Humanity was created in the "image" of the Creator
The "image" of the Creator is the ability to discern and reason
Humanity has an inclination to both good and evil
Free will is the ability to choose which inclination to follow
On the question of human nature, as in most areas of abstract
belief in Judaism, there is a lot of room for
personal opinion. There is no dogma on the subject, no required belief about
the nature of humanity. There are a variety of contrary opinions expressed on
the subject, and one is no less a Jew (and no less a good Jew) for disagreeing
with any or all of these opinions. Nevertheless, there are certain ideas that
seem to reflect the majority opinion in Jewish thought that are worth discussing.
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 G-d, because Judaism
steadfastly maintains that G-d is incorporeal and
has no physical appearance. Rambam points out
that the Hebrew words translated as "image" and "likeness" in Gen. 1:27 do not
refer to the physical form of a thing. The word for "image" in Gen. 1:27 is
"tzelem," which refers to the nature or essence of a thing, as in Psalm 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, Rambam
explains, is "to'ar," as in Gen. 39:6, "and Joseph was beautiful of form
(to'ar) and fair to look upon." Similarly, the word used for "likeness" is
"damut," which is used to indicate a simile, not identity of form. For example,
"He is like (damuno) a lion" in Ps. 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. Rambam 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. See Bar
The yetzer ra is more difficult to define, because there are many different
ideas about it. It is not a desire to do evil in the way we normally think of
it in Western society: a desire to cause senseless harm. Rather, it is usually
conceived as the selfish nature, the desire to satisfy personal needs (food,
shelter, sex, etc.) without regard for the moral consequences of fulfilling
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 responsible for the choices we make.
© Copyright 5756-5771 (1996-2011), Tracey R Rich
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