The Image of God1 By Rav Chaim Navon

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The Image of God1

By Rav Chaim Navon

In the Image”

God said, Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God (be-tzelem Elokim) He created him; male and female He created them. (Bereishit 1:26–27)

Chazal teach us that it is the image of God in man that obligates us to honor man. It is also what gives value and meaning to human existence, as expressed in the famous words of Rabbi Akiva:

He used to say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of God; an extra love is made known to him that he was created in God’s image. As it is stated: “For God made man in His own image.” (Avot 3:14)

Several of our Sages diminish the significance of the expression be-tzelem Elokim. Yonatan ben Uziel renders be-tzelem Elokim as be-tzalma Hashem and not be-tzalma de-Hashem. Some infer from this that according to Targum Yonatan, the verse means: “In a [special] image, God created man.” According to this interpretation, the words tzelem and Elokim are not joined grammatically. Ibn Ezra mentions this interpretation (but rejects it):

Some say ... “So God created mankind in His own image” – that the [possessive] vav [in the word be-tzalmo] relates to “mankind.” And they explain be-tzelem Elokim – that the word Elokim is attached to asa, as if the verse said that God fashioned man in an image.

Others accepted the concept of tzelem Elokim, but understood these words as referring not to the image of God, but to the image of the angels. This is the interpretation suggested by Ibn Ezra. But how then do they explain the verse: “And God created man be-tzalmo [in H/his image]”? Rashbam adopted the interpretation that tzelem Elokim refers to the image of the angels, and maintains, that the verse refers to the image of man. That is to say, man was created in an image unique to him (like the interpretation attributed to Targum Yonatan), namely, the image of the angels.

Rabbi Yehuda Halevi interpreted the verse the same way:

A prophet’s eye is more penetrating than speculation. His sight reaches directly up to the heavenly host, he sees the host of heaven – the spiritual beings which are near God and others – in human form. They are alluded to in the verse “Let us make mankind in Our image, after Our likeness.” ... God created man in the form of His angels and servants, which are near Him, not in place, but in rank. (Kuzari IV, 3)

According to these authorities, the expression tzelem Elokim does not mean “the image of God,” but the image of the angels and the other spiritual beings in heaven. Many others, however, have understood the verse as referring here to the image of God Himself. Following on this understanding, we can clarify what “the image of God” means by asking what bestows such great importance upon man among all the created beings.


Some have suggested that man’s intellect and reason comprise the image of God in him. Rashi, for instance, explained be-tzalmenu as “in our type,” and ki-demutenu as “with the power to comprehend and to discern.”
This approach is most commonly attributed to Rambam, whose rationalistic teachings stress the importance of man’s intellect:

Now man possesses as his proprium something in him that is very strange in that it is not found in anything else that exists under the sphere of the moon, namely, intellectual apprehension. In the exercise of this, neither sense, nor any part of the body, nor any of the extremities are used; and therefore this apprehension was likened unto the apprehension of the deity, which does not require an instrument, although in reality it is not like the latter apprehension, but only appears so to the first stirrings of opinion.

It is because of this something, I mean because of the divine intellect conjoined with man, that it is said of man that he is “in the image of God” and “after His likeness,” not that God, may He be exalted, is a body and possesses a shape. (Guide of the Perplexed I, 1)

And similarly he writes in his Mishneh Torah:

The vital principle of all flesh is the form which God has given it. The superior intelligence in the human soul is the specific form of the man who is perfect in his intellect. The Torah refers to this form in the text, “Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness.” This means that man is to have a form that knows and apprehends idealistic beings that are devoid of matter, such as angels, which are forms without substance, so that man is like the angels. (Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 4:8)2

According to Rambam, the intellect is man’s crown, that which makes him unique and distinguishes him from all other living things. It is the key to the worship of God:

For it is not logical that man’s major purpose is to eat or to drink or to engage in copulation or to build a house or to be a king, because these are all passing occurrences and do not add to his essence. Moreover, he shares all these activities with other types of living creatures... For he is not different from other types of animals except in his reason. He is a rational living being. The word “rational” means the attainment of rational concepts. The greatest of rational concepts is the understanding of the Oneness of the Creator, blessed and praised be He, and all that pertains to this divine matter. (Introduction to Commentary to the Mishna)

One only loves God with the knowledge with which one knows Him. According to the knowledge will be the love. If the former be little or much, so will the latter be little or much. A person ought therefore to devote himself to the understanding and comprehension of those sciences and studies that will inform him concerning his Maker, as far as it lies in human faculties to understand and comprehend. (Hilkhot Teshuva 10:6)

The identification of the image of God with the intellect is familiar to us primarily because of Rambam. But due to the influence of Greek philosophy, this idea was accepted by many Jewish thinkers who grappled with philosophical issues. The first to propose this identification seems to have been Philo, who lived in Hellenistic Alexandria during the Second Temple period and was the first thinker to combine Greek thought and Judaism:

It is in respect of the mind, the sovereign element of the soul, that the word “image” is used... For the human mind evidently occupies a position in men precisely answering to that which the great Ruler occupies in the entire world: It is invisible while itself seeing all things, and while comprehending the substances of others, it is as to its own substance unperceived. (On the Creation, 69)

Philo views the intellect as “the image of God,” not because God is also endowed with intellect, as Rambam argued, but because the intellect’s status in the human body is similar to that of God’s in the world. His basic position, however, is the same as Rambam’s.

