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Imitation of God

IMITATION OF GOD (Imitatio Dei), a theological concept meaning man's obligation to imitate God in His actions.

The doctrine of the imitation of God is related to the biblical account of the creation of man in the image of God, which acknowledges a resemblance between man and his Creator. Yet man is to imitate God, not impersonate Him (see Gen. 3:5). The main biblical sources for the injunction to imitate God are found in the command to be holy as God is holy and to walk in God's way (Lev. 19:2; Deut. 10:12, 11:22, 26:17). Man is to be God-like in his actions, but he cannot aspire to be God. This distinguishes the biblical notion from the pagan attempts to achieve apotheosis or absorption in the deity (see D. Shapiro, in Judaism, 12 (1963), 57–77). Man is to imitate God in loving the stranger (Deut. 10:18–19); in resting on the Sabbath (Ex. 20:10–11); and in other ethical actions. The idea of the imitation of God finds clear expression in rabbinic writings, especially the statements of the tanna Abba Saul. On the verse, "This is my God and I will glorify Him" (Ex. 15:2), he comments: "Be like Him. Just as He is gracious and merciful, so be thou also gracious and merciful" (Mekh., Shirah, 3). Abba Saul also comments on the verse, "You shall be holy as I the Lord your God am holy" (Lev. 19:2) – "The household attendants of the king, what is their duty? To imitate the king" (Sifra 19:2). Another classic expression of the ideal of imitating God in rabbinic literature is that of Ḥama bar Ḥanina, who expounded the verse, "After the Lord your God ye shall walk" (Deut. 13:5): "How can man walk after God? Is He not a consuming fire? What is meant is that man ought to walk after [imitate] the attributes of God. Just as the Lord clothes the naked, so you shall clothe the naked. Just as He visits the sick, so you shall visit the sick. Just as the Lord comforted the bereaved, so you shall also comfort the bereaved; just as He buried the dead, so you shall bury the dead" (Sota 14a and parallels). The rabbis admonish the Israelites to imitate the qualities of divine mercy, forbearance, and kindness. They do not counsel imitating God in His attribute of stern justice. The ways of the Lord served the rabbis as ideals of conduct. There are similarities between the rabbinic conception of the imitation of God and that of the Greek philosophers, especially Plato (see Shapiro, loc. cit.). In the writings of Philo, the doctrine of imitating God is associated with the Platonic idea of becoming "like God" (see H.A. Wolfson, Philo, 1 (1947), 194–6). Among medieval Jewish philosophers, Maimonides dealt most extensively with the concept of the imitation of God. He lists among the commandments "to emulate God in His beneficent and righteous ways to the best of one's ability" (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment 8). Other codes also list the imitation of God as a commandment: Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (vol. 2 (1905), positive commandment 7); Sefer ha-Ḥinnukh (ed. by Ch. B. Chavel (1961), 726ff.); and others (see Shapiro, loc. cit. 75). Maimonides relates the commandment to imitate God with the ethical admonition to follow the middle way. In his Guide of the Perplexed, as in his philosophy in general, Maimonides stresses that the acquisition of speculative knowledge, especially the knowledge of God, should be the goal of human life, but in the final chapter of the Guide he holds that such knowledge leads to the imitation of God. Thus he writes: "The perfection in which man can truly glory is attained by him when he has acquired – as far as this is possible for man – the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness and thus to imitate the ways of God" (Guide, 3:54). In Jewish mysticism and Ḥasidism the doctrine of imitating God originated in the notion that the *sefirot are reflected in man's soul and body. The most vivid expression of this idea isin Moses Cordovero's Tomer Devorah (The Palm Tree of Deborah, tr. by L. Jacobs, 1960), which begins: "It is proper for man to imitate his Creator, resembling Him in both likeness and image according to the secret of the Supernal Form. Because the chief Supernal image and likeness is in deeds, a human resemblance merely in bodily appearance and not in deeds debases that Form.… Consequently, it is proper for man to imitate the acts of the Supernal Crown which are the 13 highest attributes of mercy." In kabbalistic writings, imitation of God is seen as an actual imitation of the divine nature as revealed in the sefirot, whereby man becomes worthy of God's grace (see Jacobs' introduction to The Palm Tree of Deborah, 37). These ideas were developed in the ḥasidic writings and in the writings of the Mussar movement. Modern writers, especially those influenced by Kantian philosophy, place emphasis on the idea of the imitation of God. God is seen as the ideal toward which man's ethical behavior should aim.


S. Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1936), 199ff.; G.F. Moore, Judaism, 1 (1927), 441; 2 (1947), 110ff.; M. Silver, The Ethics of Judaism (1938), 185ff.; M. Buber, Israel and the World (1963), 66–78. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: W.Z. Harvey, "Holiness: A Command to Imitatio Dei," in: Tradition, 16 (1977), 7–28; L. Kaplan, "Maimonides and Soloveitchik on the Knoweldge and Imitation of God," in: G. Hasselhoff (ed.), Moses Maimonides (11381204): His Religious, Scientific, and Philosophical Wirkungsgeschichte in Different Cultural Contexts (2004), 491–523; M. Kellner, "Gersonides on Imitatio Dei and the Dissemination of Scientific Knowledge," in: Jewish Quarterly Review, 85 (1995), 275–96; H. Kreisel, "Imitatio Dei in Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed," in: AJS Review, 19 (1994) 169–211; S. Rosenberg, "You Shall Walk in His Ways," in: Edah Journal, 2 (2002), 1–17; K. Seeskin, Searching for a Distant God: The Legacy of Maimonides (2000); W.S. Wurzburger, Ethics of Responsibility: Pluralistic Approaches to Covenantal Ethic (1994).