What is "the Image of God"?

Dear seekers of shalom, Last year at this time -- the time of Shabbat B’reshit, the Torah portion in which the world and human beings are created -- I was visiting my daughter Shoshana and her family in Evanston, Illinois.

My granddaughter Yonit Slater was then eight years old. I said to Yonit,

“You know, according to the Torah this week, God created human beings in God’s Image. What do you think that means?”

Yonit: “What’s an image?

Arthur: “Ummmm, Like a photograph.”

Yonit: “That’s strange. God is invisible. How could there be a photograph of God?”


Y: “Maybe it’s more like God is in the image of human beings.”


Y: “Only it couldn’t be just one human being, it would have to be lots.”


Y: “And they are all different. Each one is different, like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. So you would have to fit all the pieces together.”


Y: “Then they would be a community, and a community is more like God.”

For me, this teaching is worthy of standing alongside two ancient midrashim about the Image.

One was from the ancient rabbis, living under the Roman Empire, who said: "When Caesar puts his image on a coin, all the coins come out identical. When the Holy One Who is beyond all rulers puts the Divine Image on the 'coins' of human beings – each of the coins come out unique." {Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 38a (Soncino transl., p. 240]

Already this is a teaching about the irreducible dignity and worth of every human being, and how limited is the power of Caesar – of governmental authority -- even when it seems most tyrannical, most absolute.

And in this light, I honor a new understanding of what many have thought a puzzling teaching by Rabbi Jesus, reported in the Gospels:

Some of his more conventional colleagues who were troubled by his radical vision demanded whether Jesus thought the people should pay taxes with a Roman coin. When he asked, "Whose image is on this coin?" his accosters answered, "Caesar's!" According to the written story, he responded – "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's!"

Puzzling? Yes, until you set this in the milieu of the rabbinic teaching I have just reported, which Rabbi Jesus certainly would have known.

What the story does not mention -- but may well have happened, it might have been too radical to report -- is that he may have put his arm on the shoulder of his questioner and said, "And whose Image is on this coin?"

When they realized he was reminding them that God's Image was on them and of course on every human being, that they and all the people should give their whole selves to God and only dross to Caesar, they went away to think again. Perhaps we too should think and feel more deeply about the limits on our responsibilities to Caesar. Or Pharaoh. Or any Prime Minister or President or Congress or Knesset or Supreme Ayatollah.

Is it chutzpadik of me, or simply the family pleasure of kvelling, to set Yonit's teaching of the jigsaw puzzle alongside the Rabbis (including Rabbi Jesus)? I think Yonit intuited their point about the uniqueness of every individual –- and then took one more step. They had celebrated the human individual vs. Caesar. She is pointing toward the necessity of connecting those individuals in community; the Divine Image is not truly fulfilled by all those unique Images until they fit together.

Put the Talmud, the Gospels, and the wisdom of an eight-year-old Yonit side by side. They intertwine. The sacred individual, the sacred community, sacred resistance to the tyranny of a Caesar. We think again about God, the Image, the community, the jigsaw puzzle of humanity and earth.

For a further discussion of the "Image" teaching and other aspects of the Creation story, please click to other essays in

Shalom, salaam, shantih -- Peace!
-- Arthur

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