Free Will

Rabbi Meir Simcha ha-Kohen of Dvinsk suggests another way to understand the essence of the image of God in man:

The image of God refers to man’s ability to choose freely without his nature coercing him, to act out of free will and intellect... It is this alone that we know, that free will results from divine constriction, that God, may He be blessed, leaves room for His creatures to act in the manner of their choosing... He therefore said to Himself, “Let us make man in Our image”; that is to say, the Torah speaks in the language of men, for He said, “Let us leave room for man to choose, that he not be forced in his actions and obligated in his thoughts, and that he have the free will to do good or evil as he desires, and that he be able to do things against his nature and against what is regarded as upright in the eyes of God.” (Meshekh Chokhma, Bereishit 1:26)

Rabbi Meir Simcha views free will as a wonderful gift, the image of God in man.3 It should be noted that there are some who disagree with this idea. Ramban maintains that man did not have free will before his primal sin, and even argues that we will return to that state in the messianic period. For Ramban, free will plays a far less significant role in the definition and essence of man, and in a certain sense it may even be viewed as a negative phenomenon. Rabbi Meir Simcha, a man of the modern world, understood and appreciated the great significance of free will. Everything in the natural world is subject to the laws of causality. Every activity, every action, and every movement stems necessarily from a prior network of causes.
The belief in free will asserts that man is not subject to the laws of causality, or, at the very least, that he can overcome them. According to this belief, in the very same situation, under the same circumstances, without anything having been changed, man can choose between two different avenues of action. What causes him to choose one and not the other? This paradox is difficult to understand, but critical nevertheless, for our religious belief.
The difficulty of explaining free will was already noted by Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Chaver, a disciple of a disciple of the Vilna Gaon:

Now the matter of how free will works is difficult to understand with human reason... For without a doubt the two forces of the will for good and for evil are exactly equal, for if not there would be no choice. For the one that is stronger and greater will decide [the matter], and if so, free will and reward and punishment are removed. Now then, if the two of them are exactly equal, how does one of them rise up, and in what manner does it overcome the other? This matter is impossible to comprehend, because it is beyond human comprehension. (Si’ach Yitzchak, Likkutim, p. 286)

The one who understood the importance of free will for our religious world was, of course, Rambam.

Every man is given free will. If one desires to turn toward the good way and be righteous, he has the power to do so. If one wishes to turn toward the evil way and be wicked, he is at liberty to do so. And thus it is written in the Torah: “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” (Bereishit 3:22), which means that the human species had become unique in the world, there being no other species like it in the following respect, namely, that man, of himself and by the exercise of his own intelligence and reason, knows what is good and what is evil, and there is none who can prevent him from doing that which is good or that which is evil.4 And since this is so [there is reason to fear] “lest he put forth his hand, etc.”

Let not the notion, expressed by foolish gentiles and most of the senseless folk among Israelites, pass through your mind that at the beginning of a person’s existence, the Almighty decrees that he is to be either righteous or wicked. This is not so. Every human being may become righteous like Moshe or wicked like Yerav’am; wise or foolish, merciful or cruel, niggardly or generous, and so with all other qualities. There is no one that coerces him or decrees what he is to do, or draws him to either of two ways; but every person turns, spontaneously and of his own volition, to the way he desires. (Hilkhot Teshuva 5:1–2)
Rambam explains the significance of free will at great length, emphasizing that it is one of the fundamental tenets of our faith.5 Were it not for free will, man would fall into despair and renounce all responsibility for his fate. Rambam’s primary objection is to fatalism – the notion that God determines man’s destiny in each and every matter. In the fatalist view, Rambam points out, there is no reason to command or admonish man, nor to promise reward or punishment; in any event, we have no control over our conduct.
Rabbi Chasdai Crescas, in his Or Hashem, argues that free will can be denied from another direction: the causal forces of nature. In this view, God does not directly determine every particular event, but whatever happens is automatically determined by the natural causes that govern the world. Today we speak primarily about psychological determinism. An individual must act in a certain manner because of his nature or personal history. This approach leaves room for Torah and mitzvot, as well as reward and punishment, for all of these may serve as additional psychological factors pushing a person to do good. Nonetheless, in this view man does not have free will. It should be noted that Rabbi Meir Simcha rejects this approach as well. He speaks of divine contraction (tzimtzum), but later adds that man is free to act “against his nature and against what is regarded as upright in the eyes of God.” God has no control over man – “everything is in the hand of heaven, except for the fear of heaven” – but neither has nature.
Our struggle today is primarily with the second type of denial of free will. Many schools of psychology (psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and certain physiological-neurological approaches) deny the possibility of free will and turn man into a machine driven by impulses and urges. This approach frees us of responsibility for our actions. It is precisely for this reason that it is important to remember the significance the Sages attach to free will. Against the backdrop of the psychology of our period, and in appreciation of the importance of free will, one of the leading representatives of the Musar movement in our generation, Rabbi Shelomo Wolbe, author of Alei Shur, emphasizes that free will should not be regarded as a given, but as a noble virtue to which man must aspire. He concedes that under ordinary circumstances, much as the psychologists claim, people do not exploit their free will. Nonetheless every human being is capable of attaining a state of free will and must see this as a challenge:

