Interview with Rabbi David Rosen – Part one: the Divine Image

Rabbi Rosen is the Director of the American Jewish Committee’s Department for Interreligious Affairs. He is Honorary Advisor on Interfaith Relations to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, serves on its Commission for Interreligious Dialogue, and represents the Chief Rabbinate on the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land.

Rabbi Rosen draws his ethical guidance from the Bible. In this first part of our interview, he emphasizes the first social ethical teaching that comes out of the Bible - the affirmation that the human being is created in the Divine Image. The human being therefore derives his or her identity from God himself, and there cannot be any sustainable universal vision without appreciation of the sanctity of the human individual. Moreover, it is only through the love of God that we have genuine love of man.

Marguerite A. Peeters interviewed Rabbi David Rosen in Paris on March 3, 2011, at the end of the 21st session of the meetings between the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation and the Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism of the Holy See.

- M.P: You have stated that as a Jewish believer, you drew your ethical inspiration and guidance from the Bible. What is your view of universality, from the perspective of your Jewish tradition?

D. R.: I would say, first and foremost, that universality is rooted in an understanding of particularity. That sounds almost contradictory, but what do I mean by that? It means that it doesn’t seem to me that there is any sustainable universal vision if it is not rooted in appreciation of the sanctity of the human individual. The first social ethical teaching that comes out of the Bible is the affirmation that the human being is created in the Divine Image. And it is only such a vision, I believe, that can legitimately claim that human life is sacred. Otherwise the concept that human life is sacred does not have any meaning. This does not mean that people who are not religious cannot appreciate the importance of human life, but it is precisely the religious tradition that gives the moral - not only foundation, but solidity to a universal vision that can talk of intrinsic human rights rooted in the nature of the human person. Otherwise, Peter Singer’s arguments from a secular point of view are not illegitimate. Why do you prefer the human being over any other animal?

- Peter Singer, the author of Animal Liberation, who claims that all animals, including the human species, are equal…

Right. The only real argument to such a position is in the affirmation that the human being has something intrinsically sacred deriving from a higher source, from God who has created the human being in His Divine Image. Now beyond that, it is precisely the religious vision that can see not only the human particularity, but the collective particularity as being part of something that emanates from a higher order, from a higher source. Thus the identity of individuals, of peoples, of nations, and of course, before that, of families as being part of the natural structure of the cosmos is seen not purely as an anthropological reality but as something that has a moral imperative in its very nature. That can only come from a religious source. It is precisely religion that can offer the values of individuals, families, nations, the people, that is part of the universal collective, a moral logic that is compelling. The contemporary secular vision of universalism is very often simply nothing more than a reduction to the lowest common denominator, and that ultimately is not sustainable.

- But the “secular vision of universalism” is often secularist, in the sense that it denies, out of principle, the sanctity of the human being, the sacredness of life, our being created in the image of God, God’s design over creation. How does one deal with such a collective negation - or sinful choice? What is the way forward to an authentically universal ethics? Surely, a “debate” - intellectual or democratic - would not suffice… What more is needed?

I don’t know whether there are any satisfactory answers to these questions. In the end it is the responsibility of the religious adherent to “testify” to the Divine reality in the hope that that reality becomes evident to others. I do believe that whatever the degree of “sinfulness” in modern society may be, there are still overwhelming numbers of skeptics as well as believers who look to Religion for guidance.

- In my observation, the “new global ethic” is pessimistic: it is rooted in the problems of humanity, such as environmental degradation, poverty, inequality, violence against women, insecurity, war and so on. Addressing these problems makes up the essence of the new ethic, which radically lacks a positive view of reality – a view of praise, honor, glory, thanksgiving. Is it not important today to re-emphasize God’s assessment of his creation – when He saw that it was good?

Absolutely. That is a very important corollary to what I was saying. So together what we are saying is that universal ethics purely brought out of a negative worldview, purely responsive to threats is not a sustainable moral worldview. It has to come from a positive value and from a positive impetus. Even therefore people who are not believers should be able to appreciate the role that religion can play, must play for the benefit of human society at large.

- Are you saying that only religion has the ability to provide that positive impetus? If so, can you further explain?

