B’tzelem Elohim and Embodiment by Ivy Helman

studyIt is quite common, I think, for Jewish feminists to gravitate to the first creation story of Genesis/Bereshit as an example of human equality but struggle to claim this same passage as an example of the goodness of embodiment.  Genesis/Bereshit 1:27 reads, “So G-d created humankind in the divine image, in the image of G-d, the Holy One  created them; male and female G-d created them.”  In this passage, we have not only equality between men and women, in direct contrast to the second creation story, but also a description of human nature.

Our Creator made us in the divine image: b’tzelem Elohim.  The most traditional explanations of b’tzelem Elohim describe our divine-likeness to mean: our intelligence, our capacity for goodness, our creativity as well as our inner divine spark.  Most traditional teachings also understand this description as a prescription for action: since every single human being is made in the divine image, we must treat every single human being with respect, dignity, concern and so on. For example, Deuteronomy Rabbah 4 says, “A procession of angels pass before each person, and the heralds go before them singing, ‘Make way for the image of G-d.’”  The lesson here is that every person is made in the divine’s image no matter what.  Therefore, one must treat others with the respect, kindness and love they deserve.  This is foundational to the Torah and Jewish tradition.

While the creation of males and females at the same time creates a certain measure of equality among humans, so does b’tzelem Elohim.  Yet, it was clear for Jewish teachers that this is not equality as sameness per se.  The astute recognition of differences among humans focuses on physicality and draws little to no mention of b’tzelem elohim.  The most well-known teachings revolve around the classifications of six genders which can be found in a variety of Jewish sources.  In addition, the Babylonian Talmud offers two key teachings regarding honoring differences between humans.  First, Brachot 58a describes the bracha (blessing) one should say when walking past a group of Jews.  “Blessed is the One who discerns secrets, for their minds are not similar to each other, and their faces are not similar to each other.”

If one continues to 58b, there is another discussion on the appropriate blessings for differences between people.  Yet, they are divided between those born with a difference and those to whom the difference occurred later in life.  For the first group, the blessing should be, “Blessed are you who makes creatures different,” and for the latter, “Blessed are you, the True Judge.”  However, no Jewish teaching would be complete without at least one more opinion on the matter.  As I understand it, the third opinion argues that any distinction between born-with and later-acquired differences is incorrect.  Rather, one should always say “who makes creatures different,” since some of the after-birth differences can also come before birth and vice versa.

We must concede that in Rabbinic times, physical differences had easy explanations.  For example, most people thought that both physical and mental ailments, deformities and diseases were punishments for sin, either the person’s own sin or that of a family member.   Therefore, bodies were not b’tzelem Elohim since they were often the site of G-d’s judgment.  Because of this bodies were less valuable.

Yet, there is a stronger case from tradition to not include bodies in b’tzelem Elohim: the fear of idolatry.  Considerable effort was made by the Rabbis of the rabbinical period as well as later scholars to distance the divine image from anything physical.  The concern being that it is a slippery slope from bodies made in the likeness of G-d to the worship of bodies, physicality, etc. as G-d too.  This tradition however, unlike those around bodily suffering and differences, does not seem to suggest that bodies and physicality are valued any less.  Instead, the focus is the proper worship of G-d.wheelchair-1371832238Ryb

Here, we can see an interesting conundrum.  While tradition has much to say about b’tzelem Elohim and its moral imperative of respect and dignity toward human beings as images of G-d, when human bodies enter the equation, G-d as punisher and human failings account for differences.  Or, we are afraid we may begin to worship idols.

But, if we respected and dignified bodies, thereby valuing them more, we would understand that with bodies can come struggles.  Some people experience their bodies as painful.  This pain may be invisible.  Others may feel trapped in their bodies.  Some may want nothing more than for their bodies to go back to the way they used to be.  Others may dislike the way their bodies are aging or failing them while their mental capacities are intact.  Many struggle with mental illness.

Science has shown that these are not the results of divine wrath and sin.  Furthermore, if we are going to take the threat of idolatry seriously, then we also need to look had at the many idols society has created: money, power over, greed, etc.  Jewish tradition has inculcated a strong instinct to not worship physical representations of G-d.  I think we need trust that this aspect of idolatry is a non-issue, and perhaps focus more attention on more recent developments.

If we understood b’tzelem Elohim to include bodies, our current situation would change.  No longer would mental health be considered a non-issue.  Chronic illness would not be denied further treatment.  Buildings, methods of transportation and even homes would be accessible.  Research would work toward curing all diseases.  All bodies would be accepted, cared for, respected and loved.  No longer would anyone be relegated to the margins of society and treated as such.

Our bodies are important parts of our existence and should be acknowledged as such.   G-d didn’t just give us intelligence, creativity, goodness and divine sparks, G-d created physical bodies to house and practice these characteristics.  In a significant way then our bodies are part of the divine image.  The challenge is to figure out how to include the body more fully in b’tzelem Elohim.


Ivy Helman, Ph.D. is feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Ecofeminist courses.  She is an Associate of Merrimack College‘s Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations and spent many years there as an Adjunct Lecturer in the Religious and Theological Studies Department.


Author: Ivy Helman

Jewish feminist scholar, activist and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic.

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