God's Image, Caesar's Image, & the Jigsaw Puzzle of Humanity


Four years ago this weekend  -- the weekend when Jews read the story of the Creation --  I was visiting my daughter Shoshana and her family in 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: “There could be photographs of human beings So 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: “But we are all different. Each one of us is different. And God couldn't be in the image of just one of us. So ---

Long silence.


Y:  Maybe we're different from each other like the pieces in my jigsaw puzzle!  So you would have to fit all the pieces together.”


Y: “And if you fit us all together, we would be a community, and a community is more like God!”


Arthur: (Silently): [Wow! Maybe I should resign from the midrash business!]


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]

Whose Image is on Our Money?

Personally, do we use our own money in life-giving ways? Politically, does American society channel its abundance for justice and compassion?

According to Biblical tradition, human beings were created in God’s Image.

According to the ancient Rabbis, “When Caesar puts his image on the coinage, all the coins come out identical. When the Holy One Who is beyond all rulers puts that Sacred Image on a ‘coin,’ all the coins come out unique.”

Why is Colorado Burning?

The last few days of July will bring together times and events that share grief and mourning for the destruction of Holy Temples.

One is the Jewish holy day called Tisha B’Av that laments the destruction (twice) of the ancient Holy Temples in Jerusalem.

The other is a protest action in Washington DC called “Stop the Frack Attack.” The Washington action will lament and resist the destruction of Earth, the universal Temple of all Humanity and all life-forms on this planet. Now.

About the title of this piece – “WHY is Colorado burning?”

We know why the ancient Temples burned: At the obvious and material level, they were burned by Imperial armies bent on conquest – one by the Babylonian Empire, one by the Roman Empire. At a deeper level, the Rabbis taught that spiritual failings within the Jewish community itself -- idolatry and senseless hatred -- brought on the disasters.

As with many events in the world where Earth and human earthlings intertwine, it is hard to pin a specific disaster on a specific human action. But when Colorado, and Texas, and Russia, and central Africa, and Australia all experience unprecedented droughts and fires in a few years’ span, and when those burnings (and also unprecedented floods in Pakistan and Vermont) fit perfectly into the scientists’ predictions of the effects of global scorching– then we would be wise to connect the dots.

Burning fossil fuel burns our planet. Today the role of Imperial Babylon and Imperial Rome is played by Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Gas. And for us too, internal spiritual failings contribute to their power  -- greed, idolatry of the Automobile and other destructive luxuries,  contempt for the non-human life-forms of our planet, cynicism and sloth in the face of the Imperial Corporation.

This month, the connection between Tisha B’Av and Stop the Frack Attack in both dates and deep meaning  (accidental? Providential?) is calling us to enrich the connection even more, through prayerful action.

From Thursday, July 26, through Saturday, July 28, thousands of people will gather in Washington DC, for various aspects of “Stop the Frack Attack.” Click here for full information.

After many local, state, and regional actions against fracking, this will be the first national action. The Shalom Center is one of many co-sponsors.

Highlights: Thursday, Lobbying; Friday: Training in various forms of effective social action, followed by a strategy discussion and “town meeting”; Saturday, at US Capitol: multireligious service followed by rally and then march to Big Gas corporate HQ.

I want to call special attention to the multireligious service that will be held at the Capitol at 1:30 Saturday afternoon. Tisha B’Av this year begins that very night  –  from Saturday night into Sunday, July 29.

The service at the Capitol will draw on and go beyond Tisha B’Av. In Jewish tradition, besides lamenting  the destruction,, the day also bespeaks hope that from this disaster will emerge the great transformative coming of the days of peace and justice.

The “Stop the Frack Attack” multireligious service on July 28 is being organized by The Shalom Center and Interfaith Moral Action on Climate. It will lament the danger we face today of destruction of the Holy Temple of the Earth itself.

Among religious leaders taking part in the service will be Rev. Bob Edgar, former head of the National Council of Churches, now head of Common Cause; Rev. Richard Cizik,  co-founder of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. Others have been invited from the Jewish, Catholic,  Muslim, and Buddhist communities.

What is fracking, and why is it a danger?

“Hydro-fracturing” (hence “fracking”)  is the process of forcing tons of chemicalized water under very high pressure

The 21st Century: In God's earthquake, Domination—or Community?

[When I first began working on this essay, the word “earthquake” had not yet been swallowed up by the catastrophe in Haiti, and I could use the word to mean the combination of religious, political, sexual, ecological, and economic changes -- often labeled Modernity -- that have upended the kinds of societies that had shaped our world for the last two thousand years.

Two intertwined drushas: Eden & Shmita

[These two drushas (commentaries/ interpretations of Torah) are by Rabbi David Seidenberg of Neohassid.org and Rabbi Arthur Waskow of The Shalom Center.]

First, by Rabbi David Seidenberg:

 In Genesis 3:8, God is described as "mit'halekh bagan" -- hyperliterally, "They heard God's voice walking himself in the garden (of Eden)", or more idiomatically, "They heard the sound of God walking about in the garden".

Turn the barren place to Eden: The Earth gives birth to the Human Race

In a generation when human intervention is deeply wounding the web of life on Earth and with it the patterns of human community and prosperity, we may see a new facet of the story of Eden, the Garden of Delight.