As indicated, I believe that only religion provides a rationale that refutes the argument against “speciesism” – i.e. that there is no moral logic to the preference of one species over another. Secondly, there are only two possible hypotheses about life. Either it proceeds from some intention, or it does not. Either we are all just part of an “accident” or we are the product of a higher Will. Of course it is possible for irreligious people to find meaning in their existence, but how can this compare to someone who recognizes her or himself as the creation of Divine Will? So I am saying that there is a profound qualitative difference between a religious ethic and a secular one.

- You use the word “individual”, then you use the word “person”. Do the two words have the same meaning for you?

I am utilizing them interchangeably and I suppose in a way, in my English language I am showing that I myself am being influenced by the secular discourse, because if I go back to Hebrew sources, there is no such word for “individual” nor is there any for “person”. There is the human being. The human being derives his or her identity from Creation itself and therefore from God himself. The Hebrew word for human being is Adam. Adam is not a proper name, in the sense that it is not a given name. Adam is the name that is used for male and female. In fact in Genesis, chapter 5, 6: “these are the generations of Adam in the day that God created Adam – male and female he created him” - or “it”, to be more specific in that sense. So the Bible, the Torah, the book of Genesis is very explicit that Adam is not a gender statement, but an affirmation of the human person created in the Divine Image.

- And this being created in the Divine Image is what makes up human dignity, right?

Exactly so. Human dignity is not used in the sense of human rights, but in the sense of the term K’vod ha’Adam which means “the honor, the dignity of the Adam, of the human person” - something that intrinsically affirms the value of the human being and thus should compel us to behave accordingly. There is a common statement that says that the Bible is not a document of rights but of duties. That’s true, of course. However, if there is a duty to respect the property of another, it means that the other has some right to property. Nevertheless, it is correct to say that a religious worldview is not a worldview of demands but a worldview of responsibilities.

- The starting point in the history of human rights since the French revolution has been secular citizenship, not the recognition of our being created in the Divine Image. In practice secular citizenship has often been set in dialectical opposition with fatherhood, motherhood, the family, but also with faith. And now more than ever in contemporary culture, human rights have moved away from any religious reference. Likewise, human dignity has been destabilized and is used to justify agendas such as euthanasia and assisted suicide. The fact the modern notion of “rights” is not a Biblical one in the strict sense is indeed meaningful. Can you further spell out the conditions under which human rights are genuinely universal?

I assume that you mean “the conditions under which human rights are genuinely universal” from a Biblical perspective? I am not sure that I can do it any better than I have tried to do and seek to do below. The idea that we all are the children of One Father, all created in the Divine Image requires conduct that respects the life and dignity of all.

- Is a universal ethic possible without explicit reference to, or at least openness to divine revelation? What happens to ethics when it seeks autonomy and declares independence from divine revelation? Does it not become apparent today that the secular interpretation of ethics and of rights has led to unsustainable contradictions and the deconstruction of universality itself? As the failure of the secular ethic becomes apparent, does a return to God appear as the only solution?

Of course. However I would see the Divine Image reflected in human conscience as providing some moral orientation even for those who are not conscious of it within them. Thus as Jesus indicated, not everyone who speaks in the name of God behaves in a godly fashion and often godly behavior emanates from those who cannot even perceive His Presence. If one is conscious of God’s presence and the moral imperative that follows therefrom, then one’s conduct is likely to be all the more morally secure and profound. However the “right action” even without the “right conviction” is more important than the absence of the right action, even when the right conviction is affirmed.

- “A religious worldview is not a worldview of demands but a worldview of responsibilities.” And of love?

Of course. The most essential thing is the love of God. And it is only through the love of God that we have genuine love of man. Leviticus 19, 18 which says “love your neighbor as yourself” is not really quoted in full, because what it says is: “Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” In other words there cannot really be true full love of your neighbor if it is not coming of that awareness of God’s presence. There is a classical debate between rabbi Ben Azzai and rabbi Akiva, two great sages of the second century of the common era, as to what is the great principle in the Torah, and in that sense they are following on Jesus’ teaching. But the interesting thing is that while Akiva says the most important principle is “love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord”, Ben Azzai says no, there is a greater principle, and that is that God created the human being in His Image. And basically what Ben Azzai is saying is that only if you understand that the human being is created in the Divine Image, you can genuinely love your neighbor as yourself. What does it mean? It means acknowledging that there is intrinsic value in the human person, regardless of your likes or dislikes.