“Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6). Thus God proclaims to Noah and his sons when they emerge from the ark after the Flood. The message here is that a murderer must be punished, that the blood of someone who sheds another person’s blood must also be shed − by a third person. In the same verse, justification is given for this license to kill: “for in the image of God made he man.” The reason why God grants man such a responsibility is because man is created in his image: As God’s representative, man must punish anyone who takes the life of another.
But the midrash provides another interpretation for the reasoning behind God’s directive: “Rabbi Akiva says: Whoever sheds blood in effect reduces God’s image. What is the basis for this argument? It is written, ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.’ Why should the murderer be killed? The Torah gives us the reason: ‘for in the image of God made he man’” (Genesis Rabbah 34:14).
According to Rabbi Akiva, then, the reason the Torah gives for killing a murderer does not only show that man indeed has the authority to take retribution against another person, but also relates to the essence of the murderer’s sin. Man was created in the Almighty’s image, and thus, argues Rabbi Akiva, whoever sheds the blood of another human being is actually shedding God’s blood.
In Rabbi Akiva’s view, the creation of man in God’s image is not a one-time act: Rather, man is an ongoing embodiment or reflection of the divine model at any given moment. Man is God’s agent on earth, and so anyone who harms man is also directly harming man’s divine model: God. Through an intensive reading of the biblical verse, Rabbi Akiva essentially turns a moral sin (murder) into a theological one.
In his interpretation of the above verse, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah takes a different approach, offering this commentary: “Whoever refuses to be fruitful and multiply is presented in the Torah as someone who reduces God’s image. What is the basis for this argument? It is written, ‘for in the image of God made he man,’ which is immediately followed by, ‘And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply’ [Gen. 9:7]” (Genesis Rabbah 34:14).
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah agrees with Rabbi Akiva that harm done to a human being constitutes direct harm to God’s image in heaven, but in the view of Rabbi Elazar, the damage done is of a different nature. He sets aside the legal reasoning about murder and cites the next verse as a conclusion of the above
verse: “ ... for in the image of God made he man. And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; swarm in the earth, and multiply therein” (Gen. 9:6-7). According to him, the commandment to be fruitful and multiply is the direct conclusion to be drawn from the fact that man was created in God’s image. However, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah reads the verses from back to front: If, because man was created in God’s image, man must be fruitful and multiply, then his ability to reproduce is an expression of the divine image man embodies. Whoever refuses to be fruitful and multiply is detracting God’s image − that is, damaging the divine model used for creating man.
In the final analysis, any interpretive discussion of biblical texts related to the concept of man being “in God’s image” is autobiographical: When a person discusses the meaning and syntax of these texts, they become a reflection of his own soul. When an exegete explains what he sees as the meaning of being human, as it is set forth in the biblical verses, he is actually explaining what is human in his own character. According to Rabbi Akiva, the murder of another human being reduces the divine image. But Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah believes that the fact that man is capable of reproduction is the height of being human.
When looking at the commentaries of the Tannaites, one can imagine what their lives were like and also recognize the emphasis they give in their own lives to the divine image inside them.
Then along comes Simeon ben Azzai, who relies on the two rabbis’ exegeses, but goes a bit further, explaining: “Whoever refuses to be fruitful and multiply is presented in the Torah as someone who sheds blood and reduces God’s image. What is the basis for this argument? It is written, ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.’ Why should the murderer be killed? The Torah gives us the reason: ‘for in the image of God made he man.’ And what is written immediately afterward? ‘And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply’” (Genesis Rabbah 34:14).
Ben Azzai also reads the verses from back to front; however, he continues and reads them to the very beginning. If the commandment to be fruitful and multiply is a direct result of man’s having been created in God’s image, and if man’s creation in God’s image is the reason why murder is prohibited, this means that the commandment to be fruitful and multiply is in essence the opposite of murder. Thus, by this rather surprising logic, the refusal to reproduce is equivalent to murder.
Since Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah is also aware of the fact that any interpretive discussion of biblical texts is actually an autobiographical discussion, he says to his colleague, in the midrash: “Words are fine when they flow from the mouth of one who praqctices them. You, Ben Azzai, do not practice what you preach.” Ben Azzai replies: “Since my soul is passionately in love with the Torah, I do not fulfill the commandment ‘Be ye fruitful, and multiply,’ which I leave for others to fulfill.” Indeed, Ben Azzai never married or brought any children into the world, so his interlocutor says he is not the right person to be giving such an interpretation of the biblical verse. For his part, Ben Azzai explains that he never married because his soul became enamored of the Torah and that he therefore would leave the task of having children to the rest of the human race. However, this explanation is inadequate because, according to Ben Azzai’s own interpretation, the problem in refusing to have offspring is not that such a refusal endangers the future existence of the world, but rather that it is an assault on God’s image and is tantamount to spilling blood. His reply does not really address Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah’s question.
Ben Azzai’s fate is described in Hagiga tractate in the discussion of four individuals who “enter the orchard” (of Jewish mysticism): Unlike Rabbi Akiva, who emerges from the orchard unscathed, Ben Azzai dies after only a brief glimpse of it. The verse “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalms 116:15) is associated here with Ben Azzai; his death is desired by God. Ben Azzai indeed yearned to die, as can be understood from his interpretation of the verse from the Shema Yisrael prayer: “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). According to Midrash Tannaim: “Simeon ben Azzai says: It is written, ‘and with all thy soul’ and that means that you must love God until you have absolutely exhausted your soul” (Midrash Tannaim, Deuteronomy 6:5). Ben Azzai thus represents a different ideal of human life − not one devoted to bringing additional life (that is, children) into the world, but rather involving a deviation from life through dying, and thus, joining God.
Rabbi Akiva sees his own God’s image in the living individual, while Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah sees his own God’s image in his ability to reproduce. For his part, Ben Azzai sees his own God’s image in the refusal to fulfill the commandment to reproduce. The best option in life, according to Ben Azzaym, is dying out of love for God. The words “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” can be applied to Ben Azzai, who loved God to the point of extinguishing his own soul and who, in remaining unmarried, shed his own blood and reduced God’s image, which, like every human being, he shared.
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah cannot understand how Ben Azzai can preserve God’s image in himself if he does not marry or bring children into the world. However, Ben Azzai does not want to preserve God’s image in himself − quite the contrary: He seeks to reduce that image, to shed his own blood, thereby depleting his soul and returning it to its Maker. For Ben Azzai, the refusal to bring children into the world is actually a form of mystical “suicide” − it brings him closer to the extinguishing of his soul, to the negation of his own self and to being swallowed up by God.