In God's Image

Myth, Theology, and Law in Classical Judaism

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Yair Lorberbaum
  • New York, NY: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , March
     339 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In God’s Image is the long-awaited English translation of Yair Lorberbaum’s 2004 Zelem Elohim: Halakhah ve-Aggadah, which was based on his 1997 doctorate at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The Hebrew edition was awarded the Goldstein-Goren Prize for the best book in “Jewish Thought” to appear in the years 2004-2007. It is, without question, an important work of scholarship, combining insightful interpretation of rabbinic texts with a trenchant critique of some core assumptions that have shaped the modern study of classical Jewish sources.

The critique centers on the scholarly denial that the early rabbis, the Tannaim, could have held anthropomorphic views of God. The book’s first three chapters survey the arsenal of techniques employed by earlier scholars to undermine such an interpretation: relegating anthropomorphic statements to the status of “folk sayings” (which were then cheerfully ignored); casting them as rhetorical flourishes (again, cheerfully ignored); interpreting them as an emotive reflection of the rabbis’ sense of intimacy with God, even as, per the modern scholars, the rabbis maintained their analytic conviction in God’s absolute transcendence; identifying references to God’s physical and psychological traits with actions (“outstretched hand” is glossed by “mighty action,” “merciful” by “merciful action,” and so on). Lorberbaum’s dismissal of these techniques as the result of an Enlightenment commitment to rabbinic rationalism is not, however, sufficiently nuanced. Surely Gershom Scholem’s adherence to rabbinic non-anthropomorphism has different roots than Hebrew University rabbinics scholar Ephraim Urbach’s—but the critique itself is a significant corrective to these earlier views. Lorberbaum also devotes a chapter to the distinction between halakhah and aggadah (roughly, legal and non-legal/homiletic, respectively) sources, though this topic is less pertinent to the English reader.

The real contribution of In God’s Image lies in its treatment of early rabbinic legal sources, chiefly the Mishnah. Through a series of sensitive readings, Lorberbaum shows that the tannaitic laws governing judicial execution are undergirded by a theology of imago Dei. As a result, the Mishnah goes to great lengths to ensure that the body of the executed (which is the physical likeness of God) not be disfigured—with far-reaching consequences for the formulation of the modes of execution. Moreover, Lorberbaum demonstrates, tannaitic sources reinterpret the biblical command “be fruitful and multiply” through the theological prism of imago Dei. No longer a sign of mankind’s dominion over the earth, procreation is interpreted in terms of the physical manifestation of God’s form: humans are, ultimately, living icons to the living God, analogous to the dead statues glorifying the (by implication, dead or unreal) gods of Greco-Roman paganism.

The book does suffer from a number of shortcomings that ought to be borne in mind. Lorberbaum’s consistent reference to “the rabbis” and “the rabbinic view” obscure important distinctions within tannaitic sources, most significantly the division between the schools of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael. Whatever biographical significance we attribute to these names (I tend toward a minimalist view), it is uncontroversial that there are sustained, identifiable theological differences between the legal sources associated with each school. Indeed, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Heavenly Torah as Refracted Through the Generations (a work Lorberbaum mentions in his introductory survey) is devoted to the tannaitic views (plural) of God and God’s image. It is also disappointing that Lorberbaum does not explore the broader cultural and religious context of the rabbinic texts. Though he notes the significance of emperor worship and the role of statues in Roman religion, he does not explore the points of contiguity in a meaningful way. And there is no attempt to examine rabbinic conceptions of imago Dei alongside the contemporary theological reflections of early Christian authors. The book appears to have been translated “as is” from the Hebrew, without engagement of scholarship published in the intervening years; the bibliography ends around the year 2000.

A separate issue is the English edition’s accessibility to the broader scholarly community. The identity of modern and classical authors is considered self-evident. The views of scholars such as Heinemann, Urbach, Kaufmann, Kadushin, and Liebes, alongside authors like Krochmal, Brenner, and Ishaiyahu Leibovitz, among others, are cited without historical context or introduction; words like haskalah (“the Jewish Enlightenment”) should be translated or, at a minimum, glossed. Non-specialist readers would surely have benefited from a brief introduction to the sources—the difference between the Mishnah and the tannaitic midrashim, the approximate floruit of Babylonian sages, and so on. Greater attention to these matters would have made the important scholarly insights of In God’s Image more readily accessible to a broad range of English readers.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Azzan Yadin-Israel is Professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Yair Lorberbaum is a Professor in the Faculty of Law at Bar-Ilan University, where he lectures on the philosophy of law, Jewish law, and Jewish thought. He has been a guest lecturer at Yale University, Cardozo Law School, Princeton University, and NYU Law School, and he has served as the Gruss Professor of Talmudic Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Professor Lorberbaum's book The Image of God (Tselem Elohim): Halakhah and Aggadah (2004) was awarded the Goldstein-Goren Prize for the best book in Jewish thought for 2004–7.



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