What Is Man...

What Is Man...

The Jewish community and the evangelical Christian community share a common aspiration toward a time when there will be universal peace. However, alongside this commonality of aspiration is a contrast of viewpoints as to how it will be realized. While evangelicals often stress God’s sovereignty in bringing in the world order described by the prophets, most Jews emphasize the freedom of man in bringing in the kingdom of God.

The Jewish position involves an emphasis upon the freedom of man in the here and now. The desired result is a better world in which to live. The evangelical emphasis recognizes the quirk in man’s nature which works against his realization of his goals. Some evangelicals put undue emphasis on the Fall of man and his inability to find an atonement through self-effort, thereby reducing the incentive to relate to the concerns of “this world.” However, if we balance the Jewish perspective concerning the freedom of man with the evangelical assessment of man’s limitations, we can have a realistic overview of our potential.

Image of God

In defining the nature of man, Judaism begins with the Scriptures:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Genesis 1:27

Jewish scholars differ on the meaning of “image.” Most definitions refer to a strong resemblance, yet obviously always less than the original. Herberg comments, “The ‘image of God’ in man established an affinity between man and God without in the least obscuring the vast gulf between creature and Creator.”1

In many ways, man is related in physical structure and function to the animal world, yet “the image of God” makes him unique: “man alone among all the creatures is capable of sustained thought, creativity, and awareness of God; the light of God is immanent in his spirit.”2

What seems most probable from the Jewish point of view is that the “image of God” includes the capacity to reason. This leads to the consideration of the multitude of moral choices and dilemmas which man faces. Robert Gordis has well stated that “this moral freedom is the basis of man’s responsibility for his actions without which society cannot exist.”3

The biblical view concurs. Man is distinguished from the animals because he bears the divine image: it establishes the basis for Adam’s fellowship with God (Genesis 2:19), and mankind is therefore ranked “a little lower than God” (Psalm 8:5). Man has dominion over the earth, e.g., naming the animals (Genesis 2:20), and this, in turn, is a reflection of the dominion of God over the entire cosmos. In addition, even as God has the capacity to make choices, so man has the freedom and responsibility to choose (Genesis 2:16–17). Seen in its larger aspect, the image of God means that the totality of man’s higher powers distinguishes him altogether from the rest of animate creation. Because of the “image,” the whole pattern of human life is affected, and man has matchless value in God’s sight.

Freedom and Determinism

The attempt to reconcile man’s freedom with God’s sovereignty has always been a pressing problem for Judaism. Rabbi Akiva boldly asserted that “all is foreseen yet free will is given” (Pirke Avot 3:16).4 Although Judaism generally never plays one consideration against another, there is a strong insistence upon the doctrine of man’s freedom and man’s responsibility. Perhaps Moses the teacher of Israel, emphasizes this best of all when he placed an awesome choice before his people: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse, so choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants” (Deuteronomy 30:19; 11:26; 30:15). Adler adds, “In a supreme act of self-limitation, the Absolute God gave man freedom of moral choice.”5

Jewish scholarship generally does not regard this freedom of man as absolute or infinite. The Talmud pointedly declares that “all is in the hands of God except the fear of God” (Bab. Berakot 33b),6 and this is taken to mean that only man’s moral decisions are exempt from God’s control. While boundaries do exist in many areas of life (psychological, biological, economic, etc.), man is free to work within these perimeters making his own choices.

As a result of man’s freedom, the Jewish view holds that a Jew can and must relate responsibility to his fellow Jew and to society as a whole.

Israel’s principal leaders were not to be power-happy or morally bereft tyrants, but were to be unselfish servants. Their conduct had to be above reproach because the sanctity of Torah could be brought into question by misbehavior. “If a fellow sage (or Rabbi) is caught sinning it is a disgrace to him because he blends pure with impure matters, and brings into contempt the very Torah which was precious to him.”7

Correct moral choices are an expression of forgiving love. The Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish tradition consider the Almighty’s forgiving love incompatible with disobedience, insincerity, and a rebellious heart. To experience God’s forgiving love, it is necessary to be sensitive to sin. Man is encouraged to obey God’s revelation so as to avoid wrongdoing. The right moral choices enable society to see the Almighty’s love.

