12/20/2010 05:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

In the Spittin' Image of God

When I was a child in the late 1950s, before I was able to read, there was a book in my home called The Family of Man, a compilation of photographs that had recently been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The collection was, as I found out later, a "photo-biography of the human race."

I recall poring over that book during long evenings. I marveled over the fact that two eyes, a nose and a mouth could take on such variety. These pictures were wondrous, but the awe they evoked was not entirely comfortable. I struggled to reconcile the deep sense of kinship I felt with those faces with the estrangement of being a lonely child. The conundrum of separateness and connection was bewildering, a bit uncanny.

I had a voracious thirst to learn what other people did with their deepest fears and hopes: with their solitude, their sense of connection, their awe. My family was not big on spiritual practice. Study, however, was a sacred endeavor. So, as soon as I could choose my own books, I began reading about the religions of the world.

When I was about 15, I learned something that changed my life. It happened, of all places, in synagogue school. We were exploring a passage from the Mishnah, a Jewish law code from the 200 C.E. At one point, it says, "An earthly king stamps his image on a coin and they all look the same. But the King of Kings, God, puts His image on every human being, and every one is different."

That felt exactly right: I was a unique coin, but stamped from the very same "image" as every other. Until that moment, I had not known if I believed in God. But that text made sense to me. No person is more holy than any other. This messy reality with all its wild diversity was actually also a unity, a sacred oneness.

Now I work in a rabbinical college, creating programs that prepare students for a world of religious diversity. I am lucky enough to get to spend every day honoring my core belief.

I believe that no matter who you are -- a bearded orthodox rabbi or a hijab-wearing Muslim woman -- you are, simply by virtue of being human, the spittin' image of the one and only God. My work is to bring together people whose looks, experiences and beliefs are different, people who first encounter each other as strangers, perhaps even foes, and leave having seen the holy in each other's faces. It doesn't always happen.

Truth is, sometimes it is hard for me to see the image of God, even in people close to me. This is not such an easy belief to maintain. But I know it is worth trying.

This essay was aired on Philadelphia public radio "This I Believe," on Dec. 10. Visit the WHYY website and hear the audio version.