Editor’s Note: The following sermon was delivered by Rabbi Lamm on October 15, 1960. What’s truly astonishing is how relevant his remarks remain more than 52 years later; indeed, had we not just noted the date on which the speech originally was given, readers likely would have assumed it to be of very recent vintage.
This and 34 other lectures and speeches given by Rabbi Lamm between 1952 and 1976, while he served as a congregational rabbi in New York and Massachusetts, appear in a new anthology, “Drashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages,” published by Maggid, a division of Koren.
The concept of man’s creation betzelem Elokim, in the image of God, is one of the most sublime ideas that man possesses, and is decisive in the Jewish concept of man.
What does it mean when we say that man was created in the image of God?
Varying interpretations have been offered, each reflecting the general ideological orientation of the interpreter.
The philosophers of Judaism, the fathers of our rationalist tradition, maintain that the image of God is expressed, in man, by his intellect.
Thus, Saadia Gaon and Maimonides maintain that sechel, reason, which separates man from animal, is the element of uniqueness that is in essence a divine quality. The intellectual function is thus what characterizes man as tzelem Elokim.
However, the ethical tradition of Judaism does not agree with that interpretation.
Thus, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, in his Mesilat Yesharim, does not accept reason as the essence of the divine image. A man can, by exercise of his intellect, know what is good but fail to act upon it. Also, the restriction of tzelem Elokim to reason means that only geniuses can truly qualify as being created in the image of God.
Hence, Luzzatto offers an alternative and perhaps more profound definition. The tzelem Elokim in which man was created is that of ratzon – the freedom of will. The fact that man has a choice between good and evil, between right and wrong, between obedience and disobedience to God, is what expresses the image of God in which he was born. An animal has no freedom to act; a man does. That ethical freedom makes man unique in the creation.
But how does the freedom of the human will express itself? A man does not assert his freedom by merely saying “yes” to all that is presented to him. Each of us finds himself born into a society which is far from perfect. We are all born with a set of animal drives, instincts, and intuitions. If we merely nod our heads in assent to all those forces which seem more powerful than us, then we are merely being passive, plastic, and devoid of personality. We are then not being free, and we are not executing our divine right of choice.
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Freedom, the image of God, is expressed in the word “no.” When we negate that which is indecent, evil, ungodly; when we have the courage, the power, and the might to rise and announce with resolve that we shall not submit to the pressures to conform to that which is cheap, that which is evil, that which is indecent and immoral – then we are being free men and responding to the inner divine image in which we are created.
The late Rabbi Aaron Levine, the renowned Reszher Rav, interpreted, in this manner, the famous verse from Ecclesiastes (3:19) which we recite every morning as part of our preliminary prayers. Solomon tells us, “Umotar haadam min habehema ayin,” which is usually translated as “And the preeminence of man over beast is naught.”
Rabbi Levine, however, prefers to give the verse an interpretation other than the pessimistic, gloomy apparent meaning. He says: “And the preeminence of man over beast is ayin, ‘no.’ ”
What is it that gives man his distinction? What is it that makes man different from the rest of creation, superior to the rest of the natural world? It is his capacity to say ayin, his capacity to face the world and announce that he will not submit to it, that he will accept the challenge and respond “no.”