Thursday, January 19, 2006

Creation as Religion: Man in the Image of God

א בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ.
1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
Genesis 1:1

What is creation?

It is difficult to understand the beginning of the world. A place in which deep darkness existed, earth in its unborn state, a void. And then comes the phantasm, the spirit of God that hovers over the waters, lapping waters that compose melodies of splendor and beauty to Him, raging waters that take the earth as their domain. It is then that a voice comes into being, a voice that commands the earth, and it is this voice that forms our world.

Our world was not the first that He created, indeed, He had labored long over many. These were beautiful realms, exquisite and astonishing, formed in all the colors and hues of the spectrum. But these worlds were destroyed. (Medrish Rabbah to Genesis 3:9) And here it is that we remain, Jews living within our world, wondering at times, wondering of our purpose and our mission. Why are we here? What truly do we have to add? What is our purpose?

There are many who attempt to answer this question. Our purpose, some will say, is to follow God's commands in their entirety and to strive to be better people. While this is true, it is not, perhaps, our ultimate purpose.

Our purpose is to create- to be what we were intended to be, not simply, as Ayn Rand would put it "second-handers" but Creators.

This will be accomplished in a way different from that of God, the ultimate Creator. God is unique in that what He accomplishes is yeish me'ayin, something from nothing, while we create something from something, i.e. using the materials and creations that are already at our disposal.

Interestingly, this very distinction between us- man and God- plays a very important role in terms of our religious beliefs, specifically the Sabbath.

    Kabbalistic writings offer an alternative understanding of creation as "yeish mei'ayin," something from the Ein Sof, finite emerging from the Infinite. Consider the problem mathematically: Any value added to infinity necessarily yields a sum which is infinite. When God, who is infinite, creates a finite value- i.e., the world- the sum total of reality should remain infinite. How can finite be added to infinite? The Kabbalistic response to this question is a term known as "tzimtzum"- contraction. Creation is not the result of God adding something finite; rather, He "holds back" infinity, as it were.

    We may now see Creation, and therefore Shabbat, from a different perspective. On the first day, God holds back infinity; likewise on the second through sixth days. Finally, at the end of the sixth day, the world is complete and God rests. In other words, God reverts back to a noncontraction mode, back to infinity. Shabbat is therefore the day which represents infinity, the one day which relates to and reflects God on His terms, not via the tzimtzum....

    Let us return to the laws of Shabbat, which are derived from the melachot of the Mishkan. Creativity is manifest when an object is improved in some way, but this type of work is fundamentally different from the work which God performed in Creation. God's work was "something from nothing," while our work is "something from something." Being that we are finite beings, our creation is necessarily different from God's. While God "held back" in order to create, man goes forward; while God goes into His "infinite mode" on Shabbat, transcending the tzimtzum He employed in creating the world, man must hold back his creative energies. What we have described is an inverse relationship, due to the fundamental difference between man and God.

    One may describe the relationship in the following terms: Man is said to be in the image of God. We are, in fact, the mirror image of God. We are opposites. Therefore, on Shabbat we "hold back" while trying to be like God in the only way we can- by imitating the means of God's creation, tzimtzum. Perhaps that is what we mean when we describe our rest on Shabbat as a "commemoration of the act of Creation": We do on Shabbat what God did in Creation....

    My rebbe, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt"l, explained these concepts as follows: For Jews, philosophical understanding leads to moral imperative. The Jew must emulate God and practice tzimtzum in various relationships. This is the idea of gevurah (strength), as in the mishnah,

      Who is strong? The person who controls his evil inclination.
      (Avot 4:1)

    This idea arguably stands at the core of all Jewish ethics and marks a radical departure from the way man sees his responsibilities vis-a-vis his fellow man. It is noteworthy that the Torah begins with "Bereishit bara Elokim," the Name Elokim being associated with the mystical realm of gevurah. God practices "self-control" by limiting the infinite in the process of Creation. Therefore, we may view shabbat as a one-day adventure in self-control. Often we have to hold ourselves back from even the most mundane, arguably trivial activities, only because they are defined as creative activity, melachah. It is hoped that such self-control will spill over into the week, elevating all our actions and thoughts.

    Explorations, Parashat Vayakheil, Shabbat: Creation, Mishkan, and Infinity, pages 197-199, by Rabbi Ari D. Kahn

This is fascinating. God most hold himself back during the week while we mortals create "something from something," while we must hold back (and refrain from doing work) on the Sabbath, when God is at His infinite self.

