Emanuel Synagogue

The Image of God - Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio


This week we read parashat Yitro. It contains the first of two expositions in the Torah, of the ten commandments. These are some of the most well known and often quoted mitzvot in the Torah and at the same time, they are deep, complex teachings which go beyond the surface reading we too often apply to them. This Shabbat I would like to consider a part of the second commandment which calls on us to refrain from creating images of God. It reads:

“You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or the earth below or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:4)

Usually we consider this commandment in the plain reading of the text: that we should not create statues or idols and worship them. From this teaching comes the prohibition of placing any photographs, pictures or likeness of a person or animal in our sanctuary spaces. The places where we pray are free of such images to ensure that we do not accidentally worship or pray in the direction of the images, giving the impression we are praying to something other than God.

The commandment is then further extended to include images of God. It prohibits us from attempting to form any likeness or physical representation of God. Yet, even though we have the clear reading of this commandment, throughout history, we have crafted our own images of God. Too often God is perceived by our imaginings and our texts as an older male, usually white, perhaps with a beard and a lightning rod with which He strikes down those who disobey the commandments. This rendering of God has resulted in many turning away from belief or any connection with the Divine. Those who see themselves in a particular vision of God can perhaps more easily form a connection and link, an understanding of God and the reverse, those who do not see themselves are distanced and separated from God. Holiness and divinity are then “other” “separate” and there is less opportunity to create a connection and relationship.

Even more disturbing, is that rendering God as a particular gender and race has led to discrimination and oppression. Images are powerful and have the ability to shape reality and create circumstance. Once we imagine it, it can become reality. And when we consider one image is the true and only reflection of God, then the logical inference is that holiness rests exclusively in those who appear the same. Throughout history we have seen the tragic consequences of such an understanding.

So the Torah, in prohibiting a physical rendering of God in any form was cautioning against the suggestion that holiness is exclusive to any one group or sub group. Human beings, according to the Torah, are created in the Divine Image; it is not one small sub-set of human beings, it is all of us. And if we can erase the images we have of God and free our imaginations, we can see the holiness in all people, find the Divine in ourselves and in all those we encounter, and create a world where there is true love of God and all humanity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio


Emanuel Synagogue
7 Ocean Street
Woollahra, NSW 2025

Contact Us

p: 02 9389 6444

e: info@emanuel.org.au

Shabbat Times

Parashat Beshalach
Shabbat, January 30, 2021
17th of Sh’vat, 5781

Candle Lighting
Friday, January 29 2021  7:44PM

Motzei Shabbat 8:20PM

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