This essay was written in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001 in memory of those brutally murdered there by terrorists earlier that day. May their memories be blessed.
The Body of G-d
The sages of the Talmud and the Rishonim believed that G-d is a corporeal being (has a body).
It says in Berachot 6a:R' Avin bar Rav Ada said in the name of R' Yitzchak: How do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, puts on tefillin? For it is said, "G-d swore on His right hand, on His strong arm..." "On His strong arm" - this is tefillin... What is written in G-d's tefillin? He said, "And what nation on Earth is like Your people Israel?," "Or has G-d assayed to go," "And to make you high" are all written in His tefillin.
Can it be that R' Yitzchak is telling us that G-d has a human form and wears tefillin on His arm? Is the gemara teaching us that G-d has a physical form?
To understand this gemara, we need to look at one of the earliest commentaries available. Rabbeinu Chananel (ca. 985-1057) explains:To those who fear Him and who are righteous in their hearts, the Holy One, blessed be He, shows His glory in the form of a sitting person, as it says "I have seen Hashem sitting upon his throne, with all the host of Heaven standing by Him, on His right and on His left" (I Kings 22:19) and "I saw the Lord sitting upon a high and lofty throne, and its legs filled the Temple" (Isaiah 6:1), and like someone who has legs, as it says "and under His feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork" (Exodus 24:10). Once we know that He appears to prophets in this way, it becomes clear that the "seeing" refers to seeing through the heart [or mind*], not seeing through the eye, because it is impossible to say that the image of G-d can be seen through eyes for it says "To whom can you liken Me that I should be his equal?" (Isaiah 40:25). Rather, this is seeing through the heart [or mind*]. Thus it is possible to say that a person sees in a heart-vision an image of holiness with a head and, on it, tefillin... Indeed, it says specifically "I spoke with the prophets... and through the prophets I appeared" (Hosea 12:11). This teaches us that G-d reveals Himself to each prophet as an image that the prophet can see.
This is how Rabbeinu Chananel explained this gemara. "Seeing" means mentally having a prophetic vision. It does not mean literally seeing G-d but viewing an image that G-d implanted in the prophet's mind. Some will claim that this type of allegorical reading is the creation of the Rambam. They will be correct about the Rambam being a vehement opponent of any ascription of physical properties to G-d. Indeed, the first of the three sections of Moreh Nevuchim is devoted to proving that G-d cannot be physical. However, the Rambam did not invent this idea; he only championed it. We have already seen that Rabbeinu Chananel agreed. We shall soon see that there were many who preceded the Rambam and agreed with him and that even the Rambam's opponents bascially agreed with him about this.
There was probably no opponent of anthropomorphism who is more famous than Onkelos the convert and translator of the Torah (first century). This Tanna, who was a student of R' Eliezer and R' Yehoshua, consistently took phrases in the Torah that give the appearance that G-d has a form and translated them otherwise. Throughout this Targum we see the "word of G-d" or "the seat of His glory" used to explain phrases that imply Divine corporeality.
Another source from that period is Josephus (first century). In Against Apian (book 2 chapter 17) Josephus discussed extensively how the Jewish conception of G-d is of an almighty, all-powerful, and incomprehensible being who cannot be described much less seen. He spoke similarly in chapter 21 of that book and added that this is known to all Jews. This shows that not only did Josephus believe that G-d has no physical form, his Tannaitic contemporaries did as well.
Later on in Jewish history, we find Rav Saadia Gaon (ca. 892-942) speaking very strongly on the subject. In Emunot VeDeyot (2:9) and in Otzar HaGeonim (Berachot p. 13), Rav Saadia Gaon explains that any language of seeing G-d is allegorical because G-d is not physical. Similarly, Rav Hai Gaon (10th century) quoted in Otzar HaGeonim (Berachot 59a, p. 131) writes, "There is no doubt that G-d cannot be compared to any creature... anything the rabbis said that implies such is not meant literally but as an allegory and a parable to visible things that we know."
A bit later, Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Pakuda (early 12th century) wrote in his Chovot HaLevavot (Sha'ar HaYichud ch. 10), "We can all agree that we were forced into anthropomorphizing the Creator and describing Him with human characteristics so that people can comprehend His existence. The prophetic books characterize Him with physical descriptions so that people can easily understand. If they described Him properly with spiritual words and concepts, we would not understand them and would not be able to worship something we do not know."
