Books: Seeing God’s face

A Tel Aviv University professor attempts to understand how we anthropomorphize deities.

'The Ancient of Days,’ a 1794 watercolor etching by William Blake (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
'The Ancient of Days,’ a 1794 watercolor etching by William Blake
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In The Sensual God, Aviad Kleinberg, a professor of medieval history at Tel Aviv University, sets out to explore religious attempts to put into words the indescribable, and to attribute images, senses and corporeality to what ought to be beyond such attributions.
The author himself does not believe in God. His parents, who survived the Holocaust, taught him “disbelief in a God of justice is a moral duty.” Yet he is inexorably attracted to sacred texts, for they are “unabashedly engrossed in the sublime” – and so is he, in his own fashion.
“The religious ride through the big questions is wilder, bolder, more imaginative than any philosophical investigation,” he notes, adding that he is happy to enjoy the ride, just so long as he can get off before the end.
Kleinberg’s introductory defense against any academic peers wondering at his obsession with such “nonsensical” materials is illuminating. Religious thinking, he explains, is “amphibian” – truly committed to both rational and irrational premises, albeit in a volatile mix. Hence, as his book’s subject he has deliberately chosen one of the “breaking points” of religious thinking, in which the two poles of religion and philosophy are stretched immensely, and end up clashing with satisfyingly peculiar results. I found this introductory section, together with the postscript, as interesting and enlightening as the book itself.
For the believer, questions of God’s physicality are not abstract philosophy or an intellectual game. The urge to give God form is strong. Jews sometimes fail to achieve the intimacy that religions upholding some form of divine corporeality and closeness – such as Christianity and Hinduism – offer. It is simply more challenging. Hence, the existence of rabbis and the like: intermediaries who should not replace God, but for some adherents do. As Kleinberg cites in the name of ancient Greek sculptor and philosopher Phidias: “Men need something palpable through which to express their gratitude to their gods. They are like children stretching out their hands to their absent parents in their dreams.”
For philosophers such as Dionysus and Maimonides, descriptions of God’s sensuality are the “infections and imperfections” that sully the idea of an entirely unknowable God. Yet for many theologians, who are supposed to be “bouncers” for the religious club, turning away inappropriate ideas about God can end up letting in all sorts of odd folk.
“Once they were allowed into ‘orthodoxy,’ ideas about God had to obey the dress code and assume the suitable garb,” Kleinberg writes.
“But the gowns provided by reinterpreters never quite fit. You may declare that the kabbalistic idea of the sephirot does not contradict the idea of God’s oneness, but when one has a closer look at the sephirotic God, one can, and should, have doubts.”
Maimonides, in his 13 principles of faith, insists that the bodily terms in which God is described are metaphors alone. But is this sanitized, Aristotelian God really the deity we encounter in the Bible, where the divine manifests in human corporeality (arm, hand) and even animal form (lion, eagle, ox)? The Talmudic sages unhesitatingly describe God as clapping, sighing and speaking, as a barber, and even as a half-naked old mourner.
For the layperson, this book is heavy going at times. Excellent writing, amusing examples and contemporary references help in wading through medieval theological issues and dense primary sources, as does the division of later chapters according to senses: “Invisible,” “Tasteless,” “Untouchable,” “Inaudible,” “Scentless.”
I found myself a bit bogged down in the long passages on Christian attempts to deal with the theological challenges posed by the incarnation. Sympathy, fascination and alienation arose in me by turns, as one Christian theologian after another bent over backwards to explain how God came to earth as a man.
Particularly eye-opening was the chapter “Tasteless,” in which Kleinberg presents the challenges arising from the Eucharist – the transubstantiation of Christ’s body and blood into bread and wine – including: what happens if a fly lands in the sacred wine that is Christ’s blood? And at what point do Christ’s body and blood turn back into ordinary bread and wine, before excretion from the human digestive system? Some Jewish questions are no less bizarre.
Yet the struggles to avoid shades of cannibalism and make the whole thing hang together verge on the astonishing.
Kleinberg does deal with several Jewish issues, particularly the revelation at Sinai which, with its impossible audiovisual display, he terms the “Jewish Incarnation” – a moment when Maimonides can do nothing but gnash his teeth and watch categories clashing. But to my mind, there is more mileage to be had from Judaism’s inner theological tensions: the Bible’s anthropomorphization of God; or the Kabbala, with its rich imagining of God as a man and its sephirotic tree bridging the abyss between the infinite and an intimately present shechina, which merited a mere two pages.
True, Christianity does centrally feature a statue of a man bleeding on a cross in its places of worship, compared to our stained-glass grapes. Moreover, Kleinberg does explain that Judaism is a religion with “weak philosophical sensibilities” and that the rabbis found Greek philosophy unappealing and hence had no problem “committing philosophical atrocities” – while Christian thinkers, raised on Greek philosophical models, had to take on the momentous task of reinterpreting the Hebrew Bible’s sacred texts.
I suppose I was hoping for more from this book than it claims to offer, but I’m sure we have not heard the last word on the subject. As long as the divine continues to capture people’s interest, they will be trying their hardest to see God’s face.