On the Purpose and Nature of Religious Language

On an internet forum, a person who defines himself as an atheist argued that without making metaphysical claims it can be argued that the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) is Divinely inspired reflecting the understanding of human beings of what they considered to be the Divine will.

 

Another in response argued that the notion of Divine inspiration is a metaphysical claim. He suggested that the notion that the Torah is sacred (in reflecting the understanding of human beings of what they considered to be Divine) is not metaphysical in nature – but, he argued that the notion of Divine inspiration is a metaphysical claim that is non-empirical and cannot be verified from an empirical (factual) point of view.

 

Seemingly, these 2 positions are contradictory – and, seemingly, only one of them can be accepted. However, in my view, this is not necessarily so.

 

I want to suggest that whether the notion of Divine inspiration (as well as the notion of Divine revelation) is indeed a metaphysical claim depends upon intention and the meaning that we give to the notion – and, it is possible to use the notion not in a metaphysical sense. By the way, the same is true of the term sacred – and, whether the term sacred is a metaphysical notion depends upon our intention, and the meaning that we give to the term. The notion of Divine inspiration can be used then not as a metaphysical or empirical notion at all – rather, it can be used in a poetic and symbolic sense.

 

The notion of Divine inspiration (and the notion of Divine revelation) depending upon intention may express a metaphysical claim describing the nature of the Torah – or, it may express our relationship (attitude) to the Torah (without claiming anything about the nature of the Torah). The same is true of the term sacred – and, the term sacred can be intended as a metaphysical claim about the nature of the Torah (that the Torah is Divine in some metaphysical sense), or it can be intended as an expression of our attitude to the Torah.

 

This raises a fundamental question concerning religious language – of why we might want to use religious language that may have poetic, symbolic significance even though we are expressing concepts and ideas that cannot be verified from an empirical and factual point of view. That is, what is the purpose of religious language if such language is only poetic and symbolic in nature?

 

Before responding to this question, I want to make clear that religious language intended to express metaphysical claims is very problematic from a philosophic point of view – and, from a historical point of view in light of the nature of our ancient heritage based upon the Bible and Talmudic tradition.

 

From a philosophic point of view –

 

If the claim that the Torah is Divinely inspired (or Divinely revealed, or sacred) is intended to be a metaphysical claim describing the nature of the Torah, then without question such a claim cannot be verified empirically. No empirical or factual evidence can be brought to bear on metaphysical questions dealing with matters beyond our world of sensory perception – such as whether God (as a Being or power transcending our sensory perception) exists from a metaphysical point of view, or whether the Torah is Divine in some metaphysical sense (Divinely revealed, Divinely inspired or sacred). Metaphysical questions are matters of speculation that cannot be answered (the answer to any metaphysical question is always maybe yes or maybe no given that no empirical or factual evidence can be brought to bear on such questions) – and, they are the equivalent of speaking about unicorns (maybe there is such a thing and maybe there isn’t).

 

Moreover, metaphysical matters are entirely abstract in nature divorced from our feelings and behavior. One can be convinced that God exists and is provident, and yet be depressed and despondent – and, conversely, one can be convinced that God doesn’t exist and is not provident, and yet be happy and joyful. Similarly, one can be convinced that God exists and is provident, and yet be a dishonest and wicked person from a moral point of view – and, conversely, one can be convinced that God doesn’t exist and is not provident, and yet be an honest and righteous person from a moral point of view.

 

From a historical point of view –

 

Both the Bible and the Talmudic tradition are pragmatic in nature concerned with our feelings, moral character traits and behavior – and, not concerned with theological and metaphysical matters. There is no binding theological dogma or set of theological beliefs that must be accepted in the Bible or in the Talmudic literature.

