Tzelem Elokim / Imago Dei / Image of God

See the Introduction to Sacred Slogans for methodology and goals
Click here for a downloadable PDF source sheet

Sacred Slogans

Introduction

The idea of tzelem elokim,1 also known as imago dei, posits that humanity is created in the image of God. The primary source for this idea in Judaism comes from a creation narrative in the book of Genesis.2 There is a long fascinating tradition of Jewish philosophers and theologians speculating on the nature of what it means to be created in the image of God, which is beyond the scope of this essay. My present concern is tzelem elokim’s usage as the foundation for a universal/humanist conception of Judaism, to what extent this conception is compatible with Torah, and if we should take tzelem elokim at face value.

According to one contemporary approach, tzelem elokim is not just one concept in the Jewish tradition but the foundational premise of the entire religion.3 For example, R. Avi Weiss writes, “Perhaps the most fundamental principle in Judaism is that every person is created in the image of God.”4 According to R. Yitz Greenberg, “tselem elokim is the core of the entire tradition — not only of the interpersonal mitzvot, but the ritual commandments as well.”5 R. Yuval Cherlow even calls tzelem elokim one of the “foundations of faith.”6

As bold as these theological statements are, the common sentiment expressed is necessary for creating a liberal, universal, humanistic Judaism. As R. Eugene Korn writes, “The Torah doctrine that every human being is created in the image of God is the conceptual key to a religious morality with humanitarian values.”7 At the time God created man in his image and breathed life into Adam, there was neither Jew nor Gentile. Whatever special God-like quality God bestowed to man would have to apply to all of humanity, regardless of religion or righteousness.

The question I am interested in addressing is to what extent the universal, humanistic interpretation of tzelem elokim is compatible with Torah. This is not a general evaluation of humanism in halakhah,8 but specifically where Biblical and Rabbinic sources address the idea of man having the quality of being created in God’s image.9 My three main points of concern are the universality of tzelem elokim, its immutability as a characteristic of humanity,10 and the extent to which Torah applies tzelem elokim in practice. At which point, we will be better able to test the assumption of tzelem elokim being the (or even a) foundational principle in Torah.

Biblical Sources

For a supposedly foundational principle of Judaism, the idea that mankind is created in the image of God is rarely mentioned in the Bible. Here are the only three examples of which I am aware.

Genesis 1:26-27
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Genesis 5:1
This is the account of man: When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God.

Genesis 9:6
Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.
בראשית א:כו-כז
כו) וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ וְיִרְדּוּ בִדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל הָאָרֶץ וּבְכָל הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל הָאָרֶץ: (כז) וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹקים אֶת הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹקים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם:

בראשית ה:א
זֶה סֵפֶר תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם בְּיוֹם בְּרֹא אֱלֹקים אָדָם בִּדְמוּת אֱלֹקים עָשָׂה אֹתוֹ

בראשית ט:ו
שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּׁפֵךְ כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹקים עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם

To the best of my knowledge, after Genesis 9:6, the Bible does not mention tzelem elokim at all, let alone as a basis for any commandments

Who Has Tzelem Elokim?

In the Rabbinic midrashim we find a wide range of possibilities as to who has this quality of tzelem elokim. According to our first midrash, tzelem elokim is a universal quality which elevates humanity from other life on Earth.

Genesis Rabba 8:11
R. Tifdai said in R. Aha’s name: The celestial beings were created in the image and likeness [of God] and do not procreate, while the terrestrial creatures [dumb animals] procreate but were not created in [His] image and likeness. Said the Holy One, blessed be He: Behold, I will create him [man] in [My] image and likeness, [so that he will partake] of the [character of the] celestial beings, while he will procreate, [after the nature] of the terrestrial beings. R.Tifdai said in R. Aha’s name: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: If I create him of the celestial elements he will live [forever] and not die, and if I create him of the terrestrial elements, he will die and not live [in a future life]. Therefore I will create him of the upper and of the lower elements: if he sins he will die; while if he does not sin, he will live.
בראשית רבה בראשית ח:יא
ר’ תפדאי בשם ר’ אחא העליונים נבראו בצלם ובדמות ואינן פרין ורבין והתחתונים פרים ורבים, ולא נבראו בצלם ובדמות, אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא הריני בורא אותו בצלם ובדמות מן העליונים, פרה ורבה מן התחתונים, רבי תפדאי בשם ר’ אחא אמר, אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא אם בורא אני אותו מן העליונים הוא חי ואינו מת, מן התחתונים הוא מת ואינו חי, אלא הרי אני בורא אותו מן העליונים ומן התחתונים אם יחטא ימות ואם לא יחטא יחיה.

