The Relevance of History

Bereishit By :  Jonathan Milgram Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics Posted On Oct 1, 2010 / 5771 | Main Commentary

This week we begin, once again, the cycle of the yearly Torah reading. Although the book of Genesis is exceedingly familiar to us, there is not a year that goes by when most of us are not struck by one aspect or another of the text, as if reading it for the very first time. It is the universal and profound message of Genesis that enables us to look at the parashah, year after year, and find in it something new, fresh, and even inspirational. One of the central themes of the reading, Bereishit, is that God created humankind in God’s own image.

This column will focus on the idea of the divine image in humankind and its theological significance, drawing on the treatment of the subject by the late Professor Nahum Sarna in his popular commentary to Genesis (JPS, 1990). I will highlight Sarna’s presentation specifically because, in reading it, we get a feel for his essential religious impulse, which draws inspiration from the timeless text of Genesis, and because he buttresses his readings with significant comparisons to the literature and culture of the ancient Near East. In so doing, Sarna shows to what degree ancient Israel’s contribution to the history of humankind can be better appreciated by applying the methods of classical Wissenschaft des Judenthums (scientific study of Judaism). Genesis 1:26 states, “And God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness‘ [be-tzalmeinu ki-demuteinu].” Engaging in the comparative approach, Sarna explains the context of the terms used and shows to what degree ancient Israel was distinct from other ancient peoples:

The words used here to convey these ideas can be better understood in the light of a phenomenon registered in both Mesopotamia and Egypt, whereby the ruling monarch is described as “the image” or “the likeness” of a god . . . Without doubt, the terminology employed in Genesis 2:26 is derived from regal vocabulary, which serves to elevate the king above the ordinary run of men. In the Bible this idea has become democratized. All human beings are created “in the image of God”; each person bears the stamp of royalty (12).

Sarna points to the theological import of the difference between Genesis and ancient Near Eastern sources. Unlike her neighbors, ancient Israel viewed each person as bearing the stamp of the divine. From here we derive an enlightening and fundamental theological principle: since all humans are created in the image of God, all humans are equal. In light of Sarna’s use of the scientific study of Bible in his popular commentary, it is surprising that his son, Professor Jonathan Sarna, in a recent article entitled “Goodbye Wissenschaft, Hello Relevance” (The Jewish Daily Forward, June 4, 2010), invokes his father’s legacy of teaching and scholarship at The Jewish Theological Seminary during the 1950s to imply that the senior Sarna saw a polarity between Wissenschaft and relevance:

Dad had been asked to teach the school’s [JTS’s] traditional course on the Book of Psalms. Looking through past syllabi, he came up with a new idea that he proposed to his senior colleagues at a faculty meeting. “How about revamping the class so that we teach those psalms that appear in the Siddur,” he suggested. “That will make the class more relevant to rabbinical students. Down the road, they will be able to use what we teach them to instruct their own congregants in the meaning of the prayers.” The members of the faculty, my father reported, were aghast. The very idea that the content of JTS courses should be influenced by what might be relevant to rabbis greatly troubled them. Besides, a senior faculty member pointed out, “We have taught the course this way since Schechter’s day.” Evoking the name of Solomon Schechter, the legendary scholar who reshaped and reorganized the seminary during his tenure as its president from 1902 to 1915, effectively ended the discussion. Dad’s proposal was tabled.

A careful reading of the story shows that Nahum Sarna’s innovative idea at that faculty meeting so many decades ago was not to change the methodology of the course, but rather to change the content. Accordingly, the story teaches the opposite of what the author writes. Teaching the Psalms from the liturgy would have given the professor the opportunity to teach psalms in light of ancient Near Eastern literature and culture. It would have given him the opportunity to have his critical methods and their theological significance eventually reach the masses of Jews to whom the students, later as pulpit rabbis, would preach.

This story does not teach that Nahum Sarna believed in a polarity between Wissenschaft and relevance; rather, it teaches that he believed that Wissenschaft was relevant. Nahum Sarna clearly understood that historical context yields meaning and that meaning plus educational outreach equals relevance. In identifying the context and therefore the theological import of “in our image, after our likeness,” Nahum Sarna showed us, yet again, the relevance of Wissenschaft for our time. Without a critical methodology, we would not fully appreciate ancient Israel’s contribution: as opposed to other gods, the God of Israel crowned all of humankind. With all of us being created in God’s image, all of us equally represent the image of the divine on earth.

The rabbis of the Mishnah saw the concept of equality affirmed by the common ancestry of all humankind (a point also noted by Sarna). Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 teaches that, in Genesis, all humans come from the same parents, “for the sake of peace among humans, that none should be able to say to his fellow, ‘My parent was greater than your parent.'” How much more relevant a lesson do we need to learn than that?