Imitatio Dei, the imitation of God, is an idea with a long history in both the Jewish and Christian worlds (it’s a Latin phrase after all), and with surprising relevance today.
From a Jewish perspective Imitatio Dei sounds like real chutzpah—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. How can we imitate Hashem, the God whose name we can’t even utter? How can we in any way be like the sovereign Creator and Sustainer of the universe, the one who redeemed us from Egypt and appeared amid the glory-cloud on Mount Sinai to give us the Torah?
In that same Torah, however, God himself tells us to imitate him: “You shall be holy, for I Hashem your God am holy” (Lev 19:2).
Now, “holy” can sound rather vague and other-worldly, but Leviticus 19 doesn’t let us off the hook. After this initial command, it goes on to provide practical details that govern how we earn our living, how we handle our property, how we talk about others, how we treat the disadvantaged people around us, and so on. All of these holiness details provide real-time opportunities to imitate God. The charge to be holy—other-worldly as it might sound—lands right in the neighborhood: “Don’t take vengeance on or bear a grudge against any of your people; rather, love your neighbor as yourself; I am Adonai”(Lev 19:17–18, CJB).
The imitation of God is clear enough Leviticus 19, and our sages discovered it even earlier in the Torah, in this week’s parasha. Moses has led the Israelites on dry ground across Yam Suf, most often translated as the Red Sea, after Hashem divided its waters. The Israelites break out in song:
“I will sing to Adonai, for he is highly exalted: the horse and its rider he threw in the sea. Yah is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation. This is my God: I will glorify him; my father’s God: I will exalt him. (Exod 15:2, CJB)
The word translated “glorify” here is an’vehu, an unusual word that some translations render as “enshrine” or “adorn” him. The Talmudic sage Abba Saul interprets it as two words, ani (I) and hu (he), “I and he”, meaning, “Be thou like him: just as he is gracious and compassionate, so be thou gracious and compassionate” (b.Shabbat 133b, Soncino trans.).
“Be thou like him” means imitation of God, and Abba Saul provides a tremendous insight into what that imitation means. The Israelites—and the Egyptians too — have just seen Hashem in all his power and forcefulness. When they say “this is my God,” they could easily recall the qualities they’ve just sung about, namely his strength and salvation. This God just threw Egypt’s “horse and its rider” into the sea, in case anyone was wondering who was in charge around there. But Abba Saul claims that we’re to be like God, not in this sort of power and triumph, but in grace and compassion. Or, to use a term that’s even more relevant to our daily lives, in kindness.
Another Talmudic discussion of imitatio dei (b.Sotah 14a) arrives at the same point: What does it mean, “You shall walk after the Lord your God”? Is it possible for a person to walk and follow in God’s presence? Does not the Torah also say “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire”? (Deut. 4:24)
The Torah commands the imitation of God—walking after him, in the words of Deuteronomy. But how is it possible to imitate a deity who is so far beyond us that that he’s like a consuming fire? The Talmud goes on to explain: It means to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He. Just as He clothed the naked, so you too clothe the naked, as it says “And the Lord made the man and his wife leather coverings and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21). The Holy One, Blessed be He, visits the ill, as it says, “And God visited him in Elonei Mamreh” (Gen. 18:1); so you shall visit the ill. The Holy One, Blessed be He, comforts the bereaved, as it says, “And it was after Abraham died that God blessed his son Isaac . . .” (Gen. 25:11), so too shall you comfort the bereaved.
The attributes of the Holy One here are all attributes of kindness. As Abba Saul noted, imitating God doesn’t focus on God’s power and transcendence; it tries to emulate his compassion and mercy. Imitating God means being kind . . . even when we think the other person doesn’t deserve it. It means smiling at the really slow young woman behind the check-out counter, and giving her a good word. It means doing the same for the customer ahead of you, who unloaded 37 items at the counter marked “Express check-out; 10 items or less.” It means saying it gently when you have to ask your wife how the checking account got overdrawn or your husband why the trash can in the kitchen is overflowing onto the floor. Or how about being kind with your Facebook friends who have the wrong opinions politically?
I’m listing these admittedly minor examples because they’re the sort of thing we can actually do every day, just like the examples of holiness in Leviticus 19. They’re virtues of the neighbourhood, and they help us find God in the neighbourhood. Plus, they’re the sort of thing we tend to overlook because we’re holding out for that rare chance to be dazzlingly spiritual. But opportunities to imitate God are all around us, as our Messiah demonstrates: Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Messiah forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Messiah loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Eph 4:32–5:2)