. Human beings, however, still suffer from animal appetites — which is why the Torah says we humans are made only in the image of God, one step removed from angels who come closer to God than we can. The human project consists of an ongoing effort to perfect our rational acuity to the point where we acquire perfect intellectual love of God, at which time we become like angels, perfect and immortal, says Sforno.
By “human project,” Sforno means the life-long challenge of every individual, whereas we, living after Darwin, might rather see it as the progress of the species. But why reason? Is the proper end of the human journey through time pure cognition? Are such things as food, laughter, and sex mere “lower animal instincts?” Should logic trump empathy, love, and compassion?
Increasingly, we have come to see pure reason as wanting. Another way to read the text, therefore, is to focus on what follows: “Male and female, He created them.” Perhaps, as the kabalists realized, God’s essence is not pure reason but gendered experience: since God is both male and female, men and women can equally become like God by taking our sexuality and gender roles seriously. God may not have a body, but God gave us bodies to experience the world in ways that God cannot.
Perhaps, alternatively, it is God’s heart, not God’s head, that matters. These past High Holy Days, we repeatedly called God rahum v’hanun, “merciful and compassionate,” and not two weeks before (Deuteronomy 30:14), we read that Torah “is in your heart,” not in your head. By “heart,” the Torah might have meant “the seat of reason” since biblical writers had not yet isolated the concept of mind and knew nothing of the brain, but medievals knew better, and even the hyper-rationalist Ibn Ezra admitted, “The essence of the mitzvot is the heart,” which is to say our feelings. We can think whatever we want, without any necessary consequences; our feelings, however, prompt action.
Maybe “made in God’s image” encompasses all of the above: reason, compassion, healthy sexuality, and physical appreciation of God’s world. But then we have another problem: the charge by atheists that we are picking and choosing — ignoring times when God seems vengeful or petty, for example. When we choose reason or compassion, rather than rage and destructiveness, aren’t we just projecting different versions of idealized human destiny onto God, so that rather than our being made in God’s image, God is being made in ours?
The atheists have a point: There does seem to be a human inclination to invent our own image of God. But perhaps that very proclivity is what “created in God’s image” means! We are the only species capable of imagining God in the first place. As our own self-image evolves, so too does our understanding of the divine.
The Torah’s opening foray of imagination pictures God as a creator — that is what this very first story of Genesis is all about. Our ever-evolving vision of what God is may indeed mirror our growing image of a better human self. But far from vitiating God’s reality, this process of imagining God only testifies to just how much we are like God to begin with. As far as we know, only human beings can do what God did: create a better self and imagine better and better images of the power that created us to do so.