Humans as Co-creators: Co-owners as Well?

A Talmudic legal parable illustrates that, although they may have improved the natural world, humans do not own it. We may transcend nature, but we are also part of it.

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Reprinted with permission from Faith and Doubt, © Norman Lamm, 1971, KTAV Publishing House.

The doctrine which teaches man’s discontinuity with and superiority to the rest of the natural order, must not be misconstrued as a sanction for man to despoil the world. First, while he is beyond the merely natural, he also participates in it; he is an intersection of the natural and the divine (or supernatural). The plurals in the verse, “And God said, Let us make man in our image,” are explained by Rabbi Joseph Kimhi [a twelfth-century Provencal commentator] as addressed by God to the earth, or nature. Man remains inextricably tied to nature even while he is urged to transcend it. Man is a creature, and the denial of his creatureliness turns his creative powers to satanic and destructive ends.

Second, the very nature of the concept of the imagehood of man implies the warning that he must never overreach in arrogance. He may build, change, produce, create, but he does not hold title to the world, he is not the “King of the world,” an appellation reserved for the Deity, because the original all-inclusive creation was exclusively that of God, and mortal man has no part in it. His subordinate role in the cosmic scheme means that nature was given to him to enjoy but not to ruin -- a concept reinforced by the law that before deriving any benefit or pleasure from the natural world, such as eating or drinking, one must recite a blessing to the “King of the world”: an acknowledgment that it is God, not man, who holds ultimate title to the universe. Hence, without this blessing-acknowledgment, it is as if one stole from God” (Babylonian Talmud [=BT], Shabbat 35a).

That man’s role as co-creator with God must not be exaggerated we learn from the following Talmudic passage: “The Rabbis taught: man was created on the eve of the Sabbath. Why? So that the Sadducees (i.e., heretics) should not say that God had a partner in the act of creation of the world” (BT Sanhedrin 38a). This statement does not contradict that of R. Akiva, who declared man’s actions more beautiful, or suitable, than those of God, hence emphasizing the religious sanction of man’s creative office. Man remains a partner of God in the ongoing creative process. However, here we must distinguish between two Hebrew synonyms for creation: beri’ah and yetzirah. The former refers to creatio ex nihilo and hence can only be used of God. The latter describes creation out of some preexistent substance, and hence may be used both of God (after the initial act of genesis) and man. God has no “partners” in the one-time act of beri’ah with which He called the universe into being, and the world is, in an ultimate sense, exclusively His. He does invite man to join Him, as a co-creator, in the ongoing process of yetzirah. Hence, man receives from God the commission to “subdue” nature by means of his yetzirah-functions; but, because he is incapable of beri’ah, man remains responsible to the Creator for how he has disposed of the world.

A Legal Parable

The relations between God the Master, man the yetzirah-creator, and nature may be clarified further by referring to the Halakhah concerning the relationships between owner, material, and artisan. The Mishnah discusses the case of a man (owner) who gave some material to an artisan to fashion it. The artisan, instead of repairing, spoiled the object. The law is that the artisan must pay the amount of the damages to the owner.

The question then arises in the [Babylonian Talmud] (Bava Kama 98b): What is this object, which the owner gave over to the artisan, and the damages for which the latter must compensate the owner? Clearly, if it was a finished vessel, and the artisan broke it, the latter must pay the difference in value. But if the owner gave raw material to the worker, asking that he fashion it into a complete vessel, and the artisan did so, but then broke the very vessel he made, is the artisan obligated, in such a case, too, to compensate the owner for the difference in value between a perfect vessel and a broken one, or is he free of obligation since the broken vessel is no less in value than the raw material with which he began?

Who Owns "Improved" Material?  The Debate Raged On

The question was in controversy amongst both Tannaim and Amora'im [i.e., for more than half a millennium, from the first century before the common era through the composition of the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds]. Some held that uman koneh b’shevah kelim, that the artisan has a monetary right in the vessel by virtue of the improvement he effected in it in transforming it from, for instance, mere planks into a table. If the table belongs, then, to the artisan, he cannot be held responsible to pay the owner of the planks for damages to that table if he should later break it.

Others disagree: the improvement in the material is the property of the original owner, and if the artisan later destroyed the completed object, he injured the owner and must compensate him. Most authorities decide the law in favor of the latter opinion: it is the original owner of the raw material who has proprietary rights in the completed artifact, not the artisan who invested his fabricative talents. The explanation for the artisan’s legal responsibility for the finished product is contained in a Tannaitic [i.e. early, from the time of the teachers cited in the Mishnah] source: The artisan is to be considered a shomer sakhar or paid trustee for the article he fashioned, and which belongs to the original owner, and as such he must pay for the object if he damaged it (Tosefta Bava Kama, ch. 2).

What we learn from this, then, is that the artisan is paid by the owner for two functions: for improving the material by fashioning a vessel out of it, and for watching over and protecting that vessel once it is completed. This artifact which he created with his own hands, over which he labored with the sweat of his brow, into which he put his remarkable talents, this vessel must now be guarded by him for the owner from any damage it sustains in the course of his trusteeship over it. This is so because, the halakhah decides, the artisan has no proprietary right in the article he created. It simply does not belong to him.

Vis-à-vis Nature, Humans Are Trustees

Let us now project this specific case onto the cosmic scene. God is the Owner, man the artisan, and the raw material is all the wealth of this world: nature, life, culture, society, intellect, family. Man was charged with applying to them his yetzirah-creative talents. He was commissioned to improve the world, build it up, transform it, “subdue” it. If he does so, he is “paid” for his labors. But man never has title over his own creations; he has no mastery over the world. Despite his investment of labor and talent, the world, even as perfected by him, belongs to the original Owner.

No matter how extensive and ingenious man’s scientific and technological achievements in the transformation, conquest, and improvement of nature, he cannot displace the rightful Owner who provided the material in the first place. And not only does man not have proprietorship over raw nature, but he is not even the absolute master of his own creations, the results of his magnificent yetzirah. He may not undo what he himself did, for once having done it, it belongs to the Owner and not to the artisan. Man must never entertain the notion that because he labored over his creations, he has the right to destroy them, to repeal his creativity. He remains a paid trustee over his very own products and must guard them and watch over them with the greatest care.

Man the yetzirah-creator, according to the teaching of halakhic Judaism, is responsible to God the beri’ah-Creator not only for the raw material of the natural world into which he was placed, but is responsible as well for protecting and enhancing the civilization which he himself created. “Subdue it” is not only not an invitation to ecological irresponsibility; it is a charge to assume additional moral responsibility, not only for the natural world as such, but even for the manmade culture and civilization which we found when we were born into this world.

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Rabbi Norman Lamm

Rabbi Norman Lamm, Ph.D., served more than a quarter of a century as President of Yeshiva University and of its Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He is the author of The Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism and Seventy Faces: Articles of Faith.