 

The Bible is completely absent of any systematic theology and metaphysical concerns. In the plain meaning of Scripture, there are no theological beliefs or propositions that must be accepted, no theological analysis and no theological arguments to prove the existence of God (or to prove the truth of other theological and metaphysical propositions, such as Divine providence or Divine revelation). By the way, God appears throughout the 5 Books of Moses as a character – just as Moses is a character. Nowhere in the Bible is there any discussion or analysis regarding the question as to whether Moses really existed as an actual, historical figure (and, in terms of academic scholarship there is no evidence external to the Bible indicating that there was such a figure). Such a historical question of whether Moses existed is not a religious concern of the Bible. Similarly, nowhere in the Bible is there any discussion or analysis regarding the question of whether God exists. Such a theological and metaphysical question of whether God exists, like the historical question of whether Moses existed, is simply not a religious concern of the Bible.

 

The Talmudic rabbis did not codify any formal, theological dogma or set of beliefs that must be accepted or affirmed from a legal point of view. The commandments of Torah as a basis of Jewish law, in the Talmudic tradition, are only of doing and not doing (mitzvot aseh and lo ta’aseh), and not of believing or not believing. The Talmudic tradition, faithful to the Bible, is almost completely absent of any theological and metaphysical concerns and there are no Talmudic discussions concerning such theological and metaphysical matters such as whether God exists or is provident, or whether the Torah is Divinely revealed (or Divinely inspired).

 

The two greatest Talmudic rabbis Hillel and Rabbi Akiva both formulated the essence of Judaism not as faith in God, and not as observance of law and ritual, but as universal, moral decency. As the essence of Judaism, Hillel pointed to the moral principle “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others” and Rabbi Akiva cited the Biblical verse (Leviticus 19, 18) “love your neighbor as yourself”. It is simply astounding to me that people whether of a religious or secular background do not notice how shocking their formulations are – their formulations of what it means to be religious are anti-theological and anti-metaphysical in omitting God. This is even more striking in the case of Rabbi Akiva because the continuation of the Biblical verse that he cites is “I am the Lord”. Rabbi Akiva quotes only the beginning of the verse “love your neighbor as yourself” in arguing that the essence of Judaism is universal, moral decency. Hillel does not even cite a verse from the Bible in arguing that the essence of Judaism is universal, moral decency simply on the basis of one’s own conscience and experience – “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others”.

 

The Purpose of Religious Language

 

Let’s return then to our question of the purpose of religious language if such language is only poetic and symbolic in nature?

 

In my view, there are 2 fundamental and pragmatic purposes of religious language –

 

  1. To enable us to have a religious experience –

 

Rebbe Nachman, the great Chasidic (mystical) teacher, instituted the practice of seclusion in which one pours out one’s heart or soul to God – as if conversing with a good friend. It is an unanswerable metaphysical question whether God truly exists – and, conceiving of God as a good friend is merely a poetic image and metaphor. In any case, whether God actually exists or not, the image of our conversing with God as a good friend enables us to have the psychological and spiritual experience of pouring out one’s heart or soul, which is without question very healthy psychologically and spiritually.

 

I once had a conversation with a Jewish woman who defined herself as an atheist. Although an atheist, she said that she devotes 5 minutes each day to a conversation with God, much like the practice of seclusion of Rebbe Nachman. She described this conversation as a fantasy, since she did not believe in the existence of God. I asked her why she should describe such an experience as a fantasy, which is a very negative way (the cup half empty) of describing her experience. I suggested that her experience can be described in a more positive way (a cup half full) as a religious experience in which her religious language in conversing with God enables the religious (and psychological) experience of pouring out her heart or soul.

 

In my view, religious language is not intended at all to describe the nature of phenomena from an empirical or metaphysical point of view. Religious language, in my view, is a means and vehicle to inspire us and enable us to have significant religious experiences. Such a religious experience of pouring out one’s heart or soul that is so beneficial psychologically and spiritually is not dependent upon one’s theology (religion and religious experience does not necessarily presuppose theology), and is available to an atheist as well. Religious experience and use of religious language (in a poetic sense) does not necessarily presuppose that God actually exists from a metaphysical point of view, or presuppose that one believes that God exists from a metaphysical point of view.

