Humans as Co-creators: Co-owners as Well?

A Talmudic legal parable illustrates that, although they may have improved the natural world, humans do not own it. We may transcend nature, but we are also part of it.

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Reprinted with permission from Faith and Doubt, © Norman Lamm, 1971, KTAV Publishing House.

The doctrine which teaches man’s discontinuity with and superiority to the rest of the natural order, must not be misconstrued as a sanction for man to despoil the world. First, while he is beyond the merely natural, he also participates in it; he is an intersection of the natural and the divine (or supernatural). The plurals in the verse, “And God said, Let us make man in our image,” are explained by Rabbi Joseph Kimhi [a twelfth-century Provencal commentator] as addressed by God to the earth, or nature. Man remains inextricably tied to nature even while he is urged to transcend it. Man is a creature, and the denial of his creatureliness turns his creative powers to satanic and destructive ends.

Second, the very nature of the concept of the imagehood of man implies the warning that he must never overreach in arrogance. He may build, change, produce, create, but he does not hold title to the world, he is not the “King of the world,” an appellation reserved for the Deity, because the original all-inclusive creation was exclusively that of God, and mortal man has no part in it. His subordinate role in the cosmic scheme means that nature was given to him to enjoy but not to ruin -- a concept reinforced by the law that before deriving any benefit or pleasure from the natural world, such as eating or drinking, one must recite a blessing to the “King of the world”: an acknowledgment that it is God, not man, who holds ultimate title to the universe. Hence, without this blessing-acknowledgment, it is as if one stole from God” (Babylonian Talmud [=BT], Shabbat 35a).

That man’s role as co-creator with God must not be exaggerated we learn from the following Talmudic passage: “The Rabbis taught: man was created on the eve of the Sabbath. Why? So that the Sadducees (i.e., heretics) should not say that God had a partner in the act of creation of the world” (BT Sanhedrin 38a). This statement does not contradict that of R. Akiva, who declared man’s actions more beautiful, or suitable, than those of God, hence emphasizing the religious sanction of man’s creative office. Man remains a partner of God in the ongoing creative process. However, here we must distinguish between two Hebrew synonyms for creation: beri’ah and yetzirah. The former refers to creatio ex nihilo and hence can only be used of God. The latter describes creation out of some preexistent substance, and hence may be used both of God (after the initial act of genesis) and man. God has no “partners” in the one-time act of beri’ah with which He called the universe into being, and the world is, in an ultimate sense, exclusively His. He does invite man to join Him, as a co-creator, in the ongoing process of yetzirah. Hence, man receives from God the commission to “subdue” nature by means of his yetzirah-functions; but, because he is incapable of beri’ah, man remains responsible to the Creator for how he has disposed of the world.

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Rabbi Norman Lamm

Rabbi Norman Lamm, Ph.D., served more than a quarter of a century as President of Yeshiva University and of its Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He is the author of The Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism and Seventy Faces: Articles of Faith.