Throughout my experiences in the Jewish community, one of the most preached upon and a discussed value is the idea of B’tzelem Elohim, or the idea that every person is created in the image of God. While we find evidence of this value throughout Jewish texts, we first discover it in Genesis 1:27 where “God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them”. But after this initial understanding of this value, why do we care so much about it? What does it truly mean for one to be created in the image of God?
Growing up as part of the millennial generation, it seems that almost all of my peers understand and value the concept of B’tzelem Elohim. In comparison to generations before us, we are widely known as being more accepting of people of different backgrounds, including race, religion, and sexual orientation. For the most part, it appears that my generation believes that we should strive to treat everyone justly and equally.
However, treating each justly and equally does not mean that we should ignore the differences between people. While my generation is thought to be more accepting of people than previous generations, we are also plagued by the notion that race, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status don’t need to be discussed. While we might not alienate people from our social groups, we often struggle to have the hard conversations to learn about and celebrate the characteristics that make each of us unique from one another.
Perhaps this phenomenon is because we have grown up during a time of almost complete equality in terms of legal rights. Or because after years of seeing slavery, Japanese internment camps, and the Civil Rights Movement in our history books, we no longer believe that harmful discrimination issues could possibly exist in our society. Or, sadly, because some of us believe that our society is truly equal and no one could possibly have legitimate claims of people spewing bigotry and hate at them.
Which brings me back to the idea of B’tzelem Elohim. While we are all created in the image of God, that does not mean we are all the same person with the same backgrounds. We cannot ignore the differences between us because ignoring the uniqueness of each individual does not bring them into our community. Rather, for some members of the Jewish community, particularly those who do not identify as White, this is an enormous barrier.
While I have always felt comfortable in the Jewish community, I have witnessed the inability of some Jews to see my whole self. As someone who identifies as half-Black and half-White, I understand how some people in the Jewish community, after asking, “What’s your background?” could move past the fact that I am half-Black. It’s possible that even after seeing my skin and discovering that I am half-Black, that they will forget or ignore that important part of my identity.
However, just because I’m Jewish does not mean that I am not Black. While it is certainly not the norm in the Jewish community, it is important detail of where I have come from and who I am today. And with more and more members of the Jewish community identifying as something other than only White, all of us must make the conscience decision to see, learn about, and celebrate the differences that ultimately make our community stronger and more vibrant. From its first mention in the Torah, to today’s many interpretations, the value of B’tzelem Elohim is about honoring both the characteristics that are different between us, as well as the ones that we share in common, that make each and every one us…us.