Moral choices enable one to administer resources responsibly. Through the centuries, Judaism has developed a concept of mitzvot, a system of good deeds performed as a demonstration of faith. Through responsible administration, our people provide support for synagogues, courts of justice, schools and highly developed systems of social welfare. If one is lazy and wasteful with his own things, the community has a right to disapprove; such a person cannot be given greater responsibility until he mends his ways.

Constantly, Judaism puts its approval and emphasis upon faith that works. Since man was created in God’s image, he is to display, through a working faith, decent care and concern for himself and love for his neighbor. This concern and involvement in society is on the conviction that each human life is sacred. This is epitomized in the rabbinical statement, “Let thy friend’s honor be as dear to thee as thine own… Let the property of thy friend be as dear to thee as thine own” (Pirke Avot 4:12).8

In many ways, Judaism encourages its adherents to relate to the world by making moral choices compatible and consistent with God’s nature: holy, just, and righteous.

But can a strictly Biblical view agree with man’s complete freedom to make moral choices affecting fellow man and society at large? The Hebrew Scriptures tell us the sad and bitter story: all of mankind was involved in the Fall (Genesis 3) which has seriously impaired the divine image within. Man is not as free as he claims to be. He is constantly dogged by a contradiction in his very being which causes him to fall short in the goals he sets for himself and for society at large. What then is the potential in man today?

Man’s Sin Nature

Jewish thought says man is not to be regarded as tainted by “original sin,” inherited because of Adam’s sin in the garden (Genesis 3). The rabbis declare, “My God, the soul which Thou hast given me is pure” (Berachot 60b).9 To assert that man is chained to an evil nature, thereby preventing him from doing anything good regarding his redemption is “a doctrine that represents not only a negation of religion but also a denial of the possibility of ethics.”10 It is regarded as placing man in a prison from which he will never be released. Judaism insists that man is free, and this emphasis upon freedom makes it possible for man to redeem himself.

At the same time, Judaism has a keen sensitivity to specific acts of sin. There are some 100 words in the Hebrew Scriptures which define and illustrate sin. The rabbis have always gone to great lengths to point out how to avoid misdeeds and live righteously.

Dr. M. Friedlander indicates that in order to repent, one must remember what Solomon said of sin: “there is not a righteous man upon the earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not” (Ecclesiastes 7:20; I Kings 8:46).11

Solomon Schechter states that “sin is present when one follows his evil inclination whereby he makes the wrong moral choices. In themselves, he adds, “these natural passions are neither good nor bad but become evil by the improper use man makes of them.”12 Morris Joseph speaks of sin as that which degrades a person, “It is possible to tell a lie without its entailing any harm save the moral degradation of him who utters it.”13 He goes on to say that “sin is to be shunned because of the discord it makes between man and God – in other words, because of the degradation in which it involves the sinner.”14 Kaufman Kohler talks about sin as “a straying from the path of God, an offence (sic) against the divine order of holiness.”15 Sin is therefore an offense against God’s holiness and majesty. Leo Baeck talks about sin in the sense that “every act of the evildoer is a sin against God and the divine, against the true freedom in the life of men,”16 whereby sin is really the failure by man to understand how God feels about it.

But no matter which Jewish thinker is quoted, none will admit that there is such a doctrine as “original sin” and that man is morally depraved.

Is man, however, a sinner only because of the acts of sin which he commits, or does the problem run deeper, down to the core of man’s nature itself?

What do the Hebrew Scriptures say concerning man’s inner nature?

In the account of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:17–19), where man once had dominion over his world, he became involved in a losing struggle against it. From a moral point of view, the Fall took away man’s ability to freely choose to do right (Jeremiah 10:23). While the traditional rabbis agree that Adam’s action resulted in a legacy of mortality for all mankind, Adam’s transgression had a much deeper and more profound effect. David expressed it well: the legacy one generation leaves to the next includes the sad story that the very nature of man is marred and tarnished (Psalm 51:5).

