The Big, the Small, the Chocolate

October 5, 2012

One of the major causes of inaction is a feeling of helplessness: The world’s problems seem big and we seem small. So we don’t bother to get involved, feeling that it’s a wasted effort.

Today, I saw evidence to the contrary: A public action campaign caused Hershey to pledge to certify that its chocolate is slave-labor (or slave-like, if you want to quibble over definitions) free by 2020. This campaign was largely virtual, and gained its power from tons of small online actions, such as people’s signing petitions.

It reminds me of the motto seen on Chabad donation boxes: “Every little bit helps” – which is why each of us must do our part, no matter how small it may seem.


Genesis: Conclusion

August 23, 2012

I have just posted a bunch of Genesis related content. If you are wondering why, it is because the first chapter of Genesis presents an intriguing picture of humankind’s creation – one in which all humans are created in God’s image. I am continually inspired by this Biblical picture of human equality and dignity, of all people as being in the image of God, as being not just incidental to human creation, but in fact, an essential part of it, and a quintessential element of our human identity.

Answer to Question 5

August 23, 2012

The traditional Jewish way of resolving this, cited by Rashi, is that man was originally created as one being, with one side female, one male, both genders living in one body – thus the original man, was in fact, both man and woman. The Torah verse tries to capture both the individuality and duality by describing the creation as being both of one man, and of man and woman. (Interestingly enough, a similar story, of a dual-gendered being giving way to a later humanity, in which being has one of those two original genders, is found in Plato’s Symposium.)

What is striking, however, is that this verse offers a vision a) of both man and woman being around since the dawn of humankind b) of being created as equal.

Gender relations in the Bible are a complicated story beyond the scope of this class, however, the unique vision of this verse is worth pointing out.

Answer to Question 4

August 23, 2012

While there are various rabbinic interpretations to the injunction to have dominion over the animals, I meant question 4 more as one of introspection than as one of interpretation. Nevertheless, I would like to point out, that in the passage, while man is given dominion over the animals, he is only explicitly given plants to eat. (See verse 29). This article goes more in-depth about Jewish green ethics, in a few sources, including ours:

My only thoughts on the topic are, that, if the Bible gives man power over the animals, then, to quote Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility”.

Tzelem Elokim Part 2: Mission

August 23, 2012

Some see “tzelem Elokim” not as a description of man, so much as a mission: Tzelem Elokim is an injunction to humankind to be like God – a concept known as Imitatio Dei, imitating the Divine. Of course, this concept raises is many questions as it answers: How cna one immitate God?

In “Tzelem Elokim and the Dialecitc of Jewish Morality”, Eugene Korn explains ( :

Question 3: Tzelem Elokim: Part 1

August 23, 2012

What does it mean for man to be created in the image of God(tzelem Elokim)? This question has been pondered by Bible readers everywhere for many generations.

Traditional rabbinic commentators interpret the image of God is the gift of human speech, and as of human intelligence. Interestingly, these are two definitions of humanity which once held sway in secular – even scientific – circles as well, hence the experiments on intelligence and communication abilities of animals, in order to define the boundary between animal and human intelligence and language, thereby defining humanity itself.

Others took a different tack.

The Shadal explains: “Let us make man in our image means: Let us make man such that it will be justified to call him “tzelem Elokim”” Shadal explains that “tzelem” means something that is similar to something else – since in this case the similarity is to God, the human is thus “tzelem”, similar to, “Elokim”, God. Shadal then goes on to define this similarity: “In what matter is man similar to God? It seems to me, that just as God has the powers of everything, and that is the meaning of the word Elokim, so too, man was set aside from the other living creatures, for each type of animal has its own power and is  inclined towards a certain trait, but only man is inclined towards and has the power to do any type of measure or action in the world.”

Note: The Hebrew word koach, which means power, strength, potential, control, or some combination of all four, is extremely hard to translate. I translated it as power above, but wanted to inform you of other meanings as well. Shadal is not saying that man is omnipotent, but rather, that humanity’s ability to engage in such a diverse set of skills, talents, thoughts, and actions, is resemblant of God’s ability in its diversity of forms – for God, too, has a diverse set of powers, – yet while man’s diversity of powers is a limited set, God’s is infinite.

The Meshech Chochmah, however (1843-1926), puts a news spin on things: Like many of his predecessors, he acknowledges human intelligence as a component of tzelem Elokim, but links this intelligence to human choice:


The “tzelem Elokim” is the freedom of choice, that man can make decisions based on his own will and intelligence. The knowledge of God does not inhibit this free will, because His knowledge is not like human knowledge that comes from contact with external stimuli, but rather, from within Him Himself – and as Maimonides wrote, it is not within our capabilities to understand how this works, however, we do know that freedom of choice is a result of Divine contraction – tzimtzum – that God leaves room for his creations to do what they choose…thus, God said to Himself: “We will make man in our image”. The explanation of this, is that the Torah speaks in the language of man* when it says: We will leave space for human choice, that he will not be coerced in his actions and in his thoughts, and will have the freedom to do good or bad as his soul wishes, and will be able to do things against his nature, and against what is right in the eyes of God”.


* a rabbinic concept, that the Torah will adjust not only its language, but sometimes its metaphors as well, in order to make it more readily comprehensible to the human readers that are its target audience, despite being a Divine document.


