note: This post is the first in a new project: a series of reflections on the Nefesh HaChayim by Rabbi Chayim of Volozhin. I will not be posting these reflections to other lists (including TheTisch and Shefa), and invite you to subscribe to this email list by sending a blank email to rcNefeshHaChayimlistemail@example.com. This will not be a comprehensive translation, but rather reflections on excerpts of a powerful Jewish text written by a passionate Jewish leader.
Nefesh HaChayim 1:1 - Language and Meaning
(c) Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Nefesh HaChayim (1:1): In the Torah, it is written "And God (Elohim) created the human, in the image of God (Elohim) did God create the human (Gen. 1:27)" and similarly it is written "for in the image of God (Elohim) was the human created. (Gen. 9:6)" Here is the deepest, innermost, meaning of the concept of image ('tzelem'). ...The words 'tzelem/image' and 'demut/likeness' are not to be understood literally, for it is written explicitly in Isaiah "And what likeness (demut) could we possibly render unto God? (Is. 40:18)" Rather the interpretation should be an imaginative connection to some other thing, similar to the way we read the verse "I compare you to a desert pelican (Ps. 102:7)" – it's not like that person suddenly grew wings and a beak and transformed into a pelican! It indicates that a person, drifting this way and that, resembled a characteristic of a desert pelican, a lonely bird that flits from place to place. This has been the close reading of earlier commentators such as Maimonides, and in this way we can approach the term 'tzelem/image', for the implications are similar.
Comment: Rabbi Chayim is an early post-modern reader, suggesting the importance of seeing beyond what a text seems to mean and exploring what might be understood when read with an eye to a text's subtler implications.1 But while metaphors are designed to connect text and reader, they also depend on context, inherently different for every person, every place, every time. When Reb Chayim interprets a biblical word as a metaphor, he both clarifies and complicates. On the one hand, it is important to assert that Modern Judaism rejects a corporeal God.2 On the other hand, by suggesting that a word in the Torah can only be understood as a metaphor, Rabbi Chayim opens up a can of worms (another imperfect metaphor!). If one word of the Torah can only be understood metaphorically, who is to say that another cannot be? If the literal reading of biblical text is not appropriate in this case and if metaphors are contextually dependent, can there be such a thing as a textual truth that spans generational, geographic, and personal divides? What does Torah mean?
1) Jacques Derrida's "Writing and Difference" (1967) points masterfully to the complicated implications of language, and to the importance of meaning.
2) For a cogent argument that the God of the Hebrew Bible has a body, see "The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel" (2009) by JTS Professor Benjamin Sommer. But the biblical notion of God is not the same as Maimonides' notion of God, nor is Rabbi Chayim's notion the same as Maimonides'. While doctrine is not a component of Judaism, Modern Judaism does not include the notion that God has a body.