Defining Divinity Down

Reviewed by Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz

Image of God: Halacha and Agada
by Yair Lorberbaum
Schocken, 2004, 544 pages, Hebrew.

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Jews have long believed that God is abstract, transcendent, and beyond human understanding. And yet, the Bible is rife with anthropomorphic images, ascribing to God both emotions (sadness, anger, regret, pity) and physical attributes (God’s “hand,” “finger,” and “outstretched arm”). Since the time of the Talmud, this contradiction has been resolved by interpreting such images as essentially metaphorical. In his new book, Image of God: Halacha and Agada, Yair Lorberbaum now seeks to refute this assumption, and to read the personification of God in the Bible literally.

Lorberbaum, a lecturer at Bar Ilan University’s law school and a fellow at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, focuses on the term “image of God” as it appears in the book of Genesis, in the account of Adam’s creation. In Lorberbaum’s view, the rabbinic interpretive tradition was infused with theological assumptions alien to those which would prevail later, beginning in the medieval period in Europe. In light of this, he suggests a new approach, whereby the rabbinic texts should be understood in terms of the attitudes that prevailed at the time they were written. This rethinking of how we ought to read the rabbinic tradition, Lorberbaum contends, offers a new understanding of the classical Jewish notion of the divine image in man.
Because Adam was created not only in God’s “image” but also in his “mold,” he is, according to Lorberbaum, in some sense a physical extension of his Creator. For this reason, contrary to the conventional reading, man is indeed capable of grasping the essence of God. This notion of man’s attachment to his own Creator, Lorberbaum writes, lies at the basis of rabbinic moral and legal teachings. Indeed, much of this book is devoted to a discussion of the halachic implications of being created in God’s image—how it affects, for example, the biblical imperative to procreate, or the way we are to treat prisoners on death row.
But Lorberbaum’s primary innovation is his treatment of the legendary literature, or agada, in which many of the sources dealing with the image of God are to be found. Concerning the relationship between halacha and agada, Lorberbaum employs a model borrowed from the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, who distinguishes laws from the principles that inspire them. Similarly, Lorberbaum argues that while Jewish law governs the minutiae of how one is to live, the homiletic literature creates a coherent moral and theological worldview that serves as our guide. For this reason, he writes, there is a “close connection in talmudic literature—at least as it deals with the image of God—between agada and halacha.” Not only is the agada important, but it also has claim to at least equal status in Jewish tradition with the law.

Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz is an associate fellow at the Shalem Center. His most recent essay in AZURE was “Foundations of a Jewish Economic Theory” (AZURE 18, Autumn 2004).

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