“Let us make humanity in our image … “ (Genesis 1:26) What does “Us” Refer to in This Verse?

One of the frequent questions readers of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives ask me is, “If Jewish tradition insists that there is only ONE God, why does the Story of Creation in Genesis use the plural “us” when referring to God?”

 Since Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is rapidly approaching, celebrates the anniversary of the creation of the world; it is a good time to address this important question. Those who raise it may not realize that rabbis who lived nearly 2000 years ago also pondered that apparent contradiction between Jewish theology and the biblical text.

 Our Sages of that period were acutely aware that the early Fathers of the Christian Church saw the verse in question and the word “us” in particular as a proof text for the Divinity of Jesus. For the Church, Jesus was with God at the beginning of the world. For the rabbis, of course, and for Jews to this day, he was not.

 For the rabbis, Jesus is not God. So they sought—and sometimes stretched for—other answers to the question: with whom did God counsel when the Eternal One said, “Let us make humanity in our image?”

 Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani suggested that God consulted the previously created works of heaven and earth. From this idea, our Sages taught, we learn humility. If God would consult the mosquito before engaging in the most important creative act of all, should we too not be humble enough to learn from others whose station in life may be lower than ours? Rabbi Ammi offered the opinion that God consulted the Divine heart before creating human beings. (Bereshit Rabbah 8:3)

 Another suggestion is that God took the quality of mercy as the Divine associate when creating human beings. According to the Midrash, God wondered whether it was wise to create human beings or not. The rabbis pictured God pondering: If I create humans, wicked people will spring from them; but if I do not, how will righteous people come into the world? Ultimately God disregards the wicked offspring, takes mercy as a partner and proceeds. (Bereshit Rabbah 8:5)

 The Sages postulated several other possible answers as to what “us” means in the creation story. The ministering angels (yes our Sages spoke often about angels), the souls of future righteous people, and the Torah are among the suggestions.

 To me, though, it is clear that the rabbis were trying to say: The word “us” in the Story of Creation can mean almost anything one may imagine with one exception. It does not refer to Jesus.

 In those days mutual antipathy and scorn marked the relationship between the Jewish Sages and the early Fathers of the Christian church. Today I pray that we can all understand and accept that Christians and Jews see Jesus differently. Can we learn at last not only to tolerate but also to respect and even affirm those differences?



Note: Midrash is a generic term for Jewish stories and teachings which expound upon or explain the meaning of biblical verses.

Bereshit Rabbah is a collection of midrashim (plural of Midrash) on the book of Genesis. Its origins might stem from the third century CE although most scholars believe its final editing occurred much later.



“Christians Often Speak of, “Love,” “Grace” and “Salvation,” but What Do These Terms Mean to Jews?

My third essay, (slightly expanded) that appears in Lights in the Forest, edited by Rabbi Paul Citrin and published September, 2014 by CCAR Press:

For me, these terms relate to what I call, “The mystery of God.” As long as I live I shall never forget the plaintive cry of a young girl a few weeks before her Bat Mitzvah. I had been called to the family’s home as her father had just passed away. She sobbed in my arms, and cried out, “God damn you God!” I can still feel her tears and hear her sobs.

Things happen in our lives that are incomprehensible! I don’t believe we are meant to understand the reason for everything. I resonate to God’s ultimate response to Job who finally demanded an answer from the Almighty for his many afflictions – “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” (Job 38:4-39:30)

In contemporary words, there is much that we cannot know that we wish we did. That is an essential element of my faith. Over the years many times during Torah study and other learning sessions, people have asked, “Why did God do that?” Or “How could God have been so mean as to have done that?” My response has been, “There is a reason that we come to worship God and do not expect God to come and worship us. We answer to God. God does not answer to us.”

As human beings created in God’s image we have a very good idea of what God hopes our behavior will be. God hopes we will treat one another with graciousness and love, and we may hope that God will treat us with graciousness and love. Often it will not seem that way. We have all seen many bad things happen to very good people. Because of such events I have seen so many people lose or abandon faith in God.

Harold Kushner earned international renown by explaining that phenomena by writing that he can believe in a God as all good but not all powerful. It is a formidable argument that has brought great comfort to a great many people, but I am not sure he is correct. How God dispenses reward land love in this world is a mystery I do not believe we can solve.

