At the heart of the creation story in the Book of Genesis is a theological claim that is both Jewish and universal, and that is as profound and radical as it is basic: Every human being is created B’Tzelem Elohim, in the Image of God. There are many ways to understand this and, of course, so many different Jewish and non-Jewish interpretations. For me, this is the Jewish theological underpinning of the notion that every human being has infinite and equal worth and is infinitely unique.
This week, our country celebrated Juneteenth, an opportunity to recommit ourselves to our ideals of freedom, equality, and justice for Black Americans. We can recognize how far we have come in pursuit of these ideals and acknowledge how much more work we must do to build a “more perfect union” that honors and protects the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of all its inhabitants. Learning more about our history enables us to remember and reckon with our past as we work to create a better future.
Throughout June, we have also been celebrating Pride Month, recognizing the journeys and contributions of LGBTQIA+ people in our communities and around the world, and rededicating ourselves to creating a more inclusive and just society where everyone can show up as their full selves and feel a genuine sense of connection and belonging.
Personally, I connect to Juneteenth and Pride Month both as an American and as a Jew. I worry deeply about ongoing injustices, political polarization, culture wars, and demonization of those who are different from ourselves, all of which threaten the health of our democracy and the social fabric of our country. Yet I am so proud to be an American and I love the ideals upon which this country was founded and which it strives to live out. Every day, I am privileged to witness and connect with extraordinary people — from every race, religion, background, and identity — who genuinely want to work together across differences, make progress on shared challenges, and improve our society and our world, one courageous act at a time. Believing in the possibility of a better tomorrow and taking personal and collective responsibility for getting us there are the fundamental ideals that underpin my understanding of the spirit of America.
These principles are also profoundly Jewish. In his beautiful interpretation of the “great mistranslation” of God’s words to Moses at the burning bush, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z”l) notes that God says, “I will be what I will be (in Hebrew, Ehyeh asher Ehyeh)” — in the future tense. This reminds us that we and our world are unfinished and still unfolding. Built into the creation of our natural world is the reality that everything changes. Built into the creation of our moral world is the extraordinary notion that our past does not determine our future, that tomorrow can be different from today, and that we have the opportunity and responsibility to change our world for the good.
The spiritual and the ethical are powerfully interconnected: How we see, value, and treat one another either elevates the Divine presence in the world or diminishes it. Thriving, vibrant, communities and societies in whose midst the Divine will dwell are necessarily communities and societies that strive to honor and recognize our shared humanity while preserving diversity and celebrating the uniqueness of every individual.
Let us keep striving to build communities and a world of dignity and belonging that actualize the God-given potential of every human being and honors the idea that we’re all made in the Image of God. This is challenging yet uplifting, sacred work, and I feel blessed to be in it, together.
Rabbi Marc Baker