The Meshech Chochmas’s concept of tzelem Elokim as a result of tzimtzum is related to a general Kabbalistic theory that the creation of the Universe is essentially God’s contracting himself to make way for humanity;  religion is then humanity’s way of making way for God, se, a tax this is “fixing the universe” – a fixing composed primarily of social justice. In the article, “Tzelem Elokim and the Dialectic Morality”,  Eugene Korn writes of the Meshech Chochmah:





Some of the sources on this page have been taken from a source sheet by Nechama Leibowitz, available here:

An Answer the Comes With A Question

August 23, 2012

If God loves diversity so much, and even consulted with others to prove it, than why only create one man – why not create a plethora of men and women? (Again, this is not about historocity – if the Bibilical story has God creating one man, its for a reason.)

This question is answered by the Mishnah, which is a compilation of Jewish oral traditions that were codified by Rabbi Judah the Prince in Israel (then a Roman province) in 220 CE.


The Mishnah in Sanhedrin chapter 4, mishnah 5, says:


For this reason, man [i.e. the first human being] was created alone to teach that whoever destroys a single life is as though he had destroyed an entire universe, and whoever saves a single life is as if he had saved an entire universe. Furthermore [the first man was created alone] for the sake of peace among men, so that no one could say to another, “My ancestor was greater than yours”

This answer is repeated by Maimonides (1138-1204)

Maimonides Laws of the Courts and the Penalties Under Their Jurisdiction 12:3* 
For this reason, one human being was created alone in the world. This teaches us that a person who eliminates one human life from the world is considered as if he eliminated an entire world.  [Conversely,] a person who saves one human life is considered as if he saved an entire world.

For more sources, please go to: , a pamphlet on Judasim and genocide that was created in 2007 in response to the genocide in Darfur, and which provided many of the sources listed above.


Why do you think that the Genesis story has God creating only one man (or, since “male and female He created them” one couple) at the start of human history?

Rabbinic Answers to the First Two Questions

August 23, 2012

1. Ramban (1190-1270): The “us” referred to is the earth, since God actually made man out of the dust of the earth, He consulted the earth first. The “in our image” also refers to the fact that although man was created in the image of God, he also resembles the earth: His soul is in the image of God, and is immortal like God, whereas his body is mortal and has similarities to the earth from which it was born and to which it returns.

2. According to Rashi (1040-1105): God consulted with the angels, in order to teach us, the reader, the importance of consulting with others – and specifically, the importance for those in power to consult with those not in positions of power. According to Rashi, this teaches the values of “respect and modesty, that the big should ask permission from the small”. Rashi says that God even choose to risk giving the heretics room to argue for polytheism – since “us” is used – because teaching these values was so important – though then Rashi points out that the Bible is clearly to say “He created”, and not they, because only God himself did the creating.

The importance of consulting others is reflected in the process of Jewish Law: The Talmud, one of Jewish law’s foundational texts, is comprised of rabbinic debates – even the rabbi whose opinion was ultimately not codified as Jewish law is included in the Talmudic records, on the grounds that there are “70 faces to the Torah”, and thus every opinion is valid. The importance of debate can be seen from the story of Rabbi Eliezer: In the story, there is a debate between the rabbis and Rabbi Eliezer. The rabbis win, even though technically Rabbi Eliezer has the correct opinion, and even gets a voice from Heaven to say so. The rabbis rebuke God, telling them He gave power to the rabbis to decide Jewish law through debates, and the rabbis won this one, so God has no right to meddle. God joyfully replies “My sons have defeated me”, and the rabbis win the day. The “objective” truth no longer matters; what matters is the opinion of the rabbinic majority. This is because Judaism has taken the power to legislate Jewish law and invested it in people – and this power is manifested through debates and a diversity of opinion.

As a matter of fact, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book “The Dignity of Difference”, explains the story of the Tower of Babel as an attempt by the people of the story, who have “one language and a common speech”, to “impose an artifical unity on divinely created diversity”. (51, 52) As Sasks explains, “God, the creator of humanity, having made a covenant with all humanity, then turns to one people and commands it to be different, teaching mankind to make space for difference. God may at times be found in the human other, the one not like us. Bibilical monotheism is not the idea that there is on God and therefore one gateway to His presence. To the contrary, it is the idea that the unity of God is to be found in the diversity of creation.”

Thus, God’s consultation – whether it is with the earth or with the angels – is a way of showing us, the reader, the importance of consulting with others and respecting diversity.

Questions about Genesis Chapter 1

August 23, 2012

1. Whos is the “us” with whom God consults in verse 26?

2.  Since according to Biblical theology, God is omnipotent and omniscient, why does God consult with others before taking this action?

3. What does it mean to be created in God’s image – especially if God is non-corporeal?

4. Why do you think God gave man dominion over all the living things? What rights and responsibilities might this dominion entail?

5. Why do you think verse 27 starts off saying God created him (singular masculine) and winds off saying “male and female God created them”?

More on secular vs theistic ethics

August 23, 2012

Is God necessary?

Is it possible that while Divine ethics are socially necessary, because only they have the proper authority to be both universal and enforceable, the concept of the Divine is  no more than a social necessity?

Is it possible that Divine ethics are not socially necessary, but that the Divine exists anyway? That God is not socially expedient, but it happens to be the truth that God exists? If so, do Godly ethics exist as well, unrelated to whether or not they are socially expedient?