But what is this creation of man?

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes:

    When man, the crowning glory of the cosmos, approaches the world, he finds his task at hand- the task of creation. He must stand on guard over the pure, clear existence, repair the defects in the cosmos, and replenish the "privation" in being. Man, the creature, is commanded to become a partner with the creator in the renewal of the cosmos; complete and ultimate creation- this is the deepest desire of the Jewish people.

This is man's task, indeed, it is the "deepest desire of the Jewish people." But how is it to be fulfilled? And what does it mean- when we create, what is it that we do? And what are we if we are vessels for creation?

    The dream of creation finds its resolution in the actualization of the principle of holiness.
    Creation means the realization of the ideal of holiness. The nothingness and naught, the privation and the void are rooted in the realm of the profane; the harmonious existence, the perfected being are grounded in the realm of the holy. If a man wishes to attain the rank of holiness, he must become a creator of worlds. If a man never creates, never brings into being anything new, anything original, then he cannot be holy unto his God. That passive type who is derelict in fulfilling his task of creation cannot become holy. Creation is the lowering of transcendence into the midst of our turbid, coarse, material world; and this lowering can take place only through the implementation of the ideal Halakhah in the core of reality (the realization of the Halakhah=contraction=holiness=creation.)

    But man himself symbolizes, on the one hand, the most perfect and complete type of existence, the image of God, and, on the other hand, the most terrible chaos and void to reign over creation. The contradiction that one finds in the macrocosm between ontic beauty and perfection and monstrous "nothingness" also appears in the microcosm- in man-for the latter incorporates within himself the most perfect creation and the most unimaginatble chaos and void, light and darknes, the abyss and the law, a coarse, turbid being and a clear, lucid existence, the beast and the image of God. All human thought has grappled with this strange dualism that is so pronounced in man and has sought to overcome it....

    Judaism declares that man stands at the crossroads and wonders about the path he shall take. Before him there is an awesome alternative- the image of God or the beast of prey, the crown of creation or the bogey of existence, the nobles of creatures or a degenerate creature, the image of the man of God or the profile of Nietzsche's "superman"- and it is up to man to decide and choose.....The most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself. It is this idea that Judaism introduced into the world.

    Ibid, pages 108-109

The purpose of our lives is to engage in self-creation.

We exist in order to create ourselves. We exist in order to choose, to decide whether we are those made in the image of God, or those who exist only based on the "will to power," where the strongest survives and religion is a mere crutch.

We exist- either as men or as beasts. It is up to us to determine who we are, who we will be, and what we may become.

Creation is the principle upon which we survive.

Creation is also a fundamental principle in religion due to the idea of repentance, in which man can erase his sins. This erasure, however, is not as important as the process, mainly the realization that one has done wrong, earnestly regrets it, and earnestly desires to change his ways. It is this process that reflects our ability to create ourselves.

    Repentance, according to the halakhic view, is an act of creation- self-creation. The severing of one's psychic identity with one's previous "I," and the creation of a new "I," possessor of a new consciousness, a new heart and spirit, different desires, longings, goals- this is the meaning of that repentance compounded of regret over the past and resolve for the future."

    Ibid, page 111

This is one of the most beautiful ideas I have ever come across. There are many who regard teshuva, repentance, as a sad process, a terribly disturbing idea, an admission of the fact that we have failed, that we have sinned, that we are in some ways evil. There are many who like to admonish others in this regard and tell them how wicked they are. The idea of self-creation, indeed, the very purpose for which man was created! allows us to see teshuvah as something positive. Instead of a negative process during which we feel hopeless, terrible people who fail miserably, we see in ourselves the ability to change, to create ourselves anew.

Indeed, as Rabbi Soloveitchik writes:

    Here there comes to the fore the primary difference between the concept of repentance in Halakhah and the concept of repentance held by homo religiosus. The latter views repentance only from the perspective of atonement, only as a guard against punishment, as an empty regret which does not create anything, does not bring into being anything new. A deep melancholy affects his spirit. He mourns for the yesterdays that are irretrievably past, the times that have long since sunk into the abyss of oblivion, the deeds that have vanished like shadows, facts that he will never be able to change. Therefore, for homo religiosus, repentance is a wholly miraculous phenomenon made possible by the endless grace of the Almighty.