The story begins by pointing us toward the close relationship between the human race and the Earth:

"And YHWH [the Name of God that can only be pronounced by breathing with no vowels, thus "Yahhh, Breath of Life"] formed the adam [human earthling] from the adamah [humus-earth] and blew into his nostrils the breath of life; and the human-earthling became a living being." (Genesis 2: 7)

I have inserted these odd translations of adam and adamah in order to heighten in English the interrelationship that Torah -- indeed, the Hebrew language itself – teaches so simply. Indeed we do have in English the word "earthling" to mean "human being" and the word "humus" to mean a kind of earth, but each of them is a highly specialized word.

What "adam" and "adamah" teach is deeply different from what the word "environment" we use so often nowadays teaches. The "environment" is in the "environs" -- out there, separate from us. The very words "adam" and "adamah" are intertwined, and they should teach us not only about language but about the reality that language tries to word.

And as if the bare words might still not be enough to teach us, the Torah then explicitly says that we were deeply intertwined at the earthy birthing of the human race.

9/11 and Rosh Hashanah: Reconciling Abraham's Families, Celebrating American Diversity

Dear friends,

Before I share with you some thoughts about the intersection this year of 9/11 and Rosh Hashanah, I want to remind you: I am one of four rabbis who will be leading Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur retreats at Elat Chayyim/ Isabella Freedman, the lovely spiritual center in Connecticut.

The Shalom Center co-sponsors those retreats, and our community is entitled to 20% reductions in the cost of room & board. Just enter SCRH10 as the discount code when you register here.

This year especially, I urge us to plan to include in Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur Torah readings the passage on reconciliation of the two families of Abraham -- Gen. 25: 7-11, when Ishmael & Isaac come together to bury their father and then after long estrangement decide to live together at Ishmael's wellspring. This reading could then open up a discussion of what it means about our intimate families and our larger family, in this generation when the children of Abraham through Hagar & Ishmael and the children of Abraham through Sarah and Isaac are so often at each other’s throats.

Here's why to do this especially this year:

This year, the ninth anniversary of 9/11 falls on Shabbat Shuvah, just after the second day of Rosh Hashanah. The day will be used for a demonstration in New York City denouncing Park51/ Cordoba House (the Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan) by several right-wing political figures, including Geert Wilders, an ultra-right-wing Dutch politician who is on trial there for anti-Muslim hate speech.

They will be trying to inflame hatred of all Islam, including the peace-seeking Sufis of Park51/ Cordoba House, as if all Muslims were responsible for the 9/11 mass murders.

It seems to me that one of the factors (not the only one) in the wave of opposition to Park51 from many conservative, Tea Party, and other right-wing politicians is the hope of using it as a wedge issue to split voting constituencies and communities that generally vote progressive. The obvious target here is the American Jewish community, and it behooves us to take great care not to let anti-Muslim bigotry sweep away the Jewish voting community.

Of course different Jews have many issues to consider, and many different perspectives from which to do so, in choosing whom to support in the November elections and beyond — our varied economic views, our varied outlooks on US foreign policy, our concern about terrorism, our concern for religious freedom and civil liberties. But hatred of Islam, as if all Muslims and their religion were our enemy, should not be one of them. And given the attempts to inflame Jews to feel this way, we need to take special care to oppose such abuses.

How then can we address this question, especially in the light of the confluence of 9/11 and Rosh Hashanah?

High Holy Days: Does the Earth really matter?

Rosh Hashanah is traditionally understood as the anniversary of the creation of Adam from Adamah --- the Hebrew that might most accurately, though clumsily, be translated into English as "Human Earthling" born  from "Earthy Humus." (The intertwining of these words is far closer to the truth of the relationship than the word "environment," which means something "out there" -- in the environs.) 
So, to traditional Torah readings for the day we might add Genesis 2: 7:  "And YHWH [the Name of God that can only be pronounced by breathing with no vowels, thus "Yahhh, Breath of Life"] formed the earthy-human from the humus-earth and blew into his nostrils the breath of life;  and the human-earthling became a living being."

Notice that in moving from earthiness to humanness, the human loses the "ah" – a breath-sound – at the end of Adamah, and takes on the more conscious independent breathing received from God.
 This replicates the process of birth in which at first the fetus has an unconscious gift of breath from Mother through the placenta; loses this breath as s/he is born; and regains a separate, more conscious breath by, usually, being gently tapped by an adult.  
 This reading would then lend itself to exploration of the relationship between "adam" and "adamah" today – especially since the story of Eden (which follows) is about alienation from the earth resulting from a greedy attempt by the human to gobble up all earth's abundance, without self-restraint.
 There is a way to echo and enhance this passage on Yom Kippur.

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?”


Jesus, the Rabbis, and the Image on a Coin

One of the best-known, and most puzzling, stories of Jesus’ life is the tale of an encounter concerning the image on a coin.

The story appears in Matthew 22: 15-22, Mark 12: 13-17, and Luke 20: 19-26. It is almost the same in all three places.

According to the story, some of Jesus’ opponents among the Pharisees sent people to trick Jesus into saying something that would provide a pretext for his arrest.


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