Human Nature:

In the Image of G-d

The Bible states that humanity was created in the image of G-d, but what does it mean to be created in the image of G-d?

Clearly, we are not created in the physical image of God, because Judaism steadfastly maintains that G-d is incorporeal and has no physical appearance.  Maimonides points out that the Hebrew words translated as "image" and "likeness" in Genesis 1,27 do not refer to the physical form of a thing.  The word for "image" in Genesis 1,27 is "tzelem", which refers to the nature or essence of a thing, as in Psalms 73,20, "you will despise their image (tzel'mam)".  You despise a person's nature and not a person's physical appearance.  The word for physical form, Maimonides explains, is "to'ar", as in Genesis 39,6, "and Joseph was beautiful of form (to'ar) and fair to look upon".  Similarly, the word used for "likeness" is "demut", which is used to indicate a simile, not identity of form.  For example, "He is like (dimyono) a lion" in Psalms 17,12 refers not to similar appearance, but to similar nature.

What is it in our nature that is G-d-like?  Rashi explains that we are like G-d in that we have the ability to understand and discern.  Maimonides elaborates that by using our intellect, we are able to perceive things without the use of our physical senses, an ability that makes us like G-d, who perceives without having physical senses.

The Dual Nature

In Genesis 2,7, the Bible states that G-d formed (vayyitzer) man.  The spelling of this word is unusual:  it uses two consecutive Yods instead of the one you would expect.  The rabbis inferred that these Yods stand for the word "yetzer", which means impulse, and the existence of two Yods here indicates that humanity was formed with two impulses:  a good impulse (the yetzer tov) and an evil impulse (the yetzer ra).

The yetzer tov is the moral conscience, the inner voice that reminds you of G-d's law when you consider doing something that is forbidden.  According to some views, it does not enter a person until his 13th birthday, when he becomes responsible for following the commandments.

The yetzer ra is not a bad thing.  It was created by G-d, and all things created by G-d are good.  The Talmud notes that without the yetzer ra (the desire to satisfy personal needs), man would not build a house, marry a wife, beget children, or conduct business affairs.  But the yetzer ra can lead to wrongdoing when it is not controlled by the yetzer tov.  There is nothing inherently wrong with hunger, but it can lead you to steal food.  There is nothing inherently wrong with sexual desire, but it can lead you to commit rape, adultery, incest, or other sexual perversion.

The yetzer ra is generally seen as something internal to a person, not as an external force acting on a person.  The idea that "the devil made me do it" is not in line with the majority of thought in Judaism.  Although it has been said that Satan and the yetzer ra are one and the same, this is more often understood as meaning that Satan is merely a personification of our own selfish desires, rather than that our selfish desires are caused by some external force.

People have the ability to choose which impulse to follow:  the yetzer tov or the yetzer ra.  That is the heart of the Jewish understanding of free will.  The Talmud notes that all people are descended from Adam, so no one can blame his own wickedness on his ancestry.  On the contrary, we all have the ability to make our own choices, and we will all be held accountable for the choices we make.

Last updated on: 03/31/2020
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