This is all background to the Rambam's philosophy. However, most people are not philosophers and the Rambam was concerned that the masses, and perhaps even some scholars, believed that G-d could have a body. It was these people that the Rambam addressed, not Chazal or anyone who preceded him. In one of the many places that the Rambam discusses this, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:7, he says that those who believe that G-d has a body are heretics. To this, Raavad famously responded that they are not heretics. According to our printed editions, Raavad adds that "many who are greater and better than he [Rambam] (kamah gedolim vetovim mimenu) followed this belief." Some read this as referring to great and good men from our nation (me'ameinu - see Knesset HaGedolah at the end of Orach Chaim and Or Sameach here). A manuscript edition of the Raavad just reads "great and good men" without the word "mimenu" (or "me'ameinu"). The Kessef Mishneh quotes the Sefer HaIkkarim (1:2) that does not have this entire phrase in his citation of the Raavad. Regardless, it is absolutely clear that the Raavad was referring to a few respected contemporary scholars who followed this view. As we shall see, these scholars were few and their understanding was not as radical as one might think.
What is absolutely undeniable is that the Raavad himself did not believe that G-d has a physical form. Rabbi Yitzchak (Isadore) Twersky wrote in his famous biography of the Raavad, Rabad of Posquieres pp. 283-284.There is not a shadow of doubt that Rabad was personally committed to the traditional Jewish view which maintained the unlikeness and incorporeality of G-d as an indispensable corollary of the existence and unity of G-d. Those Talmudic legends and homilies which nurture the corporeal misconception of G-d are in his opinion "corrupting right opinion" about religious matters... Elsewhere in his writings, Rabad is emphatic and unequivocal concerning the elimination of all anthropomorphic attributes with regard to G-d: "it is not correct to speak in this manner about the creater" [Ba'alei HaNefesh p. 4].
Who were these scholars who believed that G-d has a physical form? Professor Harry Wolfson of Harvard claimed that there were not many such scholars (The Philosophy of the Kalam, p. 100). While there may have been many among the unlearned masses who followed this view, there were few talmidei chachamim. One that we know about, and probably the most famous, was R' Moshe ben Chasdai of Taku (quoted in Chiddushei HaRamban to Gittin 7b). In his philosophical work Ketav Tamim, he argues that we cannot understand G-d. He is all-powerful and unfathomable. While G-d has no form, when He so chooses He can appear to people in physical form. This is hardly the simple view of a physical G-d. Rather, it is a sophisticated view that refuses to limit G-d (for extensive quotations and a full analysis, see Torah Shelemah vol. 16 pp. 308-319). This is still heresy according to the Rambam. It is also, however, thoughtful and worthy of the Rambam's efforts.
Let us now address another gemara. In Avoda Zarah 43a:"You shall not make before Me" (Exodus 20:19) - you shall not make images of the servants who serve before Me in the heavens. Abaye said, "The Torah only forbade the four faces [ox, man, lion, eagle]... All faces are permitted aside from the face of man [as it says] "You shall not make before Me" - you shall not make Me [My image]...
This is also recorded as halachah in Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 141:4). Does this not imply that G-d has a physical form?
It does not, as Ritva (there and on Rosh Hashanah 24b) explains: "Even though [G-d's physical image] is an allegory, the Torah forbade making a comparable image out of respect for G-d... Heaven forbid that G-d should have a physical body." Since G-d appears in visions to prophets in a human form, it is forbidden to make replicas of this form. It is not because G-d actually has a human form. It is only because prophets "see" Him in their visions in that form. See also the chiddushim of the Ran and Re'ah to Avodah Zarah 43a and Sefer HaChinuch (mitzvah 39).
This commentary was not a post-Rambam invention. Indeed, Rabbeinu Chananel (Rosh Hashanah 24b) similarly writes: "Like a human form that I show to prophets in their visions, as it says in Ezekiel (1:26) 'an image like the appearance of a man.'"
What we have seen is that there is no basis within Judaism to say that G-d has a physical form. Even the few who claimed that G-d could choose to appear in a physical form were roundly condemned as heretics. From the time of the Tannaim through the time of the Rambam, and certainly afterwards, the clearly dominant view was that G-d does not and cannot have a physical form. While there were undoubtedly many uneducated Jews who believed that G-d is physical, this view is and always has been heresy.
*To the rishonim, the heart was the place of the mind and the word lev is a synonym for intellect.
Contributor(s): Gil Student
Last revised: 10/17/01
© Aishdas 2001