 

  1. To enable us to be part of a religious community –

 

Judaism in the Biblical conception is a religion not in an orthodox (theological) sense of a faith commitment or a set of beliefs that must be accepted but in an orthoprax (pragmatic) sense of a culture and heritage of the Jewish people as reflected in the verse (Deuteronomy 33, 4) – “Moses commanded us Torah, a heritage of the community of Jacob”. Notice that the verse strikingly omits God from its entirely secular and anti-theological formulation (and it does not say that God commanded us Torah through Moses) indicating the Judaism is a heritage of the entire Jewish people regardless of theological belief. The Talmudic rabbis also used a secular and anti-theological formulation in relation to Torah in the opening teaching of Pirkei Avot faithful to the Biblical verse Deuteronomy 33, 4 that strikingly omits God – “Moses received Torah from Sinai” (and it does not say that Moses received Torah from God on Sinai).

 

Such secular and anti-theological formulations allow for pluralism – allowing my wife who is mainstream orthodox in her orientation to understand that Moses received Torah from God on Sinai (as Divinely revealed in a literal sense) – and, allowing me, heterodox in my orientation, to understand that Torah is a product of the historical experience of the Jewish people (symbolized by Moses and Sinai).

 

For my wife, the Torah is sacred in a metaphysical and literal sense of being Divinely revealed from God Above to the Jewish people below – whereas, for me, the Torah is sacred in the poetic sense of being Divinely revealed (reflecting the wisdom of human beings revealing Divinity within human nature), or Divinely inspired (the source of such inspiration within human nature being a Divine image or spirit). I am using the term “Divine” here in relation to the concepts of Divine revelation or Divine inspiration merely in a poetic sense without presupposing that there is such a thing as God from a metaphysical point of view. The Torah is also sacred for me in a poetic sense – not in the sense of being the last word (infallible), but in the sense of being the first word and foundation (from a legal, moral and spiritual point of view) of our culture and heritage. My use of the religious terms Divinely revealed, Divinely inspired and sacred is not intended to be a metaphysical description of the Torah – rather, it is intended in a poetic sense expressing my devotion to Torah using traditional, religious language that enables me to feel a part of my people and heritage.

 

It is, in my mind, true that from a philosophic point of view, such a use of religious language in a poetic sense can be applied to the works of Shakespeare in claiming that the works of Shakespeare are Divinely revealed (the wisdom of Shakespeare revealing Divinity within human nature) or Divinely inspired (the source of the inspiration of Shakespeare being a Divine image or spirit). However, I repeat and emphasize that Judaism is a religion not in the orthodox (theological) sense of a faith commitment but in the orthoprax (pragmatic) sense of a culture or heritage of the Jewish people. The works of Shakespeare are, in my eyes, Divinely revealed or Divinely inspired because Divinity in a poetic sense (of a Divine image or spirit) is universal revealed in the wisdom of human beings and inspiring human beings – but, for me as a Jew, the works of Shakespeare are not sacred in being external to my culture and heritage. The term sacred expresses not a metaphysical truth but my attitude to the Torah as the foundation of our culture and heritage as Jews and as a product of our culture and heritage.

 

The Nature of Religious Language

 

I want to address one other important issue in relation to religious language – the distinction between what the ancient Greeks termed theoretical and practical reason. Theoretical reason is intellectual in nature and of the rational mind (such as mathematics, science and logic) – concerned with the distinction between truth and falsehood. Practical reason is intuitive in nature and of the heart (such, as art, literature and music) – concerned with value judgments (good\bad, right\wrong, beautiful\ugly, important\unimportant and useful\not useful).

 

I want to give an analogy to make clear this distinction between theoretical and practical reason. Suppose that there are two paintings on a wall – it would be absurd for me to say to you that the painting on the right is true and the other on the left false. I can say the one on the right is, in my eyes, beautiful (as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder) and the other on the left ugly, in my eyes. Clearly, though, the terms true and false do not apply in art. Suppose further that I am an art expert – we can have a rational discussion about the paintings in which I can try to persuade you that the one on the right is beautiful and the other on the left ugly. But, if you are not convinced by me even though I am an art expert, you are legitimately entitled to maintain your own view. In the realm of art I cannot refute your view (as is possible in the realm of science regarding theories that are refuted when contradicting facts and evidence).

