What’s So Special about Being Human?
What’s So Special about Being Human?
Have you ever asked your rabbi a question about the Bible? There are four or five questions that I am asked over and over again. One of the most frequently asked is about this week's parashah, B'reishit, the first portion of the first Book of Torah: "Why should we pay any attention to the biblical story of Creation? After all, isn't it full of unscientific, antiquated myths that we have outgrown?"
It's a fair question. After all, if you embrace the concept of evolution, you can hardly justify creation in seven days. Now there are some people who attempt to "fit" the biblical narrative into a scientific model by suggesting that "one day" corresponds to millennia and that each day more or less mirrors evolution. Good try, but that explanation ultimately falls short, leaving the Creation story to resemble third-rate science fiction.
Of course, you could go literal, reading Genesis as a "creationist" would, relegating evolution to one of many competing theories. For most of us, this is not a very satisfying way to go.
So we need to shift direction and think in different terms. I'm convinced that there are profound truths embedded in the story, but they are spiritual truths, not scientific ones. They address the deepest questions that a human being can ask, questions that flow not from the microscope, but from the spirit, questions that respond not to scientific measurement, but to the soul that searches.
Let's begin with one of those questions: What's so special about being human?
According to the Creation story, God created us b'tzelem Elohim, "in [the divine] image." (Genesis 1:27). The singer of Psalms probably had this in mind when he or she wrote that God made us "a little less than divine" (Psalms 8.6). It is a blasphemous thing to act like we are God. But it is an awesome thing to believe that we can fulfill ideals that we associate with God: to do justly, love mercy, lift up the fallen, and heal the sick. It's like saying that we detect within ourselves some of the holiness that we associate with God.
Here's a real life situation. I am sitting with someone whom I know. She pulls out a cigarette. I feel compelled to offer reasons why she should not smoke. Her response: "It's my body and I'll do whatever I want to with it."
Here's where b'tzelem Elohim enters the picture. If we are created in God's image, then when we harm ourselves, we are harming something of God. And if someone is diminishing God's Presence in this world, perhaps I need to alert her about this. (Warning to the reader: consider the uniqueness of each situation before criticizing someone.)
There are some who think that our animal side is predominant. For them, being human is an excuse for every sin. When they fail to live up to the ideals of honesty and compassion, they offer what Rabbi Milton Steinberg called "the eternal alibi": "Oh, well," they say, "I'm only human" (see Milton Steinberg, Only Human-the Eternal Alibi . . ., [New York: Bloch Publishing Co.,1963], p. 4).
But there are those who think that the noble traits in us are the most essential. For them, being created in the image of God makes all the difference. It's what makes us special (ibid., Steinberg).
The Rabbis captured the profundity of this idea: "Beloved is a human being, for humans were created in the image of God; still greater was the love in that it was made known to us that we were created in the image of God" (Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, 3:18)
Here is another deep question from our parashah: What kind of a world is this into which we have been born?
I'm fascinated by the fact that six times in Genesis, chapter one, the creative process is described ki tov, "for it was good" (verses 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). Then the text culminates with a seventh celebration, verse 31, v'hinei tov m'od, "and look-it was very good." This repetition with added emphasis reminds me that everything that God made is good.
Of course, life in this world doesn't always feel that way. Illness, bad accidents, and crime all seem to argue that much of this world is not good. How do we reconcile a biblical chapter full of "goodies" with the evil that jumps out at us from the daily newspaper?
I do not have an easy answer to this dilemma, but our parashah offers us a possible direction. Note that the word tov, "good," modifies God's Creation seven times, paralleling seven days of Creation and pointing us to the seventh day, Shabbat.
Pinchas H. Peli reminds us that the seventh day brings the six days not to an "end" as in finish, but to an "end" as in destination. This understanding enables Peli to interpret Exodus 31.17 in this way:
The heaven and the earth and all their array were finished, had reached their destination, yet were still longing. On the seventh day God made all the work which God had been doing into a vessel . . . . On the seventh God abstained from work and breathed a soul into it.
Peli suggests that Shabbat is "the breath of the spirit of God breathed into the mammoth body of the created world of nature. On the Sabbath, the world of matter obtained a soul" (Pinchas H. Peli, Shabbat Shalom [Washington D.C.: B'nai B'rith Books, 1988], pp. 7-8).
In other words, the world is not yet finished, we are completing it. We help to complete it by bringing "Shabbat soul" into our week. We do it by studying our tradition, by refreshing body and soul, by making the spirit of God and the values of Torah real in the world.
The world was created "good." We humans were created special. The goodness in our creation story is realized every day by caring women and men.
Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff , past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and of ARZA, is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, New Jersey. He is vice president for special projects at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and author of When Elijah Knocks, A Religious Response to Homelessness (Behrman House) and Reform Judaism, A Jewish Way of Life (Ktav).
The notion that human beings are created "in the image of God," b'tzelem Elohim, is important and powerful, yet raises many questions. What is it about us that mirrors the divine nature? Is it our aptitude for intellectual reflection and for contemplation of God (as Maimonides believed1)? Is it our capacity to be just and loving, qualities that God is seen as possessing to a supreme degree? Is our rarely exercised ability to treat all human beings as if they were created in the image of God itself the chief manifestation of creation in God's image? Or does the concept of image point to our physical reality? Genesis 1:27, after all, says that God created human beings b'tzelem Elohim and then continues, "creating them male and female." Is there something about our embodied, sexual selves that partakes of God's image? Adopting this view allows us to see God's image in persons who lack the capacity for thought or ethical action. How can we understand God's image in ways that do not create hierarchy among human beings, with some valued more fully than others as exhibiting that image?
This last question brings up another set of problems. Are humans the only beings who are created in the image of God? Genesis 1 certainly seems to suggest so. God fashions the earth and all its inhabitants, and then creates human beings in God's "image" and "likeness" to "rule" all the other creatures (Genesis 1:27). This is another possible interpretation of tzelem Elohim, the "image of God": that we are God's representatives on earth with unique mastery over the rest of creation. The anthropocentrism of the biblical text-its human-centeredness, its vision of our species as the pinnacle of creation-has sometimes been used to legitimate domination of the earth in ways that have brought us to our current ecological crisis. Is it possible to see ourselves as in the image of God without making an exclusive claim to that privilege? Other biblical texts-some of the Psalms and the Book of Job, for example-celebrate many aspects of creation as embodying God's wisdom and glory. Perhaps we most fully manifest God's image when we cultivate our capacity to see the Divine Presence in all creation. We are b'tzelem Elohim in our human way, but each part of our amazingly complex world teaches us something different about God's nature.
- Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, chapter 1
Judith Plaskow is professor emerita of religious studies at Manhattan College and a Jewish feminist theologian.
B’reishit, Genesis 1:1-6:8
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 18-55; Revised Edition, pp. 17-50;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 3-34