It was a Sunday evening, almost a decade ago, at a church in Mitchell, South Dakota. Only a few months earlier, I had left the field of Jewish education to dedicate my life to building bridges between Jews and Christians. I was at the beginning of my journey. In fact, this was the first day of the first trip I had ever made to speak in churches in the United States.
After my talk, a Bible study on the biblical definition of marriage, attendees were mingling in the fellowship hall of the church. I was approached by an elderly man, probably in his late 70s. Let’s just say that he wasn’t shy.
“Rabbi, I have a question for you. I loved everything you just said about biblical marriage. But if you Jews are so biblical, why are most Jews a bunch of progressive liberal leftists?”
The other churchgoers standing around us were appalled. From the looks on their faces they were horrified at the thought that he had offended me. I was not offended, but I was unprepared for the question. Thinking quickly, I said, “Well, as far as I can see there are plenty of Christians, including entire denominations, that seem pretty liberal and left-wing to me!” “Ah. I get it. Thank you, rabbi.”
In that moment, I realized that God was sending me a message. On my first day ever speaking in churches, in a place where Jews are virtually non-existent, I was confronted with an issue that would become central to my mission, the reality that the Jewish “brand” in America is identified with progressive liberalism. In that moment, I understood that part of my mission was to expose Christians in America to Jews who share their core values, who believe in God, the Bible, and traditional ethics and morality.
In my previous column, I cited numbers from Pew Research that demonstrate the deep and unbridgeable divide between the Orthodox Jewish community and the general Jewish community in terms of political identification. As I wrote, politically, we live in completely different universes. And of course, politics is not just about politics. Certainly not these days. In the current cultural war being waged, the numbers demonstrate that Orthodox Jews and our progressive brethren are on opposing sides.
So why is it this way? What is the real answer to the question I was asked that night in Mitchell, SD? I’d like to suggest that the answer is quite simple. Do we, or do we not, believe that every human being is created in the image of God? This may seem beside the point but allow me to explain.
If someone does not believe that humans are created in God’s image, then what are we? What is the essential definition of humanity. If we are merely another species in the animal kingdom, then our essential nature is material. If our essential nature is material, then justice and equality must be expressed in material, physical terms.
Most progressive liberals are ethical, well-meaning people. But if the essence of the human being is physical, then equality of all people can only be realized if we are all equal physically and materially. With this worldview, radical redistribution of wealth, equity policies based on race, and denial of natural differences between men and women follow. If humans are essentially material, physical beings, and a just society means that all are equal with regard to whatever is essential, then equity, either economic or cultural, is the highest ethical aspiration.
In contrast, the Bible states that humans, and only humans, are created in the image and likeness of God. But what does this mean? It can’t mean anything about our bodies as we are obviously physically part of the animal kingdom. Are monkeys closer to the image and likeness of God than other animals who are less similar to humans?
What makes humans fundamentally different from animals is our free will. Animals are governed by instinct. That is why animals do not do evil things. It is also why animals do not create anything new. Only human beings, among all God’s creations, have the ability to express themselves, uniquely, creatively, and freely. Of course, human beings do have certain animal traits. We do have physical instincts as animals do. But we can choose whether those instincts will govern our lives.
It is this freedom of will, and all that flows from it, that makes us different from animals. This is the definition of the “image and likeness of God.” The defining characteristics of God are that He is all-powerful and that He is the creator. Nothing impels God or limits His will in any way. To the extent that humans have freedom of will and creative ability relative to animals, we are in God’s image and likeness.
Just like our progressive, left-wing brothers and sisters, we strive for equality and justice. But for us, equality means that all human beings are entitled to live equally in God’s image and likeness. In other words, true justice and equality means that all human beings are equally free. Following our animal instincts at the expense of our spirit makes us more like animals. Similarly, anything or anyone that suppresses the ability of people to exercise their own free will, attacks the essence of our humanity. It diminishes the image of God in man. For us, freedom is paramount.
Let me sum this up another way. The highest ethical aspiration of all people is equality regarding what is essentially human. For progressives, humanity is essentially physical and material. Therefore, they strive for equity on the material and physical level. For them, any hierarchy or discrepancy based on economics, race, or gender represents a fundamental injustice.
For those who believe in the God of the Bible, humanity’s essence is spiritual. Therefore, the highest ethical aspiration is for all people to be equally free as God is free, to live their lives in the image and likeness of God. In this view, any hierarchy in which some humans have power over others, limiting their freedom and compelling their behavior, is an attack on the image of God in man.
To answer the question of that gentleman in Mitchell, South Dakota, I would say this. The reason most Jews in America, as well as many professed Christians, are liberal progressives is that they don’t believe that you and I are created in God’s image.
I pray for my Jewish brothers and sisters to rediscover the faith of their ancestors, faith in God, and faith in the image of God in which all of us are created.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is cohost of Israel365 News’s Shoulder to Shoulder podcast and a weekly contributor to Israel365.