MAN: THE SUMMIT OF CREATION?
Question. Is man the summit of creation?
Answer. The sages think so. They put into the mouth of the human being the words, “bish’vili nivra ha-olam” –
“For my sake was the world created” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).
It is not merely that the whole process of creation led up to the creation of man, but, according to Sa’adia Ga’on, man is a superior being with intellectual, moral and spiritual traits and talents which no other species possesses.
“Should anyone imagine that there exists some other being outside of man that is endowed with such superior qualities, then let him show us these qualities or even some of them in some other creature. Such a being, however, he will never discover”.
Maimonides adds that this does not mean that other parts of creation lack a role and purpose. They serve man, but this is not necessarily their only or major raison d’etre.
“They have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of something else.”
Man must never boast of his greatness:
“What are we?” asks the Yom Kippur liturgy; “What is our life, our goodness, our virtue, our strength, our might? Even if man is righteous, what does he give You? Man has no eminence over beast, for all is vanity.”
Nonetheless, says the liturgy,
“From the first You singled out mortal man and deemed him worthy to stand before You”.
Question. “Groupthink” is the name for pressure to conform to the group’s views. Isn’t this similar to a problem the Sanhedrin used to face?
Answer. Definitely. In the 1970s Irving Janis developed the concept of “groupthink”, which has a clear connection with the ancient Sanhedrin.
To avoid giving “the group” an unfair advantage, junior members expressed their views at the Sanhedrin before the seniors, obviating the pressure to conform to the arguments of the “big boys”.
A ruling was not final so long as anyone could come to Jerusalem with new evidence. A ruling could be postponed overnight even if a verdict had apparently been reached. A unanimous verdict of guilty was always suspect.
Question. Why is there more decorative art in churches than in synagogues?
Answer. There are a number of popular theories, e.g. that the strict observance of the Second Commandment with its ban on graven images prevented synagogues from indulging in art, and that Jewish communities were uprooted so often that they preferred makeshift synagogues that served a practical purpose and had little artistic embellishment.
Both theories are not entirely correct, since there is evidence of art in ancient synagogues (a number of synagogal mosaics, for example, have been unearthed in Israel); and in the Middle Ages and later, many synagogues were impressive and solid edifices.
There is another factor which played an important role: the attitude to the Bible. In Judaism, the words and message of the Bible were an art form in themselves, and embellishing the synagogue or house of study with artistic creations was hardly necessary.
Further, in Judaism everyone could read and the Bible was the inheritance of the people, whilst in Christianity the scriptures were the preserve of the priests and the people were largely illiterate. What ordinary worshippers knew of the Bible was read from the pictures, statues and icons which surrounded them in their churches and cathedrals.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.