 

I want to suggest that religion is not an intellectual matter of the rational mind dealing with propositional truth and falsehood, like mathematics, science or logic – rather, religion is an intuitive matter of the heart dealing with feelings and moral values, like art, literature and music. When someone declares that God exists or that God is provident, this sounds on the face of it as if this person is intending to state a propositional truth of the rational mind that God indeed exists or is provident (and, this person may be convinced that he or she is stating a propositional truth). However, I submit that there is no evidence to be brought, and no argument to be made, that will convince this person that this seemingly propositional statement is false. More importantly, the statement is really not intended to be a propositional statement to be verified as true or false – even though the person may engage in rational discussion and argument to defend the truth of the proposition. The statement that God exists is really of the heart intended (assuming it is sincere) to be an expression of a pragmatic commitment to live a moral and spiritual life that God (in the eyes of this person) demands. That is, when one says I believe that God exists, the intention is not to express a metaphysical truth, but to express a commitment of the heart to live a moral and spiritual life.

 

Thus, religious language in general often takes the form (or garb) of propositional truths of the rational mind when in reality such language is of the heart expressing commitment to live a moral and spiritual life. So too, such specific religious concepts as Divinely revealed, Divinely inspired and sacred are expressed in the form of propositional truths when in reality such religious language is an expression of the heart.

 

Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Shmuel

    Thank you for sharing with me your blog. I enjoyed the essay.

    I also think the Torah is sacred in a poetic and symbolic sense. It is Divinely revealed, just as the works of Shakespeare are Divinely revealed in a poetic and symbolic sense. This means that any work of humans is, in a sense, Divinely inspired. I would add that for Maimonides when Moses understands nature and produces the Torah, in a Divinely inspired sense, I would imagine this falls into the second category that is, in a poetic and symbolic sense.

    1. Jeffrey Radon

      Hello Shmuel, thank you for your comment.
      Regarding Maimonides –
      Maimonides is living prior to our academic scholarship and he assumes that Moses wrote the Torah, which is contradicted by our contemporary academic scholarship. However, for Maimonides, the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) written by Moses is not Divinely revealed in a literal sense of God dictating to Moses and Moses writing the words of Torah as a kind of secretary as Maimonides presents in his 8th principle of Divine revelation among his “13 Principles of Faith”. What he presents in this principle of Divine revelation that the Torah is Divinely revealed in a literal sense spoken from God Above to Moses below who wrote as God dictated is for the unlearned masses who have not studied philosophy and science.
      In Maimonides’ true conception as a thinker, prophecy is not in the literal sense of God speaking from Above to a prophet below. Rather, prophecy is a process in which a prophet attains intellectual enlightenment on the basis of the study of philosophy and science. Maimonides presents such a conception of prophecy in Aristotelian terms as a process in which the human intellect unites not with God but with the Active Intellect emanated from God (as light is emanated from the sun) – and, so, the prophetic process of attaining intellectual enlightenment is one in which the prophet by virtue of intellectual knowledge through the study of philosophy and science attains enlightenment when the intellect of the prophet unites with the Active Intellect emanated from God (when the intellect of the prophet unites as it were with the light emanated from God in Maimonides’ analogy of the sun emanating light). This conception of prophecy is without question similar to our contemporary notion of Divine inspiration in which the prophet attains intellectual enlightenment through the study of philosophy and science inspired as it were by an emanation of light emanated from God.
      But, this is not a simple matter to attribute to Maimonides such a notion of Divine inspiration – because he also presents a clear agnostic position in the Guide of the Perplexed (1, 50-59) in which we cannot know whether God exists or does not exist – and, this applies to Maimonides’ own Aristotelian conception of God and prophecy (and, Maimonides is very aware that this applies to his own conception). Thus, in light of his agnosticism, Maimonides is very aware that the Torah may be merely the product of the intellectual enlightenment and wisdom of Moses – and, not Divinely revealed in any literal sense and not even Divinely inspired in any poetic sense.
      Last, Maimonides presents Moses and Biblical prophets in general as if they are Greek philosophers – and, this is a distortion of the Bible. In addition, Maimonides’ conception of Moses as a kind of Greek philosopher who on the basis of the study of philosophy and science writes the Torah such that the wisdom of the Torah reflects the wisdom of nature (as if the Torah is a perfect document, and unchanging) is also a conception intended for the unlearned masses who have not studied philosophy. It is very clear that for Maimonides (the Guide 3, 32) animal sacrifices ordained by the Torah are a very primitive form of worship reflecting the ancient culture and time period in which it was produced – and, Maimonides is very aware that Judaism, based on the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a kind of constitution, changes and must be changed. Maimonides is very aware (the Guide 3, 41) regarding the verse “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” that the plain meaning of Scripture is bodily punishment – and, yet, in the Talmudic tradition the law of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” was changed from a literal understanding requiring actual bodily punishment to a metaphoric sense of monetary compensation clearly indicating that Maimonides is aware that Judaism changes and develops. Maimonides thus did not regard the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a perfect document and unchanging reflecting the wisdom of nature – rather, the Torah in Maimonides’ conception changes and must be changed in relation to changing times and circumstances such as regarding animal sacrifices or the verse “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”).

