Whether man is the supreme being among all creations is a question on which Judaism is divided. Obviously the Supreme Being is God, but God is the Creator and not created, so I assume the question refers to just to the beings God creates. The answers are reflected in the two different chapters in Bereishit (Genesis) that describe Creation.
In the first chapter, man is the pinnacle of Creation. The whole Creation story leads to creation of man, who is given rule and dominion over everything else that is created. Man is told to conquer the world and fill it.
In the second chapter, man is placed into a world that seems to have been created without man in mind and is told to guard and serve it. Whereas in chapter 1, the world seems to be created for man’s benefit, in chapter 2, it is man that is created for the world’s benefit.
This contradiction forms the basis of a famous statement said by the Hassidic master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, known as the Kotsker. He said that a person should carry two pieces of paper, each with a Biblical verse. On one should be written, “The world was created for me.” On the other it should be written, “I am but dust and ashes.” The trick is knowing when to take out which paper when.
That human beings are the supreme creatures in the world is easily derived from the pattern of creation. Beginning with the simplest separation, each day includes items that are increasingly complex. Human beings are the culmination of creation and thus earn a special place. But the pre-eminence of human beings is also inferred from the fact that of all creatures, only human beings are described as being created in God’s image. There are many interpretations of what this means. Rabbi Yehudah ben Bezalel Löwe, the MaHaRaL of Prague, takes the phrase to mean that human beings walk erect and rule over creation, a view shared by Rabbi Benzion Me’ir Hai Uzziel, the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel. Rabbi Israel Lifschitz understands the phrase to mean human beings all share intellectual capacity and free will. Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Gur (S’fat Emet on Genesis, VaYera ) writes that it refers to the human soul, a position shared by Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad. And Rabbi Hayyim Benveniste explains that being “created in the likeness of God” allows human beings to pursue truth in judgment. For all the disagreement, what all share in common is that human beings are unique and sublime. Of course the consequence of being a supreme creature is not unlimited license to lord over the earth but immense responsibility to protect it.
The best way to understand Judaism's dual approach to this question is to look closely at the two different creation stories. In Genesis 1, God creates humanity as the culmination of the created order. And then God commands the first humans to be in charge of everything: “Fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth” (Genesis 1:28). The message here seems clear: humanity is created to dominate the world and the rest of the created beings.
Contrast that, then, with the message of Genesis 2. There, man is created after plant life but before the animals. And then “The LORD God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it” (Genesis 2:15; other translations have “to work it and keep it”). Here, man is created to be the steward of creation, the caretaker appointed by God to oversee the garden.
One story suggests domination; the other, responsibility. The rabbinic tradition grapples with this tension. On the one hand, humanity is seen as the only moral agent in the world, therefore worthy of domination of the created order. On the other hand, limits are set up around the extent to which we humans are allowed to exploit the created order for our own benefit, for "The earth is the LORD’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants” (Psalm 24:1). Jewish tradition imposes limits to man’s dominion in the following categories, and more: the slaughter and eating of animals; the destruction of trees during wartime; the treatment of animals used for work; the treatment of lost or injured animals; the provision of rest for farmlands and the corners of fields for the poor and needy.
The words of Psalm 8 (v. 4-10) echo this duality:
"When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set in place,
what is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him,
that You have made him little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty?
You have made him master over Your handiwork, laying the world at his feet,
sheep and oxen, all of them, and wild beasts, too;
the birds of the heavens, the fish of the sea, whatever travels the paths of the seas.
O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Your name throughout the earth!”
Somewhere between divine beings and the lower animals, we find our place within the created order. We are but dust and ashes, and yet we are created in the image of God. Both sides of this coin together complete the Jewish picture of humanity, calling us to self-respect and humility, responsibility and gratitude.
Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. Jewish Values Online
N O T I C E
THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN ANSWERS PROVIDED HEREIN ARE THOSE OF THE INDIVIDUAL JVO PANEL MEMBERS, AND DO NOT
NECESSARILY REFLECT OR REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE ORTHODOX, CONSERVATIVE OR REFORM MOVEMENTS, RESPECTIVELY.