Therefore, while man certainly can understand some aspects of right and wrong and even accomplish great exploits, his goodness is only on the surface and then it vanishes away (Hosea 6:4). The problem is not only to what extent a man can understand right and wrong, but also his inability to consistently make the right choices. To the contrary, his nature often leads him to commit evil deeds.

The sin offering of the Mosaic sacrificial system reminds us that a person can sin without even being aware of it; “sins unintentionally” (Leviticus 4:13, 22, 27)! The point here is that man is a sinner, not because of acts of sin which he commits, but because of a nature which leads him to sin, even when he is unaware of it. Yeshua (Jesus) strongly implied that such a nature is present: “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…” (Matthew 7:11). He also stressed that all manner of sins come from a heart which is evil (Matthew 15:19).

Forgiveness and Atonement

In man’s personality, rabbinic Judaism sees the presence of two impulses or inclinations: yetzer hatov (the good inclination) and yetzer hara (the evil inclination). The word yetzer appears in a conversation David had with his son Solomon that God is aware of what is present in every heart and understands every “intent (yetzer) of the thoughts” (See I Chronicles 28:9). It is Schechter’s opinion that this yetzer refers to imagination or inclination which leads a person to rebellion against God. The evil inclination, and its opposite, the good inclination, were a part of the rabbinical understanding by the end of the first century.17

The tradition adds that the good inclination controls the righteous, while the evil impulse controls the wicked, and both inclinations are present in the average person (Berachot 61a).18

How then does a man find forgiveness when he does sin? After the second Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 , Judaism was restructured to be a religion without a sacrifice. Jewish leaders and scholars put a premium upon the Great Three as the atonement for sin: repentance, prayer and good deeds. When one did wrong, he sought repentance, prayed for forgiveness, and then made a practice of following his good inclinations so as to do what is helpful and commendable in the moral, political, social and economic areas of life.

From a biblical point of view, however, at what one point in history did God sanction a religion without a substitutionary atonement and thereby put a premium upon atonement based on self-effort? Regardless of whether one looks at the words of Moses (Leviticus 4 and 16), or the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31), the principle of substitutionary atonement is crucial. This is the only prescribed way in the Scriptures whereby a person can be released from the chain of the sin nature and exhibit a newly-implanted, divine nature. Once a man has this new nature, he has an imputed righteousness and only then is he free to make the kinds of choices that will provide for his greatest freedom. (See A Jewish Believer and Atonement as to how a human being can find atonement as prescribed by God in His Word.)

Judaism puts the responsibility upon man to make the right choices in order to be of help to his fellow man and society. Biblically, man’s first right choice must be to abandon all false hopes of bringing in the kingdom of God by his own efforts. The kingdom of God only exists where people recognize the King of Kings: God’s cure for our fallen nature.

  1. Will Herberg, Judaism and Modern Man (Philadelphia: Jewish Publishing Co., 1951), p. 72.
  2. Israel Adler,“The Nature of Man,” Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol ll. (London: Soncino, 1939), pp. 843–844.
  3. Robert Gordis,“A Basis for Morals,” Judaism Magazine, Winter, 1976, p. 33.
  4. H. Danby, tr., Mishnah, (London: Oxford University Press, 1933) p. 452.
  5. Israel Adler, p. 844.
  6. Zera’im, The Babylonian Talmud (London: Soncino, 1948), pp. 34–35.
  7. Midrash Proverbs 6:20.
  8. H. Danby, p. 454.
  9. Zera’im, p. 378.
  10. Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, Judaism and Christianity: The Differences (New York: The Jewish Book Club, 1943), p. 48.
  11. Michael Friedlander, The Jewish Religion (New York: Pardes Publishing House, 1946), p. 406–407.
  12. Solomon Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (New York; Behrman House, 1936), p. 267.
  13. Morris Joseph, Judaism as Life and Creed (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1929), p 117.
  14. Morris Joseph, p. 140.
  15. Kaufman Kohler, Jewish Theology (New York: KTAV Publishing Co., 1968), p. 206.
  16. Leo Baeck, The Essence of Judaism, English Translation (Toronto: Macmillan, 1936), pp. 134ff.
  17. Solomon Schechter, pp. 242–243.
  18. Zera’im, p. 381.


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