  2. Becky

    Interesting thoughts. Language is fickle. Words mean different things to different people and in relation to religion, most people only parrot the ideas and words taught to them. Few take the time to actually delve deeper for understanding. I reject anything that promotes violence outside of the need for self defense.

    1. Jeffrey Radon

      Hello Becky, thank you for your comment.
      2 things here in relation to language –
      The first matter is concerned with accuracy of our language from a philosophic point of view –
      I do not think that language is “fickle” at all and must be used accurately. There are clear rules of grammar, and clear dictionary definitions of words – and, if we want to communicate clearly, then grammar rules cannot be blatantly violated, and the dictionary definition of words cannot be twisted out of shape so that words will mean whatever we want them to mean.
      The second matter concerns the nature of language from a psychological point of view –
      Not only is language, in my eyes, not “fickle” from a psychological point of view – but, language, in my view, is sacred. In the opening Biblical account of creation, in the plain meaning of Scripture, God uses words to create the universe. Each act of creation is preceded by the phrase “And God said…” – as in the first act of creation in which it is written “And God said let there be light”. The Talmudic rabbis were faithful to the plain meaning of Scripture in referring to God as “Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came into being”.
      I want to suggest just as God in the Biblical account of creation creates the universe through the use of words – so too, we as human beings create our internal universe through the use of words. That is, we as human beings are cognitive creatures who interpret all that happens to us.
      Animals merely respond to external reality and what happens to them. If a dog is given a dog biscuit it cannot feel anything other than joy, and if it does not receive the dog biscuit it cannot feel anything other than disappointment – as the internal response of animals is merely a response to what happens and animals do not interpret what happens to them.
      However, we as human beings do interpret what happens to us, and our internal experience is a response not to what happens to us but to our interpretation of what happens to us.
      The famous analogy given by humanistic-cognitive psychologists to exemplify this is the cup half filled with water – whether the cup is half full or half empty. Any situation in life is not inherently good or bad, positive or negative – and, we as human beings can interpret any situation as half full (in a positive way) in which case we can at least reduce if not eliminate negative feelings or as half empty (in a negative way) in which case we will necessarily experience negative feelings.
      Even in the worst situation imaginable such as Auschwitz, our internal experience is determined not by the external event but by our interpretation of the event – and, this was the argument of Victor Frankl the great psychiatrist who was a survivor of Auschwitz. He argued that even though the Nazis could control the inmates physically in terms of their bodies denying the physical freedom of inmates, they could not control how an inmate would interpret what happens – and, the one thing that cannot be denied to us as human beings is the freedom to choose how we will interpret any situation (whether half full or half empty) no matter how difficult the situation may be.
      So, language, in my eyes, is not “fickle” at all from a psychological point of view – rather, language is sacred and it is the meaning and interpretations of events that we give to them as human beings that determines our internal experience.
      My argument, though, in this blog concerns the use of language in an accurate way from a philosophic point of view. Religious language, as I argued, is often couched in propositional statements as if concerned with metaphysical truths – when in reality, in my view, religious language is expressing not metaphysical truth but our emotional and moral commitment to a religious way of life.

