B’TZELEM ELOHEEM: In the image of God
For Jews, learning never ends. Thus, as soon as we finish reading the Torah at the end of Deuteronomy, we go right into the reading of Genesis, the first book of the Torah. While some might find it depressing not to get a break from education, our ancestors considered learning to improve our lives and our world to be so joyous, that they never wanted it to end and rejoiced in celebrating, “Simchat Torah” (joy of the Torah).
Modern Jews treasure the Torah, not for its scientific insights, but rather for its moral, ethical and spiritual values. Thus, we take the story of the death of Lot’s wife “with a grain of salt”, we find something fishy about the story of Jonah, in the story of Cain and Able we see that when it came time to control his temper, Cain was not Able, the story of Noah teaches that all creatures are in the same boat, and the tower of Babel is a “tall story”, explaining the various languages as a desperate measure used by God to prevent humans from discovering his dwelling place, which no rational modern person would believe to be true. There is, however, some kernel of truth in these stories, as Babylon really did exist and can still be found today in some Rabbis who like to “babble on”. Finally, despite the Biblical story of Balaam, most Jews today believe there is no such thing as a “talking ass” except perhaps in the world of politics.
As for the creation of mankind, Genesis omits the detail that after God created Adam he looked down and said “I can do better than that” and created woman, and that when Adam requested a helpmate, God said it would cost him an arm and a leg, and Adam replied, “What can I get for a rib?”. I hope you are not offended by my ribbing, but I believe that if taken literally, these myths will cause mankind to be “mythguided” “mythled” and deceived by “mythconceptions”. However, when read as metaphor, these stories speak volumes and offer many truths.
Despite the fact that every chapter, word and even letter of the Torah has been subjected to intense scrutiny and analysis for many centuries by Jewish scholars, surprisingly, most Jews are unaware that the creation of humans is described more than once in the Torah, with glaring contradictions between the two accounts.
It is obvious why fundamentalist Christians, Muslims and Jews (Orthodox) would want to keep two contradictory versions of our own creation a secret, and reject the now proven theory of evolution. Such “inconvenient truths” reveal that the creation stories in the Torah are not literally true. Nevertheless, much insight may be gleaned from them.
In the earlier version of man’s creation Adam is created first, the animals are paraded in front of him, but he feels something is missing. So Adam complains to God that he is still lonely and wants a helpmate. Since there were no dishes to wash in those days, one gets the impression that Adam is looking for more than just someone to help with the chores. According to this version of events, women never would have existed if Adam had been satisfied with the family pets.
What is striking about the two accounts of man’s creation is that in the typical English translation in both accounts God says that Adam was created in the image (often translated as likeness) of God. But in the first version of man’s creation, man is created before the other animals, and the Torah has God saying “b’tzelem eloheem bara oto”. (“in the image of God he created him”). Genesis 1:27
The Hebrew word for image of God in this account is “btzelem eloheem”. The word tzelem means an actual, physical image, and gives rise to the modern Hebrew word “matzlemah” meaning camera, which produces a physical image.
In the later version in Genesis 5:1, man and woman were created together and it reads “Bidmut Eloheem asah oto Genesis 5:1. The word used here for image of God, “d’mut Eloheem” is different and means “resembles”, not in a physical sense, but in shared qualities or characteristics. This version correctly views woman not as an afterthought, but as co-equal to man.
Thus, we could read this to mean that in the beginning, our people believed that man, and not woman, was created in the physical likeness of an anthropomorphic God who the Torah described as walking in the garden, descending upon Earth, enjoying the aroma of charred flesh, and whose “face” had to be hidden from Moses so that Moses wouldn’t die.
As the Jews matured, prophets like Micah conceived of an incorporeal God who has no interest in the charred flesh of animal sacrifice and only desires that “we do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God.” Thus, the word “b’tzelem” in Chapter 1 was replaced by “b’dmut” in chapter 5 to indicate a growing awareness that we possess qualities, rather than a physical likeness, that resemble the Creative power that generated and sustains all life.
To a greater extent than all other creatures, humans seem to be hardwired with a capacity to be creative that in some small way resembles the creative spirit that permeates all Creation in the universe and is manifest in countless human creations from buildings, vehicles, spaceships, computers and other devices, to beautiful music, poetry and language, to the unique ability of humans to shape our own lives and destiny, rather than be governed almost entirely by instinct, like most other animals. Sadly, religion often stifles this creative spirit, but a spiritualized Judaism has the capacity to enhance it.
Simchat Torah offers us an opportunity to celebrate the joy of learning and study in order to bring out the creative potential inside each one of us. After contemplating our faults and where we went wrong on the High Holy Days, we are now ready to begin anew our ancient quest to make better choices and to find the path towards creating more joy, happiness and peace in our lives and in the world. Let us hearken to the call of the shofar and wake up to the vast potential and creative power that lies within us through self-awareness and reflection. May we all transcend the limitations that hold us back and end the trance of self-doubt by making full use of the Creative potential for joy, love and fulfillment that lies within each of us, created in the image of an inexhaustible creative power, that some call God.