How often do we invoke our power of choice? Personal disposition, education, habit, and interests maintain almost absolute rule over us from childhood to old age. A person can go through life without ever having to invoke the power of choice! ... It is clear from this that free choice is not at all part of man’s daily spiritual bread. It is one of the noble virtues that man must labor to attain. (Alei Shur, pp. 155–156)

Domination over the Universe

Rabbenu Sa’adya Gaon, in his translation of the Torah, renders be-tzalmo as “He created him as a ruler.” Interestingly, Rabbenu Sa’adya’s suggestion is supported by the verse itself, for after God says, “Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness,” He immediately continues: “And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, etc.” Thus, the image of God is associated with domination.
Rabbi Chayyim Volozhiner, like Rabbenu Sa’adya Gaon, speaks of the “image of God” as embodied in man’s strength and dominion, but he takes this idea in a mystical direction, referring to dominion over the upper worlds rather than dominion in this world.

This is “So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God... For in the image of God made He man ...” For just as He, blessed be His name, is Elokim, possessor of the powers that exist in all the worlds, He who arranges and leads them at every moment according to His will, so too He, blessed be He, gave man dominion, that he be the one who opens and closes thousands of ten-thousands powers and worlds ... in accordance with the supernal root of his actions, words, and thoughts, as if he were in possession of those powers. (Nefesh ha-Chayyim, sha’ar 1, ch. 3)


Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik proposes a different approach which may be seen as a continuation of the previous understanding. He sees the image of God in man as residing in man’s creative powers. Dominion over the world, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, is merely one aspect of human creativity.

There is no doubt that the term “image of God” in the first account refers to man’s inner charismatic endowment as a creative being. Man’s likeness to God expresses itself in man’s striving and ability to become a creator. Adam the first, who was fashioned in the image of God, was blessed with great drive for creative activity and immeasurable resources for the realization of this goal. (The Lonely Man of Faith, p. 11)

Rabbi Soloveitchik sees in man’s creative activity a fulfillment of imitatio Dei. The classic midrashim demand of us to imitate God by assuming His moral attributes. Rabbi Soloveitchik unhesitatingly broadens the canvas and demands that we imitate God in the creative sphere as well.

The Torah describes the creation at length in order to teach us a very important lesson – “to walk in all His ways” – and to instruct man to imitate his Creator and be himself a creator. A person should not shake his head saying that this demand of man is impossible, for he cannot imitate his Creator in creativity... The Torah, nevertheless, demands of man and commands him to tirelessly exert himself to cling to the traits of the Holy One, blessed be He, and be a creator. (Yemei Zikkaron, p. 86)

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words here certainly include the physical creation – the construction of bridges and railroads, technological development – but primarily he is concerned with spiritual creation: Torah study and moral perfection. He regards creativity and innovation as a supreme value, the very image of God in man. The creative enterprise contains a dimension of creation ex nihilo: the development of something that never existed before. In this context, Rabbi Soloveitchik speaks of God as having not entirely completed the creation of the world, and thus of leaving room for man to create and perfect.


Still other Jewish thinkers identify the image of God in man with man’s innate morality.

The power of giving is a divine power, one of the traits of the Creator of all things, may He be blessed, who shows compassion, is beneficent, and gives, without receiving anything in exchange... In this way He made man, as it is written: “God created mankind in His own image,” so that he would be able to show compassion, be beneficent, and give. (Mikhtav me-Eliyahu I, p. 32)

Rabbi Dessler explains that the image of God in man is his moral inclination. This assertion may be understood in two ways: It may refer to man’s free will. Man’s natural inclination is to act for his own benefit, to advance his own interests. He has the capacity, however, to overcome his nature and choose what is good and moral. But Rabbi Dessler may be trying to make a different point: God implanted in man, alongside his natural inclination to look out for his own personal interests, a natural inclination to do good without receiving anything in return.