No matter how sophisticated the computer programs we develop, no matter how close we humans come to winning the battle against cancer, there is still an infinite gulf between the reality of God and our knowledge of God. I think we need the humility to realize that.

In the aftermath of the children of Israel’s apostasy at Sinai when they worshipped the golden calf, Moses (Exodus 33:12ff) asks God to give the people more tangible evidence that God is with them. Moses asks God to show the people a reason to believe. God agrees to Moses request, but insists (Exodus 33:19) I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show compassion to whom I will show compassion” In other words God says, “Moses even you who have closer knowledge of me than anyone before or since will not fully comprehend the reasons for all that happens, and the rest of the people will have even less understanding. I am in essence a mystery.

We do perceive, though, that God’s love, grace and salvation are things we must try to earn. This is one of the largest real differences between classical Jewish and classical Christian thought. In Christian thinking faith in God and Jesus are indispensible and (some would say the only) if one wishes to gain grace, salvation and God’s unconditional love.

By contrast we Jews believe that we must try to earn them through the acts of kindness, caring and compassion that we do. Our belief in God or lack of belief is clearly a secondary consideration.

We also believe, though that because of God’s graciousness and love for us, we have a mission to use Torah – understood in the broad sense of the term as all of Jewish learning – to work toward the salvation of the world. It is a goal we may never fully attain, but as Rabbi Tarfon taught us nearly 2000 years ago, “we are not free to desist from it.” (Pirke Avot 2:21)


Orthodox Jews Often Mistreat Women Because They Misinterpret Jewish Tradition

Ever since I wrote my rabbinical thesis on The Expansion of Women’s Rights during the Period of the Mishnah, I have been aware of the extraordinary lengths the rabbis went to enhance the status of women in Jewish law. The Ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract provided economic security for the woman — unprecedented in human history — when the marriage ended through divorce or the husband’s death. It is hard to find a more significant advancement in women’s rights in legal history.

The Sages de facto eliminated the biblical procedure of Sotah ( the trial by ordeal for a suspected adulteress described in Number 5:11 ff) and the binding of a widow to her brother in-law by levirate marriage against her will (Deuteronomy 25:1-10).   Although only the man can divorce the woman – not the other way around – in traditional Jewish law, the rabbis instituted important procedures whereby if the man did not live up to the provisions of the Ketubah by, for example, changing jobs without her consent, or moving without her agreement from a big city to a small town or vice versa, she could take him to court and force him to divorce her and pay the face value of the contract.

The laws they promulgated and the biblical interpretations they offered make our Tannaitic Sages heroes in the advancement in women’s status. But the attempts to redress society’s inherent misogyny do not have to wait for the rabbis. The Bible itself repeatedly exalts the status of women and demonstrates her superiority to her male counterpart.

Over and over again it is the biblical woman who gets it and the man who is clueless. Eve has been maligned for generations for the so called fall of man, but really she is the heroine of the elevation of humanity. It was she not her husband who perceived that life in Eden-–while idyllic–was sterile and essentially without meaning. It was she who saw (Genesis 3:6) ונחמד העץ להשכיל the tree of knowledge was desirable as a source of wisdom; she took of its fruit and ate.

Other examples abound. Rebecca is a prime mover; Isaac is passive. Judah evolves from the man who sold his brother to the man who would not leave his other brother behind because of the tutelage of his daughter-in-law Tamar. Hannah is savvy and aware, but her husband Elkanah and Eli the high priest of Israel just don’t get it. Vashti, Esther, Ruth, Deborah, Yael…the list of female heroes goes on and on.

Moses is unquestionably the Bible’s most important figure, but he only becomes our liberator, lawgiver and leader because of the intervention of no fewer than six women: Shifrah, Puah, Miriam, Yocheved, Pharaoh’s daughter and Zipporah. Through their stories and commentaries the rabbis of the Midrash add luster to their roles. There are the wonderful midwives, whose actions rebut across the millennium, the cowardly Nazi war criminals who tried to excuse themselves by saying “I had no choice. I was just following orders.” Shifrah and Puah received orders too, from their boss, their king, the most powerful man in the world who was worshipped as a god. “When you help the Hebrew women give birth and you see it is a boy, kill it.” (Exodus 1:16) Shifrah and Puah teach us all that we must never just follow orders. We must interpose our conscience and our human ability to determine what is right and what is wrong before we follow any orders.

