On the one hand, reason dictates that an omnipotent God with absolute unity does not have any form of corporeality, which by definition implies finitude and the ability to be divided. On the other hand, the Bible speaks of God creating humans in His image (“Let us make man in our image and likeness”), and repeatedly depicts Him performing actions with His hands and other body parts.
For medieval scholars, this problem was compounded by homiletic passages (Aggadata) in the Talmud that occasionally portray God as performing actions like donning tefillin or report how humans bear the same image as Him.
Already in the early medieval period, many scholars such as Rav Hai Gaon declared that such passages should be read metaphorically. While adopting this approach in most cases, Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon also suggested a theory of “created Glory,” which asserted that God would sometimes create a visible entity to give prophets a visual affirmation of their experience, as in the case of Ezekiel’s visions.
Rabbi Yehuda Halevi also believed that many passages should be understood figuratively. Yet he also contended that great spiritual figures, including prophets and pious sages, have a unique sense of apprehension (“inner eye”) that combines the intellect and imagination to perceive the inner nature of the divine world, which they then depict in distinctive imagery.
While these figures all denied any corporeality to God, the most trenchant critic of anthropomorphism was Maimonides. He asserted that believers in divine corporeality were both idiots and heretics, since their conception of God was entirely false – as it denied the omnipotence and unity of the Creator. All biblical and rabbinic passages that imply otherwise must therefore be understood as metaphors or visions in the prophet’s minds. Such imagery, he asserted, were pedagogically necessary to introduce complex concepts in familiar terms or because some concepts elude linguistic expression, thereby necessitating pictorial images to convey a sense of the teaching.
Maimonides also deemed the early mystical work Shiur Koma, a midrashic work from the Heichalot literature that graphically depicts God’s exact measurements, as heretical and stemming from non-Jewish hands. Following in his father’s footsteps, Maimonides’s son Abraham maintained that believing in a corporeal God was equivalent to worshiping demons or idols, and further sniped that it was no surprise that Christians were generally supportive of those Ashkenazi scholars who vociferously opposed Maimonidean teachings.
While he agreed with the basic theological claim negating corporeality, Rabad of Posquières strongly criticized Maimonides’s assertion that belief in God’s corporeality was heretical. He noted there were “many greater scholars” than Maimonides who had been innocently led astray by the confusing biblical and rabbinic texts.
Other historical sources, documented by Ephraim Kanarfogel, affirm that several (but certainly not all) Ashkenazi scholars – let alone laity – believed in some form of divine corporeality.
Rabbi Moshe Taku, for example, argued that God has the power of movement and may adopt well-defined forms as necessitated in a given situation, even as He does not have a singular, permanent form. Others appear to have believed that while God does not have flesh and blood, He is comprised of some large, ethereal matter. Rabbi Isaiah of Trani II (known as the Riaz) disagreed with these beliefs but deemed them non-heretical since, he contended, they were shared by a few talmudic sages.
In any case, several Ashkenazi scholars, both before and certainly after Maimonides, agreed that God did not have any form of corporeality; today, one would be hard-pressed to find any traditional religious thinker who does not scorn its very notion. One notable exception is the contemporary theologian Michael Wyschogrod, who adopted a form of mild anthropomorphism which emphasizes God’s human-like experiences. Acknowledging its philosophical difficulties, he nonetheless believed that a central biblical tenet is that God lives amongst the Jewish people as an expression of his love for them, and that this axiom was lost through Maimonidean rationalism.
Many have shunned Wyschogrod’s theory for its overtones of a carnal theology. Nonetheless, other 20th-century philosophers, without attributing physical attributes to God, have argued that biblical anthropomorphism regarding God’s actions or emotions were not intended simply for pedagogical reasons, as Maimonides contended. Instead, Franz Rosenzweig argued, they are meant to reflect, on an existential level, the emotional depth of man’s momentary encounters with God. As Eliezer Berkovits declared, “God’s involvement in the world is the source of all anthropomorphisms… Since God’s involvement in the destiny of man is the precondition of man, ‘anthropomorphism’ is indeed inseparable from religion… That God cares is no mere allegory, but a statement of fact, which one makes on the basis of the actual experience of the encounter.”
Thus, the conversation over God’s corporeality ultimately reflects the complexity of a religious outlook that affirms God’s infinite state, as well as His involvement in the world. ■ The writer teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, directs the Tivkah Israel Seminars and is a junior scholar in the Judaism and Human Rights program at the Israel Democracy Institute. Facebook.com/RabbiShlomoBrody