The idea that faith ignores at its peril

By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, October 11, 2012
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Heaven reaching to earth: a motif based on Michelangelo’s famous depiction in the Sistine Chapel of the creation of Adam

Heaven reaching to earth: a motif based on Michelangelo’s famous depiction in the Sistine Chapel of the creation of Adam

Nothing is such a test of our humanity, and religion, as whether we can be true to the first mention of the human being in the Bible. It’s not a commandment, just a statement: God makes man in God’s image.

This act precedes all subsequent divisions; there’s no black or white, Jew or non-Jew, Christian or Muslim. Everyone is included. Even the word “man” is, according to a mainstream rabbinic view, inaccurate, for the first human being was both male and female. It therefore follows that every human life is equally sacred. This sublime and challenging truth stands out in the Torah’s beautiful account of creation.

But it is a truth humanity has found it hard to honour. Dan Pagis’s poem, wryly called Testimony, makes the point painfully:
“No, no; they definitely
were human beings: uniform, boots.
How to explain, they were created in the image.
I was a shadow.
I had a different creator.”

The play in Hebrew between image, tselem, and shadow, tsel, is lost in translation. The poet hasn’t quite made it; he’s just one letter short, the product of a different, lesser deity.

The poem is a powerful commentary on Nazism. But the issues go deeper.

It’s an implied critique of religion itself. Does God create us in God’s image, or do we dress God up in ours? To the atheist, God may be nothing more than human characteristics projected on to a non-existent being to which absolute and eternal power are dangerously ascribed. It’s in this vein that Richard Dawkins condemns the God of the Old Testament as a “bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser”.

Paradoxically, the Jewish mystics would agree about the dangers of projection. For anything we say about God, including God’s very name, can be no more than the application of human attributes to the unknowable, indefinable, infinite Eyn Sof. When we describe God, we paint God with our own concepts,colour God with our own politics.

That’s what we do whenever we live in the name of faith as if some people are more equal than others. Yet, like nationalism, religions carry the danger of doing just that. The moment God loves the faithful more and takes their side, whoever those faithful are, we are liable to forget that God is the God of the spirits of all flesh. At that moment we risk crossing the line between religion and idolatry, implicitly making our own people, our faith, or our image of God an object of our worship. A God whom we do not truly understand to be the God of everybody is dangerous. That’s not God’s fault, but ours.

Perhaps the problem lies not specifically with religion but with the nature of identity. Most of us crave identity; we want to belong, to have a cultural and spiritual home. Like most rabbis, I frequently invoke this call to identity: we need our Judaism, our community, our values. Yet, as the French philosopher Jacques Derrida stressed, we cannot establish identity without at the same time creating our “other”. “Every culture”, he argues, “is haunted by its other”. Everything depends on how we regard and what we project on to that other.

Maybe because of the need to differentiate ourselves, maybe because that other has often attacked us, we, like every group, sometimes struggle to see it as of equal value to ourselves.

The beautiful mishnah that “whoever saves a single life is as if they had saved the whole world” provides a good example. Since the proof offered is the very first human being, from whom we are all descended, the remarkable statement is intended to be unequivocally universal. Yet if we read the text today we will probably find the words “a single life” followed by “of Israel”. Are other lives then worth less? Of course not!

But I’ve often wondered how what I feel convinced must be a change from the original meaning crept in. Probably it was because of persecution. Hated and mocked, we understandably defended our self-worth by asserting that we were not only of value, but of special value.

These issues go to the heart of the relationships between religion, identity and politics. I raise them because I love religion, but it also frightens me. Whether we are Jews, Christians or Muslims, if we want to avoid our faith becoming tainted with implicit racism and idolatry, we need to take the principle to heart, and keep it there, that every human being without exception is created in the image of the one universal God.
Otherwise that very faith may end up dividing us shamefully, which should unite us profoundly.

Jonathan Wittenberg is Masorti senior rabbi

Last updated: 1:07pm, October 11 2012