Moses’ mother Yocheved refuses to knuckle under to Pharaoh’s vile decree that every Hebrew baby boy be drowned in the Nile, and Miriam, his sister, watches and with perfect timing runs up to Pharaoh’s daughter when she finds the baby and offers to provide a nursemaid for him.

The rabbis of the Midrash enhance Miriam’s role. A Talmudic tale (B.Sotah 12A) teaches that Amram, Moses’ father, was the leader of the Hebrew laves at that time. In order to avoid the pain of Pharaoh’s cruel decree, Amram ordered all the Hebrew men to divorce their wives, but Miriam convinced her father not to give in to Egyptian oppression.

By all logic as a “good” daughter, loyal subject of her King and worshipper like the Egyptians of her father as a god, she would have simply tipped Moses’ basket over and drowned him. But she too answered to a higher authority. Pharaoh’s daughter is unnamed in the Bible, but the Sages call her, “Bityah”, “”the daughter of the Almighty.” (Leviticus Rabbah 1:3)

Finally there is a strange but interesting passage in Exodus 24-26 that tells of Zipporah circumcising their son after Moses had neglected to do so. It is a passage the rabbis could have interpreted any way they wish, but the rabbis (Shmot Rabbah 5:8) credit Zipporah with saving Moses life by her quick thinking and decisive action!

These and the many others like them are the stories we Reform Jews must tell if we want to be effective agents in the ongoing struggle for gender equality in Judaism and in our world.

 The task of our generation is twofold: 1. To interpret the Bible to all of those who will hear our voices and/or read our words to give women the enormous credit they are due but do not receive in traditional circles, and 2. to continue the forward progress in women’s rights begun by the Sages of the Mishnah until women and men are held in completely equal regard.

What Does “Created in God’s Image” Mean?

 As I recover I continue to seek inspiration and new insights in some of the essays I have previously posted. This piece presents my answer to one of the questions I am most frequently asked

   It certainly does not mean that we look like God. It means that of all the creatures on earth we have the most God-like powers. It means that we human beings are in charge of and responsible for life on this planet. It is an awesome responsibility with which God has entrusted us.

God charges us: (Genesis 1:28)

פרו ורבו ומלאו את הארץ וכבשה

ורדו בדגת הים ובעוף השמים

ובכל-חיה הרמשת על-הארץ

My rendering of this passage is: Be fruitful and multiply fill up the earth and take responsibility for it. And rule compassionately over the fish of the sea the birds of the air and all the living things that creep on the earth.”

My translation reflects the midrashic teaching (Bereshit Rabbah 8:11) that we human beings stand midway between God and all the other animals on earth. 

Like the animals we eat, drink, sleep, eliminate our waster, procreate and die. But in a godlike way, we have the power to think, analyze, communicate and shape our environment in a manner far beyond other creatures.

In Gates of Repentance’ afternoon service for Yom Kippur (p. 415) we find a magnificent liturgical expression of what it means to be created in the divine Image:

We were unlike other creatures.

Not for us the tiger’s claws,

the elephant’s thick hide,

or the crocodile’s scaly armor.

To the gazelle we were slow of foot,

To the lioness a weakling,

And the eagle thought us bound to earth.

But You gave us powers they could not comprehend:

a skillful hand,

a probing mind…

a soul aspiring to know and fulfill its destiny


Being created in the divine image means that we humans are the only creatures on earth who can mine ore from the side of a mountain, turn the ore into iron and the iron into steel and from that steel forge the most delicate of instruments with which to operate on a human brain or an open heart. But we are also the only creatures on earth that can go to that same mountain, mine the same ore turn it into iron and steel to make bombs and bullets whose only purpose is to kill or maim. Being created in God’s image means we have awesome, earth enhancing or earth shattering power.

God’s hope in creating us in the divine image is that we use our power to help create on this planet a more just, caring and compassionate society than exists today.

But we have free will!

We-–not God—will decide if we choose to do so or not.