Other midrashim limit the scope of tzelem elokim. According to this midrash, everyone except Adam and Eve is created in the image of God.

Genesis Rabba 22:1
In the past, Adam was created from the ground, and Eve from Adam; but henceforth it shall be, In our image, after our likeness (Gen. 1:26): neither man without woman nor woman without man, nor both of them without the Shechinah.
בראשית רבה בראשית כב:ב
לשעבר אדם נברא מאדמה, וחוה נבראת מאדם, מכאן ואילך בצלמנו כדמותנו, לא איש בלא אשה ולא אשה בלא איש, ולא שניהם בלא שכינה

Next, we find a fascinating midrash which not only states that tzelem elokim ended entirely after three generations, but that it is (or was) a visible quality in that humans actually looked like God.

Genesis Rabba 23:6
Abba Cohen Bardela was asked: ‘[Why does Scripture enumerate] Adam, Seth, Enosh, and then become silent? Hitherto they were created in the likeness and image [of God], he replied, but from then onward Centaurs were created. Four things changed in the days of Enosh: The mountains became [barren] rocks, the dead began to feel [the worms], men’s faces became ape-like, and they became vulnerable to demons.
בראשית רבה בראשית כג:ו
בעון קומי אבא כהן ברדלא אדם שת אנוש ושתק, אמר ע”כ בצלם ובדמות מכאן ואילך נתקלקלו הדורות ונבראו קינטורין, ד’ דברים נשתנו בימי אנוש בן שת, ההרים נעשו טרשים, והתחיל המת מרחיש, ונעשו פניהן כקופות, ונעשו חולין למזיקין

Finally, according to these next two midrashim, only Adam was created in the image of God, to the exclusion of everyone else. Here we see Adam as being created in the image of God, while the rest of humanity is merely a copy of a copy.11

B. Bava Batra 58a
R. Bana’ah used to mark out caves [where there were dead bodies]. When he came to the cave of Abraham, he found Eliezer the servant of Abraham standing at the entrance. He said to him: What is Abraham doing? He replied: He is sleeping in the arms of Sarah, and she is looking fondly at his head. He said: Go and tell him that Bana’ah is standing at the entrance. Said Abraham to him: Let him enter; it is well known that there is no passion in this world. So he went in, surveyed the cave, and came out again. When he came to the cave of Adam, a voice came forth from heaven saying, “Thou hast beholden the likeness of my likeness, my likeness itself thou mayest not behold.
בבלי בבא בתרא נח:א
ר’ בנאה הוה קא מציין מערתא, כי מטא למערתא דאברהם, אשכחיה לאליעזר עבד אברהם דקאי קמי בבא. א”ל: מאי קא עביד אברהם? א”ל: גאני בכנפה דשרה וקא מעיינא ליה ברישיה. א”ל, זיל אימא ליה: בנאה קאי אבבא. א”ל: ליעול, מידע ידיע דיצר בהאי עלמא ליכא. עייל, עיין ונפק. כי מטא למערתא דאדם הראשון, יצתה בת קול ואמרה: נסתכלת בדמות דיוקני, בדיוקני עצמה אל תסתכל.

And in this midrash we find Moses and Adam arguing over who was superior. Adam says he was created in God’s image, which would imply that Moses was not. Furthermore, Moses counters that whatever “honor” Adam had, presumably from being created in the image of God, was lost.

At the very least, whatever this quality of tzelem elokim actually is, these midrashim are best conflicted if this trait even still exists among humanity, let alone if it is universal or immutable.12

Tzelem Elokim in Practice

As we turn to where Torah associates tzelem elokim with specific actions, we first note that in all the following sources, there is no equivocation over humanity still possessing tzelem elokim, but it is presumed to be applicable today.

