Written by Gil Student
"And G-d said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness... And G-d created man in His image, in the image of G-d He created him..."
"[F]or in His image did G-d make man."
Genesis (1:26-27; 9:6) - NJPS Translation
Four times, in three different verses, the Torah says that man was created in G-d's image. Exactly what this means, that man was created in G-d's image, is a matter with many different approaches. What we intend to do in this essay is to discuss 8 different philosophical explanations of this divine image that man has and then show that according to almost all opinions every person has a divine image. One possible exception will also be discussed. Due to the nature of this endeavour, we will be quoting both prominent and somewhat obscure philosophers. However, those familiar with Jewish philosophy will immediately recognize the more prominent names and their opinions (e.g. Maimonides).
Before we discuss these different understandings, it is important to note that some commentators do not read these verses as saying that man was created in G-d's image. Onkelos does not connect the words image and G-d, implying that G-d created man in man's image [cf. R. Avraham Ibn Ezra, Commentary to Genesis 1:26; R. Yitzchak Abarbanel, Commentary ad. loc, p. 68].
R. Sa'adia Gaon, in his Emunot VeDeyot (2:9, ed. Kaffih pp. 88-89) claims that the phrase "G-d's image" only implies uniqueness, similar to (Jeremiah 2:7) "My land" and (Isaiah 14:25) "My mountains" [In his translation of the Torah, R. Sa'adia Gaon offers a different explanation of this term].
Both R. Shmuel Ben Meir (Rashbam) and R. Avraham Ibn Ezra understand the word used for G-d, "Elokim", as referring here to angels, as it does in Judges (13:22). Thus, man was created in the image of angels.
1. Maimonides (Rambam) begins his Moreh Nevuchim by explaining this enigmatic phrase. He contends (1:1-2) that this refers to the human intellect, or rather the human intellectual process. Just like G-d, man can think and understand without any physical actions. This intellectual independence of thought is the "G-d's image" in which man was created [cf. Abarbanel, ibid., p. 67]. R. Shimon Ben Tzemach Duran (Rashbatz) in his Magen Avot (3:18) follows this approach as does R. Yom Tov Lipman Heller (Tosafot Yom Tov, Avot 3:14).
2. Somewhat similarly to Maimonides, R. Ovadiah Seforno (Commentary to Genesis 1:26-27) understands "G-d's image" as referring to man's eternal intellect. Aside from philosophical differences regarding the inherent nature of man's intellect, Seforno also differs with Maimonides by adding that distinct from the image of G-d, His "likeness" refers to free will. Only G-d and man have free will. R. Eliyahu Lopian (Lev Eliyahu, vol. 1 pp. 9-12) emphasizes this first aspect in Seforno's.
3. R. Chaim Friedlander (Siftei Chaim - Emunah Uvechirah, vol. 2 pp. 68, 90), on the other hand, focusses on the free will aspect. R. Yisrael Lifschitz (Tiferet Yisrael, Avot 3:89) and R. Meir Simchah HaCohen of Dvinsk (Meshech Chochmah, Genesis ad. loc.) also take the approach that "G-d's image" refers to free will. As does R. Meir Leibush Malbim (Commentary ad. loc.) and R. Aharon Kotler (Peninim Mishulchan Gavoha, Genesis ad. loc.).
4. Nachmanides (Ramban) in his Commentary to the Torah (Genesis ad. loc.) understands the plural of "Let us make", "our image", and "our likeness" as referring to both G-d and the Earth. G-d had the Earth form the human body while He formed the human soul to insert into the body. This soul, the "ruach", is the likeness and image of G-d.
5. R. Sa'adia Gaon, in his Arabic translation of the Torah, explains the term "G-d's image" as meaning the ability to conquer and rule. Just like G-d rules over all of creation, man rules over the animal world. This is consistent with the end of verse 26 where dominion over the animal kingdom is discussed.
6. R. Yitzchak Abarbanel (ibid. pp. 67-68) adds three additional interpretations. His first is that man, unlike other creatures, has four qualities. Man physically exists, grows, feels, and thinks. As the only creation that contains all of these qualities, man is similar to G-d, who contains every possible quality.
7. Abarbanel also suggests that man's physical parts are representative of the world and of G-d's actions. R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal) eloquently stated it thus (Da'at Tevunot, ed. Feldheim p. 115, ed. Friedlander ch. 80):
For, in relation to all of the exalted qualities which we distinguish in the Blessed One is His acting on the level of His creatures, we find corresponding qualities in the figure of man. For example: the eye of man corresponds to the eye of Hid providence, which exercises surveillance over all the dwellers of the earth to judge all of their deeds... The ears of man correspond to G-d's sitting and listening to the prayers of men and to all of their praises... The mouth of man corresponds to G-d's speaking in a vision to His prophets... And, similarly, all of the other components of the body can be well understood as paralleling in their form and function the qualities to which He resorted in the making of His creations.
This understanding is also accepted by R. Natan Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, in his Or Hatzafun (vol. 1 p. 216).
8. Abarbanel's third interpretation is based on the Maimonidean understanding of the intellect. Unlike Plato, Maimonides believes that man is born without innate knowledge but rather with the capacity to learn and know. In other words, man is born with a Potential Intellect and, with study, gains an Acquired Intellect. This Acquired Intellect, Abarbanel suggests, is the divine image. According to Abarbanel, Adam and Eve were the exceptions to the above rule. They were created fully developed, both physically and mentally. Therefore, Adam and Eve, and only they, were created in G-d's image. Every other person must work to develop his intellect into a diving image.
Do all people have G-d's image?
According to 1 through 7, all people, both Jewish and gentile, have G-d's image. All people have the same learning process, an eternal intellect, a soul, the ability to dominate animals, the qualities of existence, growth, feeling, and thought, and the same body parts.
Indeed, R. Avraham Grodzinsky wrote (Torat Avraham, p. 139):
Not only Israel, but also all of the other nations, have the potential to reach the highest levels because they were created in the image of G-d. How wonderful are the words of the Tana devei Eliyahu, which says: I bear witness before heaven and earth, that Jew or Gentile, man or woman, slave or maidservant, all receive holy revelation according to their actions.
However, according to those in 3 who consider G-d's image to be free will, it is possible that there are those who do not have free will.
R. Chaim Lindenblatt has suggested to this author that according to Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 6:3) another category may lose their divine image. Maimonides states that there are those whose sin is so terrible that G-d removes from them the opportunity to repent. The prime example is Pharoah whose heart G-d repeatedly hardened (e.g. Exodus 14:4). Because Pharoah's sins were so grave, G-d removed from him the ability to repent i.e. his free will. Evidently, Pharoah and other sinners of that genre lose their divine image.
According to 8, it is clear that many, if not most, people do not have G-d's image because they have never acquired the requisite knowledge.
Before we end this essay, we must state that even according to the minority view mentioned here that some people do not have sufficient ability to act in G-d's image, it is absolutely forbidden to (G-d forbid) murder such people or to discriminate against them in any way. They are entirely human and MUST be treated with the dignity that all people deserve.