The Image of God

  • Rav Chaim Navon

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit

Yeshivat Har Etzion

LECTURE #4: The Image of God

By Rav Chaim Navon

And 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 E-lokim] He created him; male and female He created them. (Bereishit 1:26-27)

Chazal have taught 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 his existence, as was already expressed in the famous words of Rabbi Akiva:

He used to say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of God; it is by special divine love that he is informed that he was created in the image of God. As it is stated: "For God made man in His own image." (Avot 3:14)

Some of our Sages diminish the significance of the expression "be-tzelem E-lokim." They understand these words as referring not to the image of God Himself, but to the image of the angels. This, for example, 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 answers as follows:

"Be-tzalmo" – [in the image] of man. "Be-tzelem E-lokim"– the angels. (Rashbam)

Rashbam means to say that man was created in an image that was unique to him, i.e., in the image of the angels. Rabbi Yehuda ha-Levi interpreted the verse in this manner as well:

A prophet's eye is more penetrating than speculation. His sight reaches up to the heavenly host direct, 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. (Sefer Kuzari, IV, 3)

According to these authorities, the expression "tzelem E-lokim" does not mean "the image of God," but rather the image of the angels and other spiritual beings in heaven. But many others have understood that the verse refers here to the image of God Himself. According to this understanding, we must clarify what is meant by "the image of God": What bestows such great importance upon man among all the created beings?


Some have suggested that the image of God in man is his intellect and reason:

"Be-tzalmenu" – in our type. "Ki-demutenu" – with the power to comprehend and to discern. (Rashi)

This approach is most commonly attributed to Rambam, who in his rationalistic teachings, greatly stresses the importance of man's intellect:

Now man possesses as his proprium something in him that is very strange as it is not found in anything else that exists under the sphere of the moon, namely, intellectual apprehension. In the exercise of this, no sense, no part of the body, none 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 was because of this something, I mean because of the divine intellect conjoined with man, that it is said of the latter 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 Hilkhot Yesodei ha-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. To this form, the Torah refers in the text, "Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness." This means that man should 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. (Rambam, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 4:8)[1]

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 man, before he acquires knowledge, is no better than an animal 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 these rational concepts is the understanding of the Oneness of the Creator, blessed and praised be He, and all that pertains to that divine matter. (Rambam, Commentary to the Mishna, Introduction)

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 which will inform him concerning his Maker, as far as it lies in human faculties to understand and comprehend. (Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuva 10:6)

The identification of the image of God with the intellect is familiar to us primarily by virtue of Rambam. But many Jewish thinkers who grappled with philosophical issues accepted this idea, due to the influence of Greek philosophy. 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 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 all the world: It is invisible while itself seeing all things, and while comprehending the substances of others, it is as to its own substance unperceived. (Philo, On the Creation, 69)

Philo views the intellect as "the image of God," not because God is also endowed with intellect, as Rambam argues, but because the intellect in the human body is similar to God in the world. His basic position, however, is the same as that of Rambam.

Free Will

Rabbi Meir Simcha ha-Kohen of Dvinsk, author of Meshekh Chokhma, 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)

Rabbi Meir Simcha views free will as a wonderful gift, the image of God in man. It should be noted that there are those who disagree with this idea. Ramban maintains that man did not have free will prior to 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 the great significance of free will. Everything in the natural world is sto the laws of causality.Every activity, every action, and every movement, stem 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 our belief, in the very same situation, under the same circumstances, without anything being changed, man can choose between two different avenues of action. What causes him to choose one and not the other? This is a paradox that is difficult for us to understand, but critical, nevertheless, for our religious belief.

Every man is given free will. If one desires to turn towards the good way and be righteous, he has the power to do so. If one wishes to turn towards 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.[2] And since this is so [there is reason to fear] "lest he put forth his hand etc." (ibid.).

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 to the way which he desires, spontaneously and of his own volition. (Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuva 5:1-2)

Rambam describes the significance of free will at great length, emphasizing that it is one of the fundamental tenets of our faith. Were it not that man has free will, he would fall into despair and renounce all responsibility for his fate. Rambam's primary objection is to the notion that God determines man's destiny. According to this view, argues Rambam, there is no reason to command or admonish man, nor to promise him reward or punishment; in any event, man has no control over his conduct.

Rabbi Chasdai Crescas, in his book Or Hashem, argues that free will can be denied from another direction: the causal forces of nature. Some have argued that although God does not directly determine every particular event, whatever transpires is automatically determined by the natural causes that govern the world. Today we speak primarily about psychological determination. 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 they too may serve as additional psychological factors pushing a person to do good. Still, however, man has no 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 deny man's free will and turn him into a machine driven by impulses and urges (psychoanalysis, behaviorism, certain physiological-neurological approaches). These schools free man of responsibility for his actions. It is precisely for this reason that it is important to remember the significance that Jewish authorities have attached to free will. One of the leading representatives of the Mussar movement in our generation, the 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:

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 And Creativity

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.

This idea was developed by Rabbi Soloveitchik, who saw the image of God in man in his creative powers. Dominion over the world, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, is just 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. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, 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 does not hesitate to broaden the canvas and demand 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; at the very most, he can adopt some element of His other traits: lovingkindness, mercy, and the like. 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. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Yemei Zikaron, p. 86)

Rabbi Soloveitchik speaks here also of physical creation – the construction of bridges and railroads, technological development – but primarily of spiritual creation - Torah study and moral perfection. He regards creativity and innovation as a supreme value, as the 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 not having entirely completed the creation of the world, and of His leaving room for man to create and perfect.


There are yet others who 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," that he be able to show compassion, be beneficent and give. (Rabbi Dessler, 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: This 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 perhaps be trying to make a different point: God implanted in man, alongside his natural inclination to loout for his own personal interests, a natural into 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 exceptional comment, argues that under discussion here is man's physical image:

"So God created man in a form worthy of Himself [be-tzalmo]" … The mortal frame of man is one which is worthy of God and commensurate with the godly calling of man. Thus, the Torah teaches us to recognize and value the godlike dignity of the human body. And actually the whole Torah rests primarily on making the body holy. The whole mortality of human beings rests on the fact that the human body, with all its urges, forces and organs, was formed commensurately with the godly calling of man, and is to be kept holy and dedicated exclusively to that godly calling. (Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, commentary to Bereishit 1:27)

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 have gone too far in his assertion that this is what is meant by "the image of God" found in man. In this case, Rambam's position is more persuasive.

Divine Spark

In conclusion, we shall bring yet another opinion, one that is fundamentally different from all the views thus far presented. There are those who argue that the image of God in man is not a trait or quality that lends itself to identification and classification, but rather the divine spark that lies hidden deep within man. This is what is 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 become 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 divine light and splendor that clings to man, and about which it is stated: "For in the image of God made He man." (Maharal, 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 alludes to the superiority of the soul, its foundation and secret, since it mentions in connection with it the full Divine Name. And the verse says that He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life in order to inform us that the soul did not come to man from the elements, as He intimated concerning the soul of moving things,[3] nor was it an evolvement from the Separate Intelligences. Rather it was the spirit of the great God, out of his mouth comes knowledge and discernment. For he who breathes into the nostrils of another person gives into him something from his own soul. (Ramban, commentary to Bereishit 2:7)

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


[1] The matter requires clarification, for it would appear from here that, even according to Rambam, the expression "in Our image" refers to the image of the angels, and not the image of God Himself.

[2] 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.

[3] I.e., the soul of animals, whose primary activity is movement (following R. Chavel).

(Translated by David Strauss)