Executing Murderers

As mentioned earlier, the Bible rarely mentions tzelem elokim at all and never beyond Genesis. In its final occurrence in Gen 9:6, the Bible associates tzelem elokim with a directive to execute murderers.13

Genesis 9:6
Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind
בראשית ט:ו
שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּׁפֵךְ כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹקים עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם

According to the Bible’s own usage, murderers are to be executed not in spite of tzelem elokim but because of it. The due process required by Torah to reach a capital conviction is complicated and executions were relatively rare.14 Still, it is clear from Gen. 9:6 that the death penalty as a concept does not violate tzelem elokim,15 and may even affirm it.

Furthermore, there is a curious contradiction executing murderers due to tzelem elokim. If the reason why murderers should be executed is because they killed an image of God, then it seems counterproductive to kill them thereby negating even more images of God. This, of course, assumes that murderers retain their tzelem elokim. On the other hand, the killer here is referred to as שפך/shofech, “one who kills” as opposed to the the victim and executioners who are both called אדם/adam, “man,” the entity created in the image of God.

R. Akiva interprets this verse to mean someone who commits murder “מבטל את הדמות” – “nullifies the image [of God].”16 The word “nullifies” typically refers to a status which used to exist but no longer does. It is unclear from this statement if R. Akiva refers to the victim or the murderer, but in either case, the use of “nullifies” would mean that tzelem elokim is not a permanent state. If R. Akiva refers to the victim, then tzelem elokim is restricted to the living, even if a person’s physical appearance does not change after death.17 If R. Akiva refers to the murderer, then through the act of killing nullifies one’s own tzelem elokim, in which case the quality of tzelem elokim is conditional on one’s behaviors.

This is not definitive proof that murderers forfeit their tzelem elokim, but I do think the interpretation is plausible.

Mourners

Though this generally not observed today,18 one of the requirements for Jewish mourners is to overturn one’s bed.

B. Moed Katan 15a-b
A mourner is obligated to overturn his bed, as Bar Kappara taught: [God says], “I have set the likeness of mine image on them and through their sins have I overturned it; let your beds be overturned on account thereof.” What about one ‘separated’ [under a ban] and a leper overturning couches? Let this stand [adjourned].
בבלי מועד קטן טו:א-ב
אבל חייב בכפיית המטה, דתני בר קפרא: דמות דיוקני נתתי בהן, ובעונותיהם הפכתיה – כפו מטותיהן עליה. מנודה ומצורע מה הן בכפיית המטה? – תיקו.

Bar Kappara teaches that overturning the bed is a symbolic act signifying God “overturning” someone created in his image. This may support the requirement that tzelem elokim is conditional on being alive. It is not the sin itself which removes the tzelem elokim, but the consequence of dying because of it.

The Talmud compares at length mourners, those excommunicated, and lepers. Unfortunately, the Talmud does not resolve the question if the latter two must overturn their bed, and does not even provide the rationales for or against. Such a discussion would have been useful in extrapolating tzelem elokim to other situations.

Personal Hygiene

In the following midrash, Hillel the Elder tells his students that washing one’s body is a mitzvah/commandment.

Leviticus Rabba 34:3
Another exposition of the text: “If thy brother be waxen poor. It bears on what is written in scripture: the merciful man doeth good to his own soul” (Prov. 11:17). This applies to Hillel the Elder who once, when he concluded his studies with his disciples, walked along with them. His disciples asked him: “Master, where are you bound?” He answered them: “To perform a commandment.” They asked, “What is this commandment?: He said to them: “To wash in the bath-house.” Said they: “Is this a commandment?” “Yes,” he replied; “if the statues of kings, which are erected in theatres and circuses, are scoured and washed by the man who is appointed to look after them, and who thereby obtains his maintenance through them—and more, he is exalted in the company of the great of the kingdom – how much more I, who have been created in the image and likeness; as it is written, for in the image of God made He man” (Gen 9:6)?
ויקרא רבה פרשת בהר לד:ג
ד”א וכי ימוך הה”ד (שם /משלי/ יא) גומל נפשו איש חסד זה הלל הזקן שבשעה שהיה נפטר מתלמידיו היה מהלך והולך עמם אמרו לו תלמידיו ר’ להיכן אתה הולך אמר להם לעשות מצוה אמרו לו וכי מה מצוה זו אמר להן לרחוץ בבית המרחץ אמרו לו וכי זו מצוה היא אמר להם הן מה אם איקונין של מלכים שמעמידים אותו בבתי טרטיאות ובבתי קרקסיאות מי שנתמנה עליהם הוא מורקן ושוטפן והן מעלין לו מזונות ולא עוד אלא שהוא מתגדל עם גדולי מלכות אני שנבראתי בצלם ובדמות דכתיב (בראשית ט) כי בצלם אלהים עשה את האדם עאכ”ו

