Can scientific theories of the world's creation be in the Image of God?

The biblical account of a purposeful creation and the transcendent idea that every person is created in the Image of God are not scientific descriptions, but moral stimuli.

A worker climbs a ladder beside Torah scrolls on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, U.S. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A worker climbs a ladder beside Torah scrolls on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, U.S.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Bible’s story of creation has been the nub of loud controversy in modern times: Can the opening chapters of Genesis be made consistent with the “Big Bang,” or other cosmological theories? Can the Bible’s account of the human being be squared with Darwinian evolution?
Such speculations never really interested me, since they wrongly assume that the Bible’s story of creation is a chronological account of the universe’s origins. Sophisticated readers understand that the Bible does not give us a scientific description of creation. More important are the ethical implications of Genesis – implications that can supply us with a moral framework from which to view our lives.
The Bible offers a striking account of the unique emergence of human beings. All the lower animals are created as species (Heb: l’menaiyhu), but Adam and Eve are created individually as individual persons. In the eyes of the Bible, animals are faceless collectives while each human person is singular, bearing the particular stamp of his/her own individuality.
The contemporary Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik observed that the human analogue to the creation of animals-as-species is the Image of God – Tzelem Elokim. Human beings are endowed with an exclusive divine quality in a way that lower animals are not. We mirror God, and just as God is unique, each one of us is radically distinct and different from even our closest relatives. Human diversity is thus a religious value that we should celebrate, while conformity only grinds down our own divine nature by denying God’s special metaphysical gift to each one of us. Soloveitchik also observed that the talmudic rabbis transformed the biblical concept of Image of God into the ethical value of kavod ha-beriyot (human dignity), and just as we owe God respect, so we must also extend respect and honor the dignity of every person.
In fact, the Bible does not explain the meaning of “Image of God,” but a straight literary textual reading would lead us to believe that Tzelem signifies both the ability and right to dominate the world: “Let us make humankind in our image and likeness; [so that] they shall rule over fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole Earth and all the creeping things that creep on Earth.” (Gen 1:26)
Medieval and modern rabbis resisted this power-laden interpretation. For the 12th century philosophical scholar Maimonides, Tzelem Elokim connoted human rationality: Just as God “knows,” only humans can conceive of truth, beauty and God. A bit later, Nachmanides taught that the Divine Image within each of us makes us only slightly lower than angels and is the source of human value and dignity. In modern times, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk understood Tzelem Elokim as human freedom that allows us to make choices to determine our lives, while some Hasidic leaders interpreted Tzelem to be the distinctive human ability to be moral because only we sense the ethical concepts of responsibility, goodness and justice.
PERHAPS THE most powerful and far-reaching application of this idea came from an unlikely source – Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Palestine and later Israel in the first half of the 20th century. Like most Western countries from 1917-1925, the Jews of the Yishuv were caught up in the fierce debate over women’s suffrage: Did women belong in the public sphere of politics, or should they be confined to the home? And if the former, what communal rights and status should they have?
Most traditionalists in Uziel’s time resisted the idea of women leaving the home and participating in the public sphere. Some tried to justify this exclusion from political activity by claiming that the Torah never included women in any of the numerous censuses counting the Jewish body-politic, nor did they function as rulers, judges or communal decision-makers. Uziel responded to this line of thinking with a stunningly simple argument: “Even if we concede that the Bible does not include women in the pubic community, are they not also created in the Divine Image and endowed with intelligence? Do they not have interests that will be effected by a representative government?”
On this basis, Rabbi Uziel insisted that women not only have the right to vote but also to hold public office. He understood that treating each person as a creature endowed with Tzelem Elokim means that each person has the right to speak for himself or herself and to defend his/her own interests. To exclude women by letting men speak for them is a paternalism that does not square with the demands of full human dignity. 
This application of Tzelem Elokim continues to challenge us today. Many traditional religious institutions still resist extending positions of religious authority and communal leadership to women, while also wrestling with what status in their communities people with different sexual orientations or unpopular views about Israel and Zionism should have.
The biblical account of a purposeful creation and the transcendent idea that every person is created in the Image of God are not scientific descriptions, but moral stimuli. Neither we nor our world are random accidents, and thoughtful Jews today do well to explore the full ethical implications of these noble ideas.
The writer resides in Jerusalem. He was formerly academic director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding in Israel and professor of Jewish philosophy in America.