Torah Study > Chapter 2: B'Tzelem Elohim

Each individual, through the myths and visions of the society in which he or she lives, constructs an essential “philosophy of self.” We each build a belief about who we are, why we are here, and what dreams are within our grasp. This philosophy structures our sense of worth, guides the direction of our life’s journey and motivates our daily behavior. These myths and visions are no small matter. Understand that by “myth” we do not mean a folktale, a story about the gods, or something that isn’t true. Rather, we mean the founding narrative or cluster of narratives that—factual or not—justify a people’s existence to itself. For America, that would include the story of Columbus, 1776, the Civil War, and the Great Society. In this section we will explore one of the basic concepts in Jewish thought that has shaped the way that human beings, including Jews, construct their own sense of value and worth—the notion that people were created in the image of God, b’tzelem Elohim. The framing exercise and four texts presented below explore the obligations and rights of self.

TEXT 1: In the Image of God (Genesis, Ch. 1) introduces a powerful idea which becomes a prime touchstone for the Jewish ethical tradition.

TEXT 2: Beloved is Humanity (Mishna, Avot 3:14) develops the idea of b’tzelem
Elohim
and points us beyond a theoretical understanding towards behavioral
acknowledgment of the precept.

TEXT 3: Torah in a Sound-bite (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 30b) explores the importance of b’tzelem Elohim and introduces debate over whether this idea merits centrality in our ethical thinking.

TEXT 4: Walking in God’s Ways (Babylonian Talmud, Sota 14a) examines a rabbinic understanding of what it means to live according to b’tzelem Elohim.


Think about your own creation story and that of your family.

> Tell the story of your own birth.
> Tell a story about your family history.
> What values do you learn about yourself and your family from these stories?

Take some time to reflect on the narratives and ideas which inform your own
sense of self.

> What are the values and principles that define who you are?
> Where do these values come from?
> With whom do you share these values?
> In what ways do these values shape your behavior on a daily basis?

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Hillel

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