    But such is not the case with halakhic man! Halakhic man does not indulge in weeping and despair, does not lacertae his flesh or flail away at himself. He does not afflict himself with penitential rites and forgoes all mortification of body and soul. Halakhic man is engaged in self-creation, in creating a new "I." He does not regret an irretrievably lost past but a past still in existence, one that stretches into and interpenetrates with the present and the future. He does not fight the shadows of a dead past, nor does he grapple with deeds that have faded away into the distance. Similarly, his resolve is not some vacuous decision made with regard to an obscure, distant future that has not yet arrived. Halakhic man is concerned with the image of the past that is alive and active in the center of his present tempestuous and clamorous life and with a pulsating throbbing future that has already been "created."

    Ibid, 113-114

Man has the ability to create, to pursue, to live for that which is good, the future, as opposed to losing himself in the sadness of the past. His entire life is made of his own efforts, the creation process of himself and his personality.

This does not mean this is easy. Indeed, the process of creation- being a creator- is one of the hardest tasks in the universe.

Look to Howard Roark (from The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, pages 710 onwards):

    Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. Their goals differed, burt they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed, and the response they received- hatred. The great creators- the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors- stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid. But they won.

    No creator was prompted by a desire to serve his brothers, for his brothers rejected the gift he offered and that gift destroyed the slothful routine of their lives. His truth was his only motive. His own truth, and his own work to achieve it in his own way. A symphony, a book, an engine, a philosophy, an airplane or a building- that as his goal and his life. Not those who heard, read, operated, beieved, flew or inhabited the thing he had created. The creation, not its users. The creation, not the benefits others derived from it. The creation which gave form to his truth. He held his truth above all things and against all men.

    His vision, his strength, his courage came from his own spirit. A man's spirit, however, is his self. That entity which is his consciousness. To think, to feel, to judge, to act are functions of the ego.
    The creators were not selfless. It is the whole secret of their power- that it was self-sufficient, self-motivated, self-generated. A first cause, a fount of energy, a life force, a Prime Mover. The creator served nothing and no one. He lived for himself. And only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement.
    Man cannot survive except through his mind. He comes on earth unarmed. His brain is his only weapon. Animals obtain food by force. Man has no claws, no fangs, no horns, no great strength of muscle. He must plant his food or hunt it. To plant, he needs a process of though. From this simplest necessity to the highest religious abstraction, from the wheel to the skyscraper, everything we are and everything we have comes from a single attribute of man- the function of the reasoning mind.

    But the mind is an attribute of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain. There is no such thing as a collective thought. An agreement reached by a group of men is only a compromise or an average drawn upon many individual thoughts. It is a secondary consequence. The primary act- the process of reason- must be performed by each man alone. We can divide a meal among many men. We cannot digest it in a collective stomach. No man can use his lungs to breathe for another man. No man can use his brain to think for another. All the functions of body and spirit are private. They cannot be shared or transferred.

    We inherit the products of the thought of other men. We inherit the wheel. We make a cart. the cart becomes an automobile. The automobile becomes an airplane. But all through the processs what we receive from others is only the end product of their thinking. The moving force is the creative facutly which takes this product as material, uses it and originates the next step. This creative faculty cannot be given or received, shared or borrowed. It belongs to single, individual men. That which it creates is the property of the creator. Men learn from one another. But all learning is only the exchange of material. No man can give another the capacity to think. Yet that capacity is our only means of survival.
    Nothing is given to man on earth. Everything he needs has to be produced. And here man faces his basic alternative: he can survive in only one of two ways- by the independant work of his own mind or as a parasite fed by the minds of others. The creator originates.

    The parasite borrows. The creator faces nature alone. The parasite faces nature through an intermediary.

    The creator's concern is the conquest of nature. The parasite's concern is the conquest of men.

    The creator lives for his work. He needs no other men. His primary goal is within himself. The parasite lives second-hand. He needs others. Others become his prime motive.

    The basic need of the creator is independance. The reasoning mind cannot work under any form of compulsion. It cannot be curbed, sacrificed or subordinated to any consideration whatsoever. It demands total independence in function and in motive. To a creator, all relations with men are secondary.

    The basic need of the second-hander is to secure his ties with men in order to be fed. He places relations first. He delcares that man exists in order to serve others. He preaches altruism.

    Altruism is the doctrine which demands that man live for others and place others above self.

