In the Image of God: Tzelem Elokeem (Rosh Hashanah, 5769)
The following sermon was delivered by Rabbi Charles Feinberg at Congregation Adas Israel, Washington, D.C.
Rosh Hashanah celebrates God as Creator. Everyone is a creature of the Holy One, blessed be He. We proclaim God is universal when we say, “Adonai Ehad” in the Shma. We assert his universality when we praise Him morning and night for creating the world and the universe. Moreover, we believe that all human beings are created in God’s image. The significance of the first chapter of Genesis is not in its description of God creating the world in six days. Its significance lies in its assertion that human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation and that all human beings are created in God’s image.
We are imprinted with God’s image! My teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, taught that the reason the Torah condemns idolatry so forcefully and with such severe punishments is because human beings are the true image of God. If we bow down to a false image, to an idol, or enslave ourselves to a god within, then we are denying the true divinity in each and every human being. We human beings are God’s true representatives on earth. Being God’s representatives, God calls everyone to account on Rosh Hashanah. “You have set a day to bring to judgment countless human beings and their deeds without end.” By being created in God’s image, humans are endowed with dignity and rights. By being created in God’s image, human beings have to be responsible to their Creator.
These theological ideas overlap with an essential idea of the Enlightenment. The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” While the religious view of human dignity often emphasizes human responsibility, the deist perspective of the Enlightenment emphasizes the unalienable rights of people. However, both the secular and religious perspectives share something in common. Both emphasize the universality of human dignity and human rights.
Please understand why the Torah begins with several stories about the creation of the world and in particular the creation of human beings. Thus we learn that all human beings are created in God’s image, not just Abraham or his family, not just the Israelites, not just the Jewish people, but all men and women are created in God’s image. Similarly, the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Declaration of Rights which were both composed in 1776 emphasize that all men are endowed with certain “unalienable rights” in Jefferson’s words or “inherent rights” in George Mason’s words. It isn’t just the American colonists who are endowed with “unalienable rights” nor is just English speaking people. All human beings are endowed with such rights.
The ramifications of the religious perspective and the view of this country's founders are significant. "Endowed with unalienable rights" means that no one can be locked up without being charged with a crime. It means that those accused have a right to confront their accusers and examine all the evidence gathered against them. It means everyone charged with a crime has a right to legal counsel. "Created in the image of God" means that people with power cannot exercise absolute power over others. In the Torah, kings do not have absolute power over their subjects; masters do not have absolute power over their slaves and servants, and men do not have absolute power over women, widows, and orphans. Instead, the Torah speaks of our responsibility to the most vulnerable in society.
Today is Yom Ha-Din, the Day of Judgment. I believe we need to engage in a searching Heshbon Ha-Nefesh regarding our violating these fundamental principles of our faith and of our republic. Over the past 6 years, officials of our military and intelligence agencies have committed acts of torture, acts of cruel and inhumane punishment on people held in custody. There is irrefutable evidence that officials of our government under direction from leaders of our government have violated American Law and the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of detainees. The image of God is under cruel assault in Guantanamo and in unidentified prisons in foreign countries. People who have been detained have been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment: subjected to the extremes of hot and cold; forced to stay awake for 20 hours a day; not allowed to go to the bathroom, forced fed while being bound to a chair so that they defecate in their own clothes, subjected to being water boarded. Many detainees have been pushed to the brink of insanity. These are all acts of torture and they violate the fundamental principles of our Republic and the belief that we are created in the image of God.
I raise this today because it is a moral issue and not a partisan issue. People who are politically conservative as well as people who are politically liberal have been appalled by our government's conduct over the last six years. I have attended conferences at which distinguished admirals and generals have spoken passionately about how wrong and illegal these policies are. Recently, I attended a National Summit against Torture convened by a group called Evangelicals for Human Rights. At this conference we heard presentations from a recently retired Rear Admiral who was Judge Advocate General and retired Brigadier General who is a physician. Both men are very conservative and they both spoke very forcefully of how the military was tainted by committing acts of torture at the Navy Base in Guantanamo Bay.
We have incarcerated hundreds and possibly as many as thousands of people under the cruelest conditions. We have denied them the opportunity for a fair hearing. They have not been allowed to see the evidence used against them nor have they been allowed to this date to question witnesses. Many detained do not know why they have been imprisoned and cruelly treated for as many 6 years. They have not been charged with any crime. We have given them little hope of any resolution of their limbo status, neither for conviction nor for acquittal.
