Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

In His Image

One of the more mysterious terms in a chapter full of enigmas is the concept of "the image of God" mentioned in the first chapter of Bereshis. As the Malbim notes in his commentary, this two word term (in Hebrew) has puzzled Chazal and the meforshim through the ages.
The Malbim himself offers an incredible explanation of what tzelem Elokim means which has tremendous ramifications for the sensitive of mind. He starts off by excluding what it doesn't mean, showing how the word tzelem can indeed mean either a spiritual or physical image so that one should not think that the concept of a four limbed biped in any way reflects what God really looks like. He also notes the interesting fact that in many ways we are not "just like God" which is a conclusion you might erroneously make based on the exclusion of the physical aspect of tzelem. Perhaps one might think that if we are spiritually modeled on His image, that we are just like him in that regard. While this is true to some extent, specifically in the areas of free well and self-awareness, it is certainly not true when one considers that God, unlike us, has no yetzer hara to deal with.
But then what is this elusive tzelem? For this, the Malbim notes that man is called by Chazal an olam katan, a small world or universe (depending on the context). He then notes something seemingly obvious but which I've seen nowhere else: if something is called small, there must be something else out there just like it that is much bigger. For example, an insect is only small when compared to a human or a pachyderm. When compared to a microbe, on the other hand, it's gigantic. What is this olam gadol that makes man a katan?
His answer is God Himself. There are two entitites in the universe with free well and self-awareness, as mentioned before: God and Man. Then the Malbim draws a parallel to extend the idea even further.
We know that in addition to free well and self-awareness, Man is further a unique being in the universe in that he is a combination of the physical and spiritual. His body is taken from the Earth while his soul is placed directly into him by God. Further, various mystical works note that the soul itself shares many properties with God - just like the Ribono shel Olam, the soul sees but is unseen, is a single entity without any division, etc. But Malbim goes one step further. Just as the soul is clothed by the physical body, so God is physically clothed by the universe.
In other words, when you look at a fellow human being you see his physical body but you interact with his soul. When one looks at the universe, one is now, in a sense, seeing God's body, the physical manifestation of His existence. Beyond that, staring back at us is the Ribono shel Olam himself!
This would explain so many concepts in halacha. Consider the Mishkan. Some meforshim considered it to be analogous to the human body. Others consider it a microcosm of the universe itself. But according to the Malbim's explanation, there is no contradiction. The human body is a microcosm of God's "body", the universe so the Mishkan represents both.
Further, recall the statement by Chazal that all God has in this world since the destruction of the Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) is a person's four amos of halacha. Now what is the significance of four amos? It is, according to law, a man's personal space. In other words, it is the boundary of the miniature universe of each individual and the border between when the person ends and the surrounding Godly environment begins.
For the sensitive of mind, this is an amazing interpretation. God is not truly invisible, unseen and unreachable. His presence, on a physical level, is around us in everything we react with in the world. We see Him in the rain, a beautiful sunset or the wind blowing our schach away. And isn't this a great message for Sukkos, when we leave our insulating homes behind and place a minimal barrier between ourselves and the universe around us.


David said...

"He starts off by excluding what it doesn't mean, showing how the word tzelem can indeed mean a physical image so that one should not think that the concept of a four limbed biped in any way reflects what God really looks like."

This sentence is contradictory. Is there a typo?

Also, the problem with the interpretation offered is that the universe does not (by anyone's definition) behave like a just and merciful God. Yeah, the rain, the beautiful sunset and even the wind blowing away the schach may be a lovely way to "see God." However, tsunamis, volcanos and cyclones are also part of the natural world, and they kill lots and lots of people. Is this the shekhina running amok?

As far as explanations of "the image of God" are concerned, the one offered by modern biblical scholarship is far more persuasive, and far more internally consistent. It simply means what it says, and is reflective of an older understanding of God, which includes a far more corporeal aspect.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Thank you. I've corrected the sentence so it makes more sense.

