Part of the challenge in working through my notes for Havruta with a One-Eyed Cat is the sheer volume of concepts that I’d like to explore. The one I’m currently working on is the notion of Tselem Elohim—the Image of God.
It turns out that it’s a surprisingly slippery concept to pin down. That human beings are created “in the image of God” lies at the very foundation not only of the Jewish worldview, but of halakhah and practical law as well.
And yet, we don’t have a clue what it really means. Or rather, we have a myriad of ideas what it means, many of them contradictory; and some of them self-contradictory. Rabbis, textual scholars, and philosophers have written reams on the concept, and yet, it remains as enigmatic as ever.
What is Tselem Elohim?
At the last meeting of the Cardozo Academy Think Tank, I posed my dilemma to Rav Cardozo: Where can I find a fresh approach on Tselem Elohim—something that perhaps unpacks the concept from a different perspective. In response, he pulled a slim volume off a shelf and handed it to me. “This might give you some ideas,” he said. “Even if it doesn’t, in any event, you’ll enjoy the ride.”
The book was Michael Wyschogrod’s lyrical philosophical work, The Body of Faith: God in the People Israel. Rav Cardozo was right: I’m thoroughly enjoying the ride!
While some of the foremost Jewish philosophers, in particular the Rambam, saw Tselem Elohim as referring to the human capacity of reason, Wyschogrod disagrees…
Finally, and perhaps most important, the biblical view of man cannot focus on reason because reason is not the domain in which the fundamental task of man lies. Man’s fundamental project is not understanding but obedience to the divine command. It is, of course, true that obedience is possible only for a creature who has understanding, but it is not in the domain of understanding that man’s uniqueness is to be sought. Man is not a defined essence but an undertaking of possibilities who chooses himself as he constitutes his moral self. [My emphasis] The focus on rationality is particularly incompatible with such a view because reason, particularly as understood by Plato and Aristotle, structures a world of necessity lacking the contingency of the historical. If the Bible is willing to assign essences to animals, this is so because animals do not participate in history. The essence of man, in contrast, remains open. (The Body of Faith, p. 5.)
Tselem Elohim, according Wyschogrod, refers to man’s unboundedness, his lack of completion. In the terminology of mathematical systems, man is “autonomous”—he is potentially infinite, even while being finite.
But there is a darker side to this: human freedom partakes of the chaos at the heart of creation—the capacity for evil as well as for good. In the Song of Creation, with which the Book of Genesis opens, every creative act ends with the poetic refrain: “God saw that it was good”. This refrain is missing from the creation of man; there is no statement that man’s creation was seen by God to be good. Perhaps this is because man is never completed—his essence, in Wyschogrod’s phrase—remains open.
Our creation is never finished, simply because from the moment we left the Garden, we became partners in our own creation. Or, as Rav Ish-Shalom once told me: “‘Let us make man in our image…’ To whom was God speaking. In might have been just the ‘royal We’, but it could also have been addressed to man himself: ‘Let us—you and Me together—make man in our image.’”
The limits of reason
Further insight in Tselem Elohim comes from Wyschogrod’s exploration of reason and its limits. He derives from the physical senses the more metaphorical terms we use to describe the human interaction with the divine:
Viewed mundanely, the language of light when applied to the sacred is metaphorical language, applying an aspect of the material world to the divine domain. But after a while, we find ourselves less certain about our ability to distinguish the literal from the metaphorical. Does “seeing” literally refer to what we perceive with our eyes and only metaphorically to understanding or is it the other way around? Furthermore, seeing requires the opaque because without it there is nothing to reflect back the light, thus making something visible since light travels until it reaches that which it cannot penetrate and only then does it return to the observer, carrying the image of that which refused it passage. Illumination is therefore a dialectic with opacity, and because rationality is a form of illumination, the basic structure of rationality is a thereby established. Reason thus requires the resistance of that which defeats it. [My emphasis.] Without meeting such opacity, reason would lose its contact with being and its light would become invisible.” (The Body of Reason, p. 3.)
This is a stunning g’zerah shava (to use the Talmudic term for such a context-based analogy): just as in the physical realm “seeing requires opacity” so in the metaphorical realm “seeing requires opacity”. But the conclusion would seem to be borne out in a myriad ways in the real world.
In a completely different context, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes: “In attempting to discover the basic processes that permit feeling, one comes to the following considerations. First, an entity capable of feeling must be an organism that not only has a body but also a means to represent that body inside itself.” (Looking for Spinoza, p. 109.)
Consciousness would appear to be a reflected image of the body, an image of an image. We become conscious when we reflect our own state back to ourselves. We see ourselves—the map of our nervous system—in the mirror of our minds.
Nothing is so startling as the observation: I am! and yet nothing is so trivially obvious, once we realize that we are seeing our own reflection. Of course we are! If the reflection exists then should we be surprised that the object also exists? And yet, the miracle lies not in the existence of the reflection, but in our identifying it as our selves.
The flip side is that consciousness entails the intimate understanding of not being, the opacity which, in Wyschogrod’s phrase, reason fails to penetrate. Consciousness entails the knowledge of death, and the unimaginable fear of non-being. Not for nothing were we told that death would follow eating of the tree of knowledge; once we become human, we know what it is to die. The other side of knowing that we exist is the fear of non-existence.
But the most startling aspect of all this is that reflection and images are at the basis of our consciousness—perhaps the Image of God reflected back to us from the screen of our minds is more than a metaphor; it is the basis our selfhood.