The Body

Rambam emphasized that the idea of the “image of God” surely does not refer to God’s physical image. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, however, in a surprising and unusual comment, argues that what is under discussion here is man’s physical image:

“So God created man in His image ...” Man’s physical frame is worthy of God and appropriate for his godly mission. Thus, the Torah teaches us to recognize and value the godlike dignity of the body. Indeed, the Torah does not come to sanctify the spirit, but first and foremost, to sanctify the body. This is the foundation of all human morality: Man’s body, with all its urges and forces, was created in the image of God. And it falls upon man to sanctify his body in a manner commensurate with his godly mission.

Rabbi Hirsch’s comment is seemly and fitting. Rashi (following Chazal) alludes to the same idea in his well-known explanation of the verse “For he that is hanged is accursed of God” (Devarim 21:23). Rabbi Hirsch, however, seems to go too far when he asserts that this is what is meant by “the image of God” found in man. Rambam’s position on this is more persuasive. In any event, note that Rabbi Hirsch is careful not to say, God forbid, that man’s body is similar to God. He says that the human body is called the “image of God” because it is “worthy of God” and fills “a godlike mission.” Exactly what he means by these expressions is uncertain.

Divine Spark

The last opinion on the meaning of “image of God” is different in essence from all the other opinions we have thus far surveyed. This position holds that the image of God in man is not a trait or quality that lends itself to identification and classification, but rather a divine spark that lies hidden deep within the human soul. We find this view stated in the Zohar:

In what way is man similar to Him? Rabbi Avahu said: In his soul, which is holy and will never be consumed, for it was taken from Him, from His power and His strength. It is not like his body, which was taken from the ground, and will be consumed, and will return to the dust as it was. (Zohar Chadash, Bereishit 28b)

Maharal adds the following explanation:

This is the meaning of the verse “Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness,” for splendor clings to his face and a divine spark clings to him. This is the “image of God.” It is in this way that man is unique among all creatures, in the splendor and light of the image. This light is not at all a physical light, but rather is the divine light and splendor that clings to man, and about which it is stated: “For in the image of God made He man.” (Derekh ha-Chayyim 3:14)

Ramban mentions a similar idea in his commentary to the verse “And He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Bereishit 2:7):

“And He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” This verse alludes for us to the preeminence of the soul, its foundation and its mystery, for it mentions the full divine name. And it says that He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, to inform us that it did not come to him from the elements, as was intimated concerning the soul of moving things,6 nor was it an evolvement from the Separate Intelligences. Rather, it was the spirit of the great God, from whose mouth came intelligence and understanding. For one who breathes into the nostrils of another person gives him something of his own soul.

Ramban explains that when God breathed the breath of life into man, He transferred to him of His divine essence, “for one who breathes into the nostrils of another person gives him something of his own soul.” Ramban does not connect this to the “image of God,” but he makes the same point: God implanted within man something of His own essence. Man contains a divine spark, an element of the divine spirit.

Fact or Mission?

In conclusion, let us take a look what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik said. His observation is connected to what was cited earlier from the Alei Shur. The image of God, however we understand it, is not only a fact but a mission, and we must be fit to undertake this status.

Judaism considered the imago element to be not a gratuitous grant bestowed upon man but rather a challenge to be met by man; not as an endowment fashioned by God but rather as a mission to be implemented... Perhaps the central norm in our ethical system is related to Imago Dei, to be like God, reflect His image... It is up to man to either realize or shake off the Imago Dei. (Family Redeemed, p. 7)

Rabbi Soloveitchik connects the idea of “image of God” to the commandment to be like God. When we fulfill the mitzva of “walking in His ways,” we realize the divine image within us.

1Translated by Rav David Strauss. This essay is a chapter from Rav Chaim Navon’s forthcoming book Genesis and Jewish Thought (Ktav, 2007), which addresses hashkafic issues that arise in Sefer Bereishit. The book is based on a series that appeared on the Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash.

2 The matter requires clarification, for it would appear from this that the expression “in Our image,” even according to Rambam, refers to the image of the angels, and not the image of God Himself.

3 Compare with the words of Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man.

4 Rambam understands the verse as follows: “Behold, the man is become like one” – unique in his world; “knowing by himself (mimenu) good and evil” – deciding by himself and on his own between good and evil.

5 Rambam (in the eighth chapter of Shemona Perakim) also expanded the scope of free will, arguing that the saying “Everything is in the hands of heaven except for the fear of heaven” excludes from free will only those things that depend on natural law, e.g., whether a person is tall or short, whether or not it will rain, and the like.

6 That is, the souls of animals, whose primary activity is movement (following Chavel).

Alei Etzion vol. 15 (Elul 5767)

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