In all ancient myths, the world was explained in terms of the battles of the gods in their struggle for domination.

There are words that change the world, nothing more than two sentences that appear in the first chapter of the Torah:

Then God said: “Let us make men in our image, in our likeness, that they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds in the sky, over the cattle and all the wild animals, and over all creatures that come. move along the ground.

“So God created men in his own image, in the image of God created he them; male and female, he created them.

The idea expressed here is perhaps the most transformative in the history of moral and political thought. It is the basis of Western civilization with its unique emphasis on the individual and on equality.

It is behind Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence: “We take these truths for granted, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights …”

These truths are anything corn obvious. They would have been considered absurd by Plato who held that society should be based on the myth that humans are divided into people of gold, silver and bronze, and this is what determines their status in society. . Aristotle believed that some were born to rule and others to be governed.

End slavery

Revolutionary words do not work their magic overnight. As Rambam explained in The guide of the perplexed, it takes a long time for people to change. The Torah works in the middle of time. He did not abolish slavery, but it sparked a series of developments – most notably on Shabbat when all hierarchies of power were suspended and slaves had one day a week of freedom – which were to lead to its abolition in Canada. over time.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

People are slow to understand the implications of ideas. Thomas Jefferson, champion of equality, was a slave owner. Slavery was not abolished in the United States until the 1860s, and not without a civil war. And as Abraham Lincoln pointed out, advocates of slavery and its critics cited the Bible in their cause. But eventually people change, and they do so because of the power of ideas, long implanted in the Western mind.

What exactly does the first chapter of the Torah say? The first thing to note is that this is not a stand-alone statement, a story without context. It is in fact a controversy, a protest, against a certain way of understanding the universe.

In all ancient myths, the world was explained in terms of the battles of the gods in their struggle for domination. The Torah totally and totally rejects this way of thinking. God speaks and the universe is born. This is, according to the great nineteenth-century sociologist Max Weber, the end of the myth and the birth of Western rationalism.

‘It was good’

More importantly, it created a new way of thinking about the universe. The idea of ​​power, strength, energy is central to both the ancient world of myths and the modern world of science. This is what is noticeably absent from Genesis 1. God said, “Let there be,” and it is.

There is nothing here about power, resistance, conquest or the play of forces. Instead, the narrative’s keyword, appearing seven times, is quite unexpected. That’s the word tov, Well.

Tov is a moral word. Torah in Genesis 1 tells us something drastic. The reality to which the Torah is a guide (the word “Torah” itself means “guide, instruction, law”) is moral and ethics. The question Genesis seeks to answer is not “How did the universe come into being?” But “How will we live then?”

This is the most important paradigm shift in Torah. The universe that God created and that we inhabit is not a question of power or domination but of tov and ra, the good and the bad. For the first time, religion was ethical. God cares about righteousness, compassion, faithfulness, kindness, the dignity of the individual and the sanctity of life.

This same principle, that Genesis 1 is a controversy, part of an argument with a background, is essential to understand the idea that God created humanity “in his image, in his likeness”. This language would not have been foreign to the first readers of the Torah. It was the one they knew well.

It was commonplace in the first civilizations, Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. Some people were said to be in the image of God. They were the kings of the Mesopotamian city-states and the pharaohs of Egypt. Nothing could have been more radical than to say that not only kings and rulers are the image of God. We are all. Even today, the idea is bold: how much more in an age of absolute rulers with absolute power.

Heard thus, Genesis 1: 26-27 is not so much a metaphysical statement about the nature of the human person a political protest against the very foundation of hierarchical, class or caste societies, whether in ancient or modern times. This is what makes it the most incendiary idea of ​​the Torah. In a fundamental sense, we are all equal in dignity and ultimate worth, for we are all in the image of God regardless of color, culture or creed.