  3. Becky

    Thank you for your clarification! I obviously misspoke when I said language is fickle, it’s humans that can be fickle and many distort language to their advantage. Regarding animals though, I’d have to disagree that they can’t think anything other than joy or disappointment. I’ve witnessed animals engage in curiosity, confusion, and attempts to understand. While they can’t vocally express these attributes, their behaviors give direct indication as to what they’re thinking at any given moment. For example, when I’m speaking to my pets, a head tilt indicates to me that they’re trying to process and understand what I am saying to them. There are pets that are communicating with their owners after being taught how to use buttons that speak for them when activated by a touch of their paw. Their language is basic, like that of a toddler but they’re communicating nonetheless. Proverbs teaches to look to the animal world and in having done so, I’m realizing that animals are far more advanced than we give them credit for. I believe it is in Ecclesiastes that it’s taught that we’re no more than wild beasts ourselves and when I started to view mankind from that perspective, I’ve begun to see the validity of that teaching. I think we fool ourselves into thinking we’re above all other creatures but at our core, we’re just the same as they are. We’re all driven by the need for survival and no matter what language we speak, every creature just seeks to make it through another day intact. Just my humble and probably incomplete observation. That’s why I call myself a student for life because I’m always willing to learn.

    1. Jeffrey Radon

      Hello Becky,
      3 things here –
      1) I do not say that you misspoke in your having said that language is fickle. But, I did intend (even though I did not say this explicitly) as you have now understood and expressed very well that it is not language that is fickle but human beings who can be fickle in their use of language and in often distorting language. We must use language accurately and carefully.
      2) I did not say that animals “can’t think anything other than joy or disappointment”. First, joy and disappointment are not a matter of thinking but of feeling. Second, I did not say that animals can only feel joy and disappointment. I gave a specific example of a dog who receives or does not receive a dog biscuit. In such a case, if the dog receives the dog biscuit that it desires (desired reality), then the dog can only feel joy (or some positive feeling) – and, if the dog does not receive the dog biscuit that it desires (unwanted reality), then it can only feel disappointment (or some negative feeling).
      Animals do not have abstract language and cognitive thinking by which to interpret reality and they merely respond to external reality. Animals have primitive forms of thinking such as problem solving. A chimpanzee has the ability to think of a solution to obtaining a banana that is high in a tree. But, animals do not interpret reality lacking abstract cognitive thinking.
      In responding to external reality animals have a range of feelings including such feelings as joy, disappointment, fear, sadness, anger and so on. But, the feelings of animals are a direct response to external reality (to what happens to them) – and, they do not interpret what happens to them.
      By contrast, we as human beings are cognitive creatures who have abstract thinking characterized by judgments of a theoretical nature (true\false) that are the basis of abstract and scientific reasoning (distinguishing us as human beings from all other animals) and of a practical nature (right\wrong, good\bad, beautiful\ugly, important\unimportant, useful\not useful) that are the basis of value judgments (distinguishing us as human beings from all other animals) – and, we perceive and interpret all that happens to us as human beings through the screen or veil of these judgments so that we are not responding directly to what happens to us in external reality. We as human beings, in contradistinction to all other animals, respond not directly to external reality (and what happens to us) but to our interpretations (and judgments) of external reality.
      In the case of desired reality, when we as human beings receive what we want in life, we will naturally (like all other animals) feel joy (or some positive feeling). However, in the case of unwanted reality, when we as human beings do not receive what we want in life, then we have the cognitive ability (and, all other animals lack this ability) to nevertheless interpret (and judge) the situation in a positive light (as a cup half full) in which case we may even in the face of unwanted reality feel positive feelings (such as joy) or at least minimize, if not eliminate, negative feelings (such as fear, anger, upset, sadness and so on) – due to our accepting unwanted reality with a joyful heart appreciating how much we have learned and grown in response to this situation of unwanted reality. Animals do not have the cognitive ability to interpret unwanted reality in a positive light (as a cup half full) and accept unwanted reality with a joyful heart – and, thus, in the case of the dog not receiving the dog biscuit that it desired it can only feel disappointment (or some negative feeling).