When asked for the source of this “commandment,” Hillel the Elder does not cite any Biblical verse or Rabbinic statute, but instead offers an analogy towards the maintenance of an monarch’s statues and tzelem elokim. This analogy which would emphasize the physical or visual aspect of “image of God.”

It is possible that Hillel the Elder viewed tzelem elokim prescriptively. It is also possible that despite the legalistic language of “commandment,” Hillel the Elder was speaking homiletically since he was known for directing every action for the sake of heaven.19 In which case, from Hillel the Elder’s perspective, even the most mundane activities would fulfill some divine directive.

Idolatry

According to Jewish law, it is forbidden to create busts of humans on the grounds that it is prohibited to make images in the likeness of God or God’s attendants, some of whom apparently have the face of humans.

Exodus 20:20
Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.
Ezekiel 1:10
Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle.
B. Avoda Zara 42b
Ye shall not make with Me — i.e., ye shall not make according to the likeness of My attendants who serve before Me in the heights.
שמות כ:כ
לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן אִתִּי אֱלֹהֵי כֶסֶף וֵאלֹהֵי זָהָב לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם:
יחזקאל א:י
וּדְמוּת פְּנֵיהֶם פְּנֵי אָדָם וּפְנֵי אַרְיֵה אֶל הַיָּמִין לְאַרְבַּעְתָּם וּפְנֵי שׁוֹר מֵהַשְּׂמֹאול לְאַרְבַּעְתָּן וּפְנֵי נֶשֶׁר לְאַרְבַּעְתָּן:
בבלי עבודה זרה מב:ב
לא תעשון אתי, לא תעשון כדמות שמשי המשמשין לפני במרום!

There is an important distinction between humans being created in the image of God as opposed to in the image of God’s attendants. Depending on one’s theology, it is less problematic to view angels as having human characteristics than God.20 On the other hand, Genesis Rabba 8:11 seen above does not distinguish between the image of God and God’s attendants; God first created the attendants in his image and then created mankind in his image to be like the attendants.

Wicked Individuals

According to R. Yohanan, it is prohibited to gaze at the image, the tzelem demut, of a wicked person.

B. Megillah 28a
Rabbi asked R. Joshua b. Korha: In virtue of what have you reached such a good old age? He said to him: Do you begrudge me my life? Said Rabbi to him: This is [a point of] Torah, and it is important for me to learn. He replied: Never in my life have I gazed at the countenance of a wicked man; for so R. Yohanan said: It is forbidden to a man to gaze at the form of the countenance of a wicked man, as it says, Were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would not look toward thee nor see thee (2 Kings 3:14). R. Eleazar said: His eyes become dim, as it says, And it came to pass that when Isaac was old that his eyes were dim, so that he could not see; because he used to gaze at the wicked Esau.
בבלי מגילה כח:א
שאל רבי את רבי יהושע בן קרחה: במה הארכת ימים? – אמר לו: קצת בחיי? – אמר לו: רבי, תורה היא וללמוד אני צריך. אמר לו: מימי לא נסתכלתי בדמות אדם רשע. דאמר רבי יוחנן: אסור לאדם להסתכל בצלם דמות אדם רשע, שנאמר לולא פני יהושפט מלך יהודה אני נשא אם אביט אליך ואם אראך, רבי אלעזר אמר: עיניו כהות, שנאמר ויהי כי זקן יצחק ותכהין עיניו מראת, משום דאסתכל בעשו הרשע.

I cite this example because tzelem elokim is conspicuous by its absence. If wicked people retain their tzelem elokim, then the prohibition against gazing at the image of the wicked would mean it is prohibited to gaze at an image of God.

Interpersonal Relationships

Our next set of sources contrast the opinions of R. Akiva and Ben Azzai. Both identify the importance of tzelem elokim, though they disagree as to which is the superior principle when compared to “love thy neighbor.”