We know that hundreds, if not the majority of those detained in Guantanamo, were not dangerous terrorists. Many were apprehended when the United States attacked Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 attacks. At that time, the United States said they would pay large sums of money to anyone who would turn over to United States forces or officials anyone connected to the Taliban and or El Qaeda. At this same conference, we heard from four of the attorneys representing detainees in Guantanamo. They felt strongly that most of the detainees were not bad people. They were the drivers, cooks, and secretaries who worked for the Taliban or El Qaeda. They were not the warriors trained to engage in terrorist acts. Since there was a price on anyone who was associated with the Taliban or El Qaeda, we got people who are not dangerous. But even if they were all hardened terrorists, ready to destroy themselves and others in a horrible act of violence, they still have rights. They still are created in the image of God. They still deserve a fair hearing to hear and examine the evidence used against them. When we praise God for being the Creator, when we celebrate this day as the birthday of the world, we also are affirming that each and every one of us is created in the image of God---even the terrorists, the murderers, and the rapists.
Not only the teaching that we are created in the image of God has suffered. Our constitution has been trampled on. Both the Declaration of Independence and the constitution speak of persons and men, not citizens or Americans. So Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The Bill of Rights states: "No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury." The promise of our country has always been the proposition that the dignity of every human being must be respected: not just Americans, not just people who speak English---but everyone. We have violated these principles through our treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo and in other as yet to be disclosed prisons in foreign lands.
Why have we allowed this to take place? Today is a day devoted to Heshbon Hanefesh. This is not a day to point fingers at other people. This is not a day to accuse others of bad behavior. This is a day to examine ourselves. Why have we allowed this to happen? We are a democracy. We have known about this, but we have chosen not to hear or understand. Look at the current presidential campaign. Neither candidate has addressed this issue recently. They have not addressed this issue because they know they we are not interested. They are afraid because they know that the issue of torture will be deeply divisive and may harm their chances for election. If we demanded that they address it, then they would. But we don't, because we too are afraid or just not interested.
We are afraid. We are afraid that we might be attacked again as we were on September 11. We are afraid that it might be even more horrible attack, taking even more innocent lives. If we are honest with ourselves, I believe we would have to admit that we have worshipped a strange and alien god----the god of national security. That god demands that we sacrifice some of our most cherished principles on its altar: the right to a fair hearing, the right of the accused to examine all evidence used against him, the right of the accused not to be treated cruelly and inhumanely. Because we are afraid, we think we can protect ourselves by allowing others to destroy the divine image in another human being.
We have become so enthralled with this strange and alien god---the god of national security--we have become blind to how much we have harmed ourselves and our legitimate national interests. American credibility on human rights issues around the world has been shredded. It is in tatters. When we speak out on the human rights abuses of others---whether in Darfur, Zimbabwe, or China--the world laughs at us. What right do we have to speak when we have ourselves have locked up hundreds if not thousands of people and have treated them cruelly? How can we promote democracy in the world, if we do not adhere to its principles at home? This is not just a political problem. We are in the grip of a profound moral and spiritual crisis. Like Abraham, we have to shatter the idols. We have to realize that we undermine our security and our national interests when we violate the very principles that this country was founded on.
What should we do? We have to engage what this holiday bids us to do: to conduct a Heshbon Hanefesh. We have to ask ourselves what we are afraid of. Our tradition teaches us that moral and spiritual values can be as important and sometimes more important than personal security. Or does the value of personal security trump everything else? Can we pray to God this day to help us fend off that fear?
After we do our Heshbon Hanefesh, we should pray. We need God's help so that can understand that the question of torture is a moral and spiritual issue, not just a political and legal issue. We need to ask God for guidance and courage. We need His help to sort out what is truly essential to our democracy and what can be compromised. We need God's help to give us courage to stand up for those principles that both our tradition and our Constitution deem essential.
We must act. The National Religious Coalition against Torture is sponsoring a petition which I ask you to sign. The petition will be presented to the President elect shortly after the election. The petition asks the newly elected president to issue an executive order banning all cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees shortly after being sworn in on January 20. I ask you to sign this petition by visiting their website which we will have posted here in the synagogue.
Finally, I am chairing a conference on Judaism and Human Rights on December 7 to 9 here at Adas Israel. I ask you to attend all or part of that conference. The conference will have an array of speakers who will address different human rights issues. Flyers and brochures advertising the conference are out in the hallway.
As Americans, we face many problems: a growing national debt, financial markets in disarray, lack of universal health insurance, two wars that cannot come to a conclusion, the ongoing conflict between our Israeli brothers and sisters and their neighbors. Yet we cannot face up to any of these problems if we compromise some of the basic principles this country was founded on. May God give us the wisdom to realize the spiritual crisis we are in. May God give us the courage to shatter the false idols we have worshipped. May this New Year be a year of truth and courage. And let us say---Amen.