    No man can live for another. He cannot share his spirit just as he cannot share his body. But the second-hander has used altruism as a weapon of exploitation and reversed the base of mankind's moral principles. Man have been taught every precept that destroys the creator. Man have been taught dependance as a virtue.

    The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves. The relationship produces nothing but mutual corruption. It is impossible in concept. The nearest approach to it in reality- the man who lives to serve others- is a slave. If physical slavery is repulsive, how much more repulsive is the concept of servility of the spirit? The conquered slave has a vestige of honor. He has the merit of having resisted and of considering his condition evil. But the man who enslaves himself voluntarily in the name of love is the basest of creatures. He degrades the dignity of man and he degrades the conception of love. But this is the essence of altruism.

In the world that Ayn Rand created, a world of stark contrasts, black vs. white, where each man has been created equal (there are no mentally handicapped or physically handicapped people there) this philosophy makes perfect sense. Each man is born with the ability to create, the ability to envision a different world, a world where man triumphs over nature, similar to the verse where Adam was given the earth to "subdue it." A man who enslaves himself to another is not a creator, he is a mere follower. A man who strives to break people, to make people serve him rather than his materials, who cares more about the opinion of others than his own opinion of himself- such a man is a second-hander, a user, a parasite. All creators must by necessity be leaders, different in their own way, diverse in their original patterns of thought. They are not loved, at least initially. In fact, they are hated.

Or, as Albert Einstein put it:

    "Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocre minds. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence."

Those of us who have been born with health, blessed with normal intelligence and intellectual curiousity, (and in my opinion, even those who have not been thus blessed, albeit in different ways) have a task, a duty, a purpose.It is creation.The joy of creation, the power man has to impact himself and his world, whether physically or spiritually. Self-creation in the form of repentance, or the skilled creation of an artisan, a craftsman. Thought, and the ability to think, precede creation.

Or, as we say in Lecha Dodi, 'Sof ma'aseh b'machshava techilah.' Last in deed, but first in thought.

We are all creators, each in our separate ways.

This is how we find meaning. It is through creation that we truly live.


Critically Observant Jew said...

Great post, as always. Thanks for the inspiration.

MUST Gum Addict said...

Chana, as always, your posts are amazing. I sincerely hope that you type like 80000 words a minute. Each post is like a complete thesis? Fess up -- you MUST have a team of writers compiling all of this! :)

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

This post is amazing.

for thought...

A quote from JRR Tolkien's Mythopoeia

The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned...
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, 'twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we're made.

In other words, God is the Creator, and God created us in God's image — and therefore we also create, even if it's only worlds of imagination in our heads...

Unknown said...

Great post, Chana, as always.

Now, how long did this take you to type - honestly? :)

Masmida said...

[moving it from duplicate post]

Gum Chewer- [laugh] I doubt it. I think Chana is far too scurpulous to ever think of putting her name on someone else's work.

comment begins:

I vehemently disagree with Ayn Rand's conception of the nature of man. To explain at length would be more than a comment could tolerate.

But sufficies to say...
Rav Solevetchik in Lonely Man of Faith describes two creations of man embedded inside the first two chapters of Genesis. Adam I, would will 'conquer the earth and subdue it' and Adam II to whom the earth is given 'to gaurd and work it'

Both are man, but Ayn Rand only recognizes Adam I.

To discribe man in terms of Adam I is to him a great disservice, for it denies him that essential loneliness and vunerablity which enables him to seek out his Creator.

Rav Solevetchik does it far more justice that I may.

Excellent post.

Anonymous said...

Masmida- I knew someone would bring that up! *laughs* See how carefully I modified it? In "Ayn Rand's world of black and white..." this concept works.

Must Gum- this reminds me of the conspiracy theory that J.K. Rowling is really a whole bunch of people because there's no way she could have become as famous as she is. So I'll take it as a compliment. I'm sure you're joking...and I type 100+ words a minute, thanks to my father.

Ezzie- I've been working on it for a while. Jameel can tell you- there have been drafts saved and so on...

Steg- thank you so very much. And thank you for taking the time to type out the quote. I love JRR Tolkien. :)

Anonymous said...

Oh, and gregory! Thank you, as always, for your kindness! :)

respondingtojblogs said...

Feel free to smack me over the head with my own ignorance, but I don't understand (at leadt) one point.