Kingdom of priests

A similar idea appears later in the Torah, about the Jewish people, when God invited them to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. All the nations of the ancient world had priests, but none was “a kingdom of priests.” All religions have holy individuals, but none claimed to be a nation in which every member was holy. This too took a long time to materialize.

Throughout the biblical era, there were hierarchies. There were priests and high priests, a holy elite. But after the destruction of the Second Temple, every prayer became a sacrifice, every prayer leader a priest, and every synagogue a fragment of the Temple. A deep egalitarianism is at work just below the surface of the Torah, and the rabbis knew it and lived it.

A second idea is contained in the sentence “and that he dominates the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky”. Note that there is no suggestion that anyone has the right to dominate any other human being.

In lost paradise, Milton, like the Midrash, declares that this was the sin of Nimrod, the first great ruler of Assyria and by implication the builder of the Tower of Babel (see Genesis 10: 8-11). Milton writes that when Adam was told that Nimrod “would arrogate to himself undeserved domination” he was horrified:

execrable son sucks so
Above his brothers, assuming himself
Usurped authority, of God not given:
He only gave us beasts, fish, fowl
Absolute domination; this right that we hold
By his gift; but man over men
He did not make a lord; such a title to itself
Reserve, the man left from the free man.

(lost paradise, Book XII: 64-71)

Questioning the right of humans to rule over other humans, without their consent, was at that time quite unthinkable. All advanced societies were like this. How could they be otherwise? Wasn’t that the very structure of the universe? Has not the sun reigned over the day? Didn’t the moon reign over the night? Was there not in heaven itself a hierarchy of gods? Already implicit here is the profound ambivalence that the Torah would ultimately show towards the very institution of kingship, the rule of “man over men.”

The third implication lies in the pure paradox of God saying: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness. We sometimes forget, when reading these words, that in Judaism God has no image or likeness. To make an image of God is to transgress the second of the Ten Commandments and to be guilty of idolatry. Moses pointed out that at the revelation at Sinai, “You saw no likeness, you only heard the sound of words.”

God has no image because he is not physical. He transcends the physical universe because he created it. Therefore, He is free, unconstrained by the laws of matter. This is what God means when he tells Moses that his name is “I will be what I will be”, and later when, after the sin of the golden calf, he says to him: “I will have mercy. on whom I will have pity. “God is free, and by creating us in his image, he also gave us the power to be free.

Abuse of liberty

This, as the Torah makes clear, was God’s most fateful gift. Given freedom, humans abuse it. Adam and Eve disobey God’s command. Cain murders Abel. At the end of the parsha, we find ourselves in the pre-Flood world, filled with violence to the point that God regretted ever having created mankind.

This is the central drama of Tanach and Judaism as a whole. Are we going to use our freedom to respect order or abuse it to create chaos? Are we going to honor or dishonor the image of God that lives in human hearts and minds?

These are not just old questions. They are as alive today as they were in the past. The question posed by serious thinkers, since Nietzsche argued for the abandonment of both God and Judeo-Christian ethics, is whether justice, human rights and unconditional dignity of the human person are able to survive on secular foundations alone? Nietzsche himself did not think so.

In 2008, Yale philosopher Nicholas Woltersdorff published a masterful work asserting that our Western concept of justice is based on the belief that “we all have great and equal value: the value of being made in the image of God and of being made in the image of God. to be loved redeemer by God. . “There is, he insists, no secular logic on which a similar framework of justice can be built. This is surely what John F. Kennedy meant in his inaugural address when he spoke of” revolutionary beliefs for which our ancestors fought ”, that“ human rights do not come from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God ”.

Capital ideas have made the West what it is: human rights, the abolition of slavery, the equal value of all and justice based on the principle that law is sovereign over strength. Everything ultimately derives from the statement in the first chapter of the Torah that we are made in the image and likeness of God.

No other text has had a greater influence on moral thought, and no other civilization has ever had a higher view of what we are called to be.

The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. His teachings have been made accessible to all. This essay was first published in October 2014.