And I never said that the universe reflects only a merciful God. In fact, it more reflects a just God working according to standard that we cannot completely understand. I realize folks have a problem with this, the whole role of the suffering of the innocent, and most philosophical arguments are cold comfort when it comes to explaining to a parent why, chalilah, their child has developed a life threatening illness. That lack of satisfaction doesn't change their validity, however, just as my inability to make a spinal tap sound appealing change its utility as an emergency procedure.
Yes, God is in the hurricane as much as He is in the beautiful sunset and the challenge of faith is to see Him equally in both and accept His justice in both.
The shechina is also something different, it is a localize physical manifestation of God's presence, as opposed to the universe which is his overall physical prsence.

Chaim B. said...

R' Chaim Volozhiner spends the beginning of Nefesh haChaim explaining these ideas, essentially in sync with what you are quoting from Malbim.

David said...

"In fact, it more reflects a just God working according to standard that we cannot completely understand."

Ah, now you've got a new sentence with a contradiction. Justice, almost by definition, cannot be administered in an incomprehensible manner.

Garnel Ironheart said...

I don't think there is a contradiction. A five year old child would be totally mystified by what goes on in a court of law. Plea bargaining, conditional sentencing, trial by jury vs only judge, etc. Heck, most adults have no clue about what's going on. However, if the system reaches a fair decision through the proper use of procedure, we say justice has been served.
How much more so might things be incomprehensible when you consider the gap between us and the Master of the Universe?

David said...

You make my point for me. When is the last time you heard about a five year old child being made to stand trial before a court of law? It doesn't happen. It's also the basis for the insanity defense-- if someone is mentally unable to distinguish between right and wrong, it may gratify us to punish this person, but it serves no useful purpose and does not further the ends of justice.
And, yes, most adults may be confused about the procedure in a court, but most adults are not at all confused about the basic notions of justice that are to be administered there. You may not understand the basic concept of a motion in limine to suppress evidence obtained through a defective search warrant, but you still understand that stealing is bad. Just like I may think that a spinal tap is disagreeable, but I might understand that it's a necessary part of curing what ails me (chas v'shalom).

Anonymous said...

No, I don't think you understood my point. Take a five year old and put him in a court. Five year olds know something simple about justice: Jimmy took my bicycle. Jimmy must be punished.
Now try to explain to Jimmy that there are no witnesses or that the witness has a disqualifying bias. Explain procedure to him or that Jimmy has a right to deny the charges. No five year old would get that! His idea of justice is simple: Jimmy took my bike. I want him punished!
If anything, your spinal tap example agrees with me. I've had people in the ER who, after hearing they need a spinal tap, refuse the procedure because "there ain't no way you're putting a needle in my back!" It doesn't matter how well I explain why it's necessary. They just don't get it. All they know is they don't want a needle back where they can't see where it's going. They make an autonomous choice but medically they make the wrong one.
Again, small distance between me and my patients. Big distance between me and God.
In the end, the five year old is taught that the courts work and that he must have faith in the system which he will come to understand better when he grows up. Same for us.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

An important aspect of an olam that cannot be overlooked is that it is a unifying principle that merges the complexity of diverse parts. While this unity is in no way comparable to the simple unity of God, it does form a basis for our understanding of unity specifically as it challenges our being. In stating that the human being is an olam katon we are stating that we also must be, in essence, a unity of complexity and it is indeed our responsibility to meet this challenge of our very existence.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Shalmo said...

Considering that the "in his image" part comes from the part of the Old Testament that still represents the monolatrism/ancient polytheistic conception of Judaism, it is unsurprising you have elohim (not God, but "gods") say man was made in their image.

this is actually a very common cross-cultural pagan idea. Of mankind sharing divinity with the higher powers. In Shintoism for example the gods are messengers of the divine, a spark of which exists in each of us. So each human shares that spark of the divine.

A similar case occurs in Christianity where the Christians symbolically eat the blood and flesh of Jesus, thus intrinsically becoming part of the divine by eating it, by making it part of their own flesh. Again this is all very similar to the whole made in his image.

Such pantheistic thought is extremely common in pagan religions. Considering everything in Judaism was plagiarized from the Canaanites, Sumerians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks and so forth such similarities with ancient pagan religions is hardly surprising.