      3) Regarding your statement “I think we fool ourselves into thinking we’re above all other creatures but at our core, we’re just the same as they are” – this statement that we are the same as animals is blatantly false from the point of view of contemporary humanistic-cognitive psychology (as I have just pointed out). I repeat and emphasize that animals do not have the cognitive ability that we have as human beings to interpret and judge (judgments of true\false,right\wrong, good\bad, beautiful\ugly, important\unimportant, useful\not useful) what happens to us in external reality.
      Moreover, long before contemporary humanistic-cognitive psychology, the Hebrew Bible and ancient Jewish (Talmudic) tradition based upon the Hebrew Bible assume a fundamental difference between human beings and all other animals. The meaning of the Biblical teaching (Genesis 1, 27) that the human being is created in the image of God is that in the Biblical conception there is a fundamental difference between the human being created in the image of God (by virtue of our cognitive nature of having abstract reason and moral conscience) and all other animals (lacking abstract reason and moral conscience).
      In the ancient Jewish (Talmudic) tradition we as human beings have a two part soul whereas all other animals have only a one part soul. In the Talmudic terminology, animals have only one inclination – an “evil” inclination that consists of animal passions (feelings) and drives (physiological drives such as sex and hunger). We as human beings have a two part inclination – an “evil” inclination (animal passions and drives) that we share in common with all other animals – and, we have a “good” inclination, the Divine side of our nature (the Divine image) that distinguishes us from all other animals, consisting of our cognitive thinking and judgments of reason (true\false) and moral conscience (right\wrong, good\bad).
      This Talmudic distinction between 2 inclinations is reflected in the plain meaning of Scripture in the story of Adam and Eve (although this is clear only in the original Hebrew and not in translation). In the story of Adam and Eve, in the creation of animals it is written (Genesis 2, 19) “the Lord God formed every beast of the field” – the word “formed” in Hebrew is the same root as the word inclination (yetzer) and the word “formed” in the verse is written with only one yud (the first letter of the word and equivalent of the letter y in English) indicating that animals have only one inclination (yetzer). However, when the human being is created in the story of Adam and Eve, it is written (Genesis 2, 7) “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground” – and, the very same word “formed” here is written with two yuds indicating that the human being has two inclinations (a Divine image of reason and conscience in addition to animal passions and drives) in contradistinction to animals who have only one inclination (animal passions and drives).
      I want to clarify that the “evil” inclination in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition is not inherently “evil” – it is only considered “evil” in relation to the “good” inclination in the sense that we must control our animal passions and drives. The Talmud teaches that the truly strong person is one who controls one’s inclination (animal passions and drives) – and, the teaching, even though referring to the “evil” inclination that must be controlled, strikingly omits the term “evil” indicating that our animal passions and drives are not “evil” in an inherent sense. The Talmudic rabbis also taught that on the 6th day of creation in the opening Biblical account of creation, when God says of all creation “behold, it is very good” (Genesis 1, 31), this refers to the “evil” inclination. The “evil” inclination is very good (and, a part of our soul representing the animal aspect of our soul) – it simply must be controlled by our “good” inclination (reason and conscience representing the Divine aspect of our soul distinguishing us from all other animals). The Biblical and traditional Jewish ideal is that we as human beings are to act on the basis of reason and conscience worthy of a human being created in the image of God – and, not to act like an animal driven by passions and drives.

      1. Becky

        Thank you for that explanation. It makes a lot of sense and I do agree that we have a philosophical thinking ability that sets us apart from the animals, if we choose to exercise it. I appreciate you taking the time to clarify these things for me. It really helps with my growth.

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