M. Avot 3:14
[R. Akiva] would say: Beloved is man, since he is created in the image [of God]. A deeper love – it is revealed to him that he is created in the image, as it says (Genesis 9:6): “for in God’s image He made man.”
Sifra Kedoshim 2:12 / Y. Nedarim 9:4 41c
“Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Lev. 19:18) – R. Akiva says this is a great principle in the Torah. Ben Azzai says “This is the account of man…”(Gen. 5:1) this is an even greater principle.
Genesis Rabbah 24
Ben Azzai says “This is the account of man” is a great principle in the Torah. R. Akiva says “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is an even greater principle (in the Albeck edition), so that one should not say since I was embarrassed I will embarrass my friend. R. Tanchuma says if you did so, know to whom you have embarrassed, someone made in the likeness of God.
משנה אבות ג:יד
הוא [רבי עקיבא] היה אומר חביב אדם שנברא בצלם חבה יתירה נודעת לו שנברא בצלם שנאמר (בראשית ט) בצלם אלקים עשה את האדם
ספרא קדושים פרשה ב
(יב) …ואהבת לרעך כמוך, רבי עקיבא אומר זה כלל גדול בתורה, בן עזאי אומר זה ספר תולדות אדם, זה כלל גדול מזה.
בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) כד
בן עזאי א’ זה ספר תולדות אדם כלל גדול בתורה, ר’ עקיבה א’ ואהבת לרעך כמוך (ויקרא יט יח) כלל גדול ממנו, שלא תאמר הואיל וניתבזיתי יתבזה חבירי, אמר ר’ תנחומ’ אם עשית כן דע למי אתה מבזה בדמות אלקים עשה אתו.

The Talmud discusses the severity of embarrassing people21 and Rabbinic tort law considers embarrassment as a category of damage requiring restitution.22 However, it does not assign tzelem elokim as the reason or source for a prohibition of embarrassing others. R. Tanhuma’s statement appeals to tzelem elokim to preclude revenge. Someone who embarrassed another may have ignored the other’s tzelem elokim, but even doing so does not negate one’s own.

Procreation

For our final source, we see tzelem elokim applied to procreation, or more precisely, refraining from procreation.

B. Yevamot 63b
It was taught: R. Eliezer stated: He who does not engage in propagation of the race is as though he sheds blood; for it is said, Whoso sheddeth man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed, and this is immediately followed by the text, And you, be ye fruitful and multiply. R. Ya’akov23 said: As though he has diminished the Divine Image; since it is said, For in the image of God made he man, and this is immediately followed by, And you, be ye fruitful etc. Ben Azzai said: As though he sheds blood and diminishes the Divine Image; since it is said, And you, be ye fruitful and multiply.
They said to Ben Azzai: Some preach well and act well, others act well but do not preach well. You, however, preach well but do not act well! [Ben Azzai never married] Ben Azzai replied: But what shall I do, seeing that my soul is in love with the Torah; the world can be carried on by others.
בבלי יבמות סג:ב
תניא, רבי אליעזר אומר: כל מי שאין עוסק בפריה ורביה – כאילו שופך דמים, שנאמר: שופך דם האדם באדם דמו ישפך, וכתיב בתריה: ואתם פרו ורבו. רבי יעקב אומר: כאילו ממעט הדמות, שנאמר: כי בצלם אלקים עשה את האדם, וכתיב בתריה: ואתם פרו וגו’. בן עזאי אומר: כאילו שופך דמים וממעט הדמות, שנאמר: ואתם פרו ורבו.
אמרו לו לבן עזאי: יש נאה דורש ונאה מקיים, נאה מקיים ואין נאה דורש, ואתה נאה דורש ואין נאה מקיים! אמר להן בן עזאי: ומה אעשה, שנפשי חשקה בתורה, אפשר לעולם שיתקיים על ידי אחרים.