You said:
When God, who is infinite, creates a finite value- i.e., the world- the sum total of reality should remain infinite. How can finite be added to infinite? The Kabbalistic response to this question is a term known as "tzimtzum"- contraction. Creation is not the result of God adding something finite; rather, He "holds back" infinity, as it were.

on Shabbat we "hold back" while trying to be like God in the only way we can- by imitating the means of God's creation, tzimtzum.

Therefore, we may view shabbat as a one-day adventure in self-control. Often we have to hold ourselves back from even the most mundane, arguably trivial activities, only because they are defined as creative activity, melachah.

Why isn't retricting creative activty itself a creative act? Isn't that the essence of God's milakha in Creation?

respondingtojblogs said...

Why isn't retricting creative activty itself a creative act? Isn't that the essence of God's milakha in Creation?

Make that:

Why isn't a restrictive activity itself a creative act? Isn't that the essence of God's milakha in Creation?

dbs said...

More Rav, less Rand. Nice post – though just when I think that I know where you’re going, you seem to spin into another direction. Okay, now you (and the team) can go beat up responding…:)

Anonymous said...

Why isn't retricting creative activty itself a creative act? Isn't that the essence of God's milakha in Creation?

That's an excellent question, respondingtojblogs, and I'm not sure I'll fully satisfy you with my (attempted) explanation. *smile*

Tzimtzum, or God's contraction, is what allows us to act creatively during the week. Since God is holding back His creative potential, in this inverse relationship, we can create. On Shabbos, God "rests" from his Tzimtzum and allows himself to expand, as it were, while we in turn must hold ourselves back.

I think that what you said holds true for God- restricting His creative capacity is "work" but on the Shabbos, when He "expands," He is resting from his work. However, I don't think restricting our creative capacity could be considered work, because our work is defined as actively doing something, while restriction for us mortals is passive.

DBS- Have I surprised you? How? :) And why don't you like Ayn Rand? I really liked her works...Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and so on...but yeah, sure, me and my "team of writers" will go on confounding everybody- all of you people flatter me more than I deserve. :)

dbs said...

Yes, you do surprise me. I can usually figure out your flow of thought after I’ve finished reading your posts (which takes a while, since I think that I read more slowly than you type).

For example, here it is for this one (forgive the oversimplifications):

Question posed: What is man’s ultimate purpose?
Thesis presented: To create.
Question posed: What is Man’s version of creation?
Exploration: Not as God (yesh m’ayin & creation via tzimzum)
Side-point: Khan – emulation of tzimzum on shabbos.
Thesis: Soloveitchik – self creation.
Exposition: Soloveitchik - Creative process of repentance.
Exposition: Rand/Einstein - The struggle to create, the unpopularity of the creator.

It holds together, I just wouldn’t predict the next step in your process. (Also, I have two daughters about your age (17 & 18, in fact) who I think are brilliant and I’m pretty surprised by your Talmudic literacy).

It’s not Rand’s writing, it’s the philosophy that I take issue with. Strength, but not compassion, conviction but not understanding. (Even the quote that you used – tirades against altruism, against ‘parasites’, against communal responsibility). I understand the argument that we’ve all been duped into subordinating/enslaving ourselves to society – and I just reject it. Mankind must live together – that is the basic fact behind objective morality.

I don’t even think that Rand understands the motivation for creativity. I’m quite an accomplished inventor, and I’m very motivated to ‘serve my brothers’. Sure, entrepreneurs tend to be highly independent, but we are also highly market driven – we create what we find a need for in society, even if it will take time for the new invention to take hold.

Chana said...

I love your response, DBS! It's entertaining and insightful and thought-provoking and just clever. Huzzah!

Rand...well, I see her as creating rules that hold together for the worlds she creates- the black and white worlds where everybody has the same opportunities but doesn't respond in the same way. Her world, for me, is an allegory/ parable as opposed to an actual philosophy I could live by in my own world. However there are elements of it that are extremely true...Ellsworth's speech about how to conquer man, for instance, frightened me because of how true it was. But that is a story for another time...

I read her writing and filter it, taking what I can for my world, and leaving what I find to be cruel and biased. I believe there is much to learn from her, so long as I do not blindly accept all her prejudices against various virtues (charity and the like.) She also really makes me think- I really questioned the concept of charity for a while, until I understood the difference between the characters she provided and the people who live in my own world. As an allegory, 'Fountainhead' is uplfting, but as an actual philosophy 'Objectivism' is disturbing.

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