Thousands of years ago, the Torah set the world upon a revolutionary path, drastically steering world history and modern civilization, on a trend that continues to this day.
When the Torah describes the creation and emergence of humans, it bestows a defining characteristic that has reverberated through the ages:
וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ: זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם – God created man in His image; in the image of God created He him – male and female, He created them. (1:27)
Different sages from our tradition have taken differing views on Judaism’s defining characteristic; there need not need to be one single foundational principle. The range of principles is sufficiently indicative of what they held to be the Torah’s meta-principles or golden rules that underpin the rest.
Ben Azzai labeled the concept of man in God’s image as the most important principle in the Torah.
Since Judaism believes that God has no shape or form, what can it mean to be the image of a God who has no image?
Traditional explanations of the precise definition range from the more conventional to the more outlandish; but the consequence as R’ Saadia Gaon understands it is that we represent God as ambassadors in a way that animals and plants do not.
R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that the defining feature of the Creation story is God choosing and selecting what to create and how to create it – so to be created in God’s image is to share the godly characteristic of free will. Whereas animals are driven by instinct; humans can make choices.
The language of God’s image was not new to the ancient world, whose leaders were seen as divine. God-kings were once common, such as Egypt’s Pharaoh thousands of years ago, but this concept persists to this day in some places, such as North Korea’s Supreme Leader. The ramification of a god in human form is that he does not answer to mere humans and deserves to be worshipped by his subjects.
The political structure of god-kings is based on the instinctive assumption that the strong have a right to dominate the weak. This logic was and is the justification for all sorts of evils, including slavery, sexism, racism, eugenics, and genocide.
The Torah dismisses the worldviews of a divine right to dominate others out of hand with a simple but elegant statement that humans are fundamentally the same. Whatever objects people believed worthy of worship, from sky and stars to seas and serpents, one God created them all, and that one God created all humans in one image. We all answer to God equally – and no one else.
R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that God grants humans dominion of the beasts, the birds, and the earth; but tellingly, not other humans. Humans are created free and must respect the dignity of other humans to preserve that freedom.
The Exodus story tells of the birth of the nation as slaves liberated from a powerful ruled by a god-king to show that our God does not respect powerf and that humans must not dominate each other.
These powerless Jews were called upon to accept the Torah and live out its principles as role models for humanity. Strength and superiorirty have not carried Judaism through the ages; only adherence to the Torah.
Tellingly, the Torah commands the Jewish People not to hate the Egyptians, but to love the stranger and protect the widows and orphans. The Torah describes not a God of the powerful, but a God of everyone. The Torah’s utopian vision is not apocalypse or victory, but peace and security for all.
The Torah planted the idea of fundamental human equality thousands of years ago, and human history has only trended away from domination and subjugation ever since.
It is all too easy to abuse power, and to hate those not like us. If we love God, we must love the godliness in others.
We differentiate ourselves not by seed or creed; only by deed.