We saw earlier Ben Azzai considers tzelem elokim to be the “great principle” of Torah, even to the extent of arguing with R. Akiva. Now we see how Ben Azzai applies tzelem elokim beyond the abstract to the practical. If every human is an image of God, then intentionally refraining from having children would mean one is preventing more images of God from existing in the world.24

In certain variants of this sugya, the word ממעט/minimizes is not written, but מבטל/nullifies.25 This word change strengthens Ben Azzai’s position since procreation doesn’t just minimize the image of God in the world but negates it entirely. Unlike R. Akiva’s usage seen above, in this context, “nullifies” does not refer to an individual losing tzelem elokim since the person does not yet exist.26

A full study of Ben Azzai’s teachings in light of tzelem elokim would be fascinating, but beyond our current scope. At any rate, this is the only instance of which I am aware where Ben Azzai, the rabbinic champion of tzelem elokim associates this quality with an action.

Conclusions

The three issues we sought to explore regarding tzelem elokim were its universality as a trait shared among all humanity, its immutability as a permanent quality regardless of one’s actions, and its role as a fundamental principle of Torah through which all other decisions ought to be filtered.

We have seen several sources which contradict the premise that tzelem elokim is universal with several claiming that it no longer applies to mankind, possibly starting as early as Adam. We have also seen sources which imply that the special qualities bestowed by tzelem elokim may be negated due to a person’s actions. While we have also seen sources indicating the opposite, we can definitively say that conventional understandings of tzelem elokim as a universal and immutable quality of humanity is by no means an uncontested dogma in Torah.

Whether or not tzelem elokim is as foundational as some claim will depend one’s interpretive choices and prior assumptions. For a foundational principle which ought to determine subsequent behaviors, we find surprisingly little by way of appeals to tzelem elokim in Torah.

Furthermore, consider how Torah itself treats other people. It sanctions a form of slavery27 and does not prohibit wartime rape.28 There is no concern for tzelem elokim in destroying the nations of Amalek29 or Midian.30 Even the Talmudic midrash where God expresses concern for the drowned Egyptians refers to them as “creations” not “images of God.”31

In addition to murder, there are numerous other capital offenses in Jewish law including desecrating Shabbat,32 sexual offenses,33 sorcery,34 and in the case of the “rebellious elder,” issuing rulings which contradict the Sanhedrin.35 For whatever tzelem elokim actually is, Torah clearly does not consider it to be a blanket immunity from even capital punishment.

Elevating tzelem elokim to the religious ideal creates an anthropocentric Judaism where people and their feelings takes a primary role as the determinant factor of religious practice. Tzelem elokim may be a “great principle,” but the details of Torah inform what this means.36 Torah is not unconcerned with what we call human dignity. There is a myriad of laws pertaining to interpersonal reactions, and at times certain laws may be suspended for personal needs.37 But I suggest the parameters of how human dignity coexists with the requirements of Torah are itself a function of Torah itself, and not the overarching principle to which Torah must conform.

Notes

  1. In this post I use the traditional vocalization which avoids the enunciation of a name of God. When citing publications, I use whichever the vocalization is chosen by the author. Translations of Talmudic and Midrashic sources are from Soncino, with occasional edits.
  2. The creation narrative in Genesis 2 does not mention God creating man in His image, but rather God breathing life into Adam (Gen. 2:7).
  3. The current scope does not allow for a comprehensive analysis of all contemporary opinions about tzelem elokim, let alone a historical study. I intentionally limit my scope here to Orthodox-affiliated rabbis, whom we could reasonably expect to be more committed to the religious authority of the written and oral traditions. At least in theory.
  4. Spiritual Activism: A Jewish Guide to Leadership and Repairing the World. P. XVIII
  5. Judaism and Modernity: Realigning Two Worlds” p. 11.
  6. In His Image: The Image of God in Man (Kindle Locations 77-78). Koren Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  7. Tselem Elokim and the Dialectic of Jewish Morality” Tradition 31:2. 1997 p. 13.
  8. For one such article, see R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s “‘Mah Enosh’: Reflections on the Relation between Judaism and Humanism.” The Torah u-Madda Journal 14. 2006-07 p. 1-61.
  9. One approach to the study of tzelem elokim is to look for times when Jewish law or homiletic teachings affirm the dignity of man in the spirit of humanism. See for example Yair Lorberbaum’s Tzelem Elohim: Halakhah V’Aggadah which addresses instances where the Rabbinic Sages accounted for human dignity, regardless if they do so in the name of tzelem elokim. I disagree with this conceptual approach on the grounds that it presumes a priori the conclusion that tzelem elokim refers to human dignity. I prefer to look at the specific examples of tzelem elokim first before extrapolating to other instances. This includes medieval or later rabbinic commentaries such as Rashi’s interpretation of Deut. 21:23.
  10. R. Yuval Cherlow contends, “there is no situation in which Man loses his Divine image prior to death.” In His Image: The Image of God in Man (Kindle Locations 1864-1865). Koren Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  11. On the degradation of fidelity in copying humans, see the 1996 Michael Keaton movie Multiplicity. Or don’t. It wasn’t very good.
  12. The word אדם/adam is used in these midrashim to refer alternatively to specifically Adam the first man or mankind in general. While the latter usage of adam as mankind may imply universality, we do find exclusions. Most notably, in another context R. Shimon b Yochai excludes gentiles from the category of adam. See B. Yevamot 60b-61a and  B. Bava Batra 114b. R. Hiyya b Gamda removes an unhappy couple from the category of adam in Ecclesiastes Rabba 9:9.
  13. Mekhilta of R. Yishmael addresses the apparent redundancy of including a specific prohibition against murder in Ex. 20:13 when the punishment for murder was already stated in Gen 9:6 by stating, “עונש שמענו אזהרה לא שמענו” / “we have heard the punishment; the warning we have not heard” (Mekhilta of R. Yishmael Yitro 8 s.v. Lo Tirtzach). Because tzelem elokim is insufficient by itself to prohibit murder, I suggest the contrast between punishment and prohibition indicates tzelem elokim is, at best, descriptive rather than prescriptive.
  14. M. Makkot 1:10
  15. According to one Talmudic opinion, Gen 9:6 is the basis for why gentiles are also to be executed for murder, violating one of the seven Noahide commandments (B. Sanhedrin 57a).
  16. T. Yevamot 8:5, (8:7 Leiberman edition).
  17. For those who associate tzelem elokim with “kavod haberiot” or “human dignity,” it is important to mention that the latter does apply after death, as seen in B. Megillah 3b.
  18. One reason given for why overturning beds is no longer practiced is that our beds are different from those of the Rabbinic era such that overturning a contemporary bed would not be seen as “overturning” it at all. See Shulhan Arukh Y.D. 387:2, Beit Yosef Y.D. 387, and the sources cited ad loc.
  19. B. Beitza 16a
  20. See Maimonides Yesodei HaTorah 1:7-12
  21. B. Bava Metzia 58b, B. Bava Metzia 59a
  22. M. Bava Kamma 8:1
  23. In Talmud manuscripts Munich 141 and Vatican 110-111, R. Ya’akov’s opinion is attributed to R. Akiva, which is also the version found in the She’iltot of R. Ahai Gaon Noah 5 as well. I find this possibility fascinating given R. Akiva’s dispute with Ben Azzai over which is the greater principle pertaining to tzelem elokim. While I am not confident enough to make a definitive argument for R. Akiva I do find enough evidence to plausibly support the possibility of it being accurate, especially considering the ease with which a scribe could confuse “עקיבא” and “יעקב” by transposing a few letters.
  24. Regarding procreation and tzelem elokim, Gen 6:9 is cited as the basis for why gentiles would be liable for murder for abortion (B. Sanhedrin 57b).
  25. T. Yevamot 8:5, (8:7 Leiberman edition) referenced above, as well as the Talmud manuscript Munich 141.
  26. On the personhood of a fetus in Jewish law, see my class on abortion.
  27. Ex. 21
  28. Deut. 21:10-14
  29. Ex. 17:14-17, Deut. 25:17-19
  30. Num. 31
  31. B. Sanhedrin 39b
  32. Ex. 31:14
  33. Lev. 20
  34. Notably affirmed by Ben Azzai himself (B. Yevamot 4a)
  35. M. Sanhedrin 11:2
  36. The Talmud records several “great principles” including their exceptions. For example, a “great principle” in law is the burden of proof falls on the claimant (B. Bava Kamma 46a). However, R. Hisda suspended this “great principle” in a case where witness intimidation was a concern (B. Bava Metiza 39b).
  37. See for example kavod ha’beriot, often translated as “human dignity,” in particular B. Berachot 19b. This topic deserves its own study.

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