Body of G-d
We find in Berachot 6a:
“R’ Abin the son of Rav Ada said in the name of R’ Isaac: 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 the Master of the Universe’s tefillin? He said, ‘And what one nation on Earth is like Your people Israel?’…And in the other sections what is there? ‘Who is a great nation?’ ‘Happy are you, O Israel,’ ‘Or has G-d assayed to go,’ ‘And to make you high’ are all written in His tefillin. (All of these verses are written in one compartment on His arm–Rashi)
G-d, who has not the form of a body and has no body, and about whom the concepts of a body cannot be said, may He be blessed, has a head and a left arm upon which to place tefillin? On the other hand, before us we have a clear and explicit gemara, not a parable and not a euphemism. Not only do Chazal accept (as obvious) that the Holy One, blessed be He, puts on tefillin, they determine which verses are written in each and every compartment in the tefillin on G-d’s arm! Even the Rishonim do not disagree with this at all.
If someone would now come to religious people and say that G-d has a body, an arm, a head, a face, anger and desires — not only would he be called an apostate, he’d be called crazy. It is as though it has always been accepted and known to us that G-d cannot be spoken of in terms of a body and this is what our Sages OBM held, learned, and have always taught.
It this so? Let us open books and check.
Many gemaras and aggadic midrashim, and even verses of the Torah and words of the prophets imply that G-d has a body, a head, an arm (upon which the Holy One, blessed be He, places tefillin) and He has fingers, palms, a face, a back, (“And I will take away My hand, and you see My back parts, but My face shall not be seen,” Exodus 33:23). He has legs (“The earth is My footstool,” Isaiah 66:1). And He, may He be blessed, sometimes gets angry and is appeased and sometimes gets furious and punishes. There are many more such anthropomorphisms concerning G-d — statements which attribute human qualities to Him.
A wise student will certainly say that these all are nothing but parable, imagery, and metaphor, that “the Torah spoke in human language” and that the intention certainly was not that G-d really has human qualities, but all these statements are secrets and hints, covert and concealed. That is what our generation believes, but what did previous generations think? Did they also think as we do?
We will bring some statements by our great rabbis who thought that G-d indeed does have a physical body.
Maimonides, in The Laws of Repentance 3:7, wrote: “Five are called apostates…one who says there is one G-d to the world, but He has body and image.” The Ra’avad criticized him, “And why is this called apostasy? Some of those greater than he [Maimonides] believed this, based on what they saw in the Scriptures, and even more on what they saw in the Aggadah, which distorts one’s mind.” This is the Ra’avad’s testimony that Torah scholars greater than Maimonides thought that G-d has body and image (that He can be grasped by the senses). About Maimonides it is said, “From Moses to Moses there arose none like Moses” and who is “greater” than he? The Tannaim and Amoraim. Indeed, as we have seen, the Mishnah and Gemara reflect their belief in the physical nature of G-d, while Maimonides tried long and hard to refute these beliefs in his book “A Guide to the Perplexed” (see there). Certainly he would not have tried so hard and given so many explanations were the anthropomorphic concepts not so deeply rooted in the words of Chazal and the Gemara.
Thus testified R’ Yedayah the son of Abraham, who lived in 13th century France (as brought in the Rashba’s responsa, part one, paragraph 418): “It is very well known that belief in material aspects [of G-d] spread in the early generations throughout almost all the Diaspora from the very day of the exile.” In the will attributed to Maimonides )Igros Kushta, 277, p. 15), it is written about the Jews of France: “They speak despisingly of the Creator, blessed be He, in their books, and use anthropomorphic descriptions concerning the Creator, blessed be He, time and again.”
Moreover, Maimonides admitted that he really forced the Scripture to make it match his viewpoint — his opposition to anthropomorphic conceptualizations of G-d. He wrote in “A Guide to the Perplexed,” part two, chapter 25: “The Scriptures do not show that the world is created ex nihilo any more than they show that G-d has a physical nature. But the gates of interpretation are not closed before us…and it would be possible to interpret them [the verses speaking of the world created ex nihilo] as we have done when we rejected the physical nature [of G-d]…when we interpreted the Scriptures in a way denying G-d’s physical nature.”
This you should know — all those whom Maimonides called apostates have explicit verses to support them! Maimonides has neither verses nor Gemara to back him up on this issue; not only is it not explicit in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, and said a third time in the Writings, but the Scriptures show exactly the opposite, as the Ra’avad pointed out.
The Gemara in Avodah Zarah 46a: “‘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 [and we learn this from the exegesis] ‘You shall not make before me’ — you shall not make Me [My image]…’You shall not make before me’ — do not make image of the servants who serve before Me in the Heavens, such as the Ophanim, the Seraphim, the holy animals, and the Heavenly host. Abaye said, ‘The Torah forbade only [making images of] those who serve on the upper level’.” According to the Gemara, there are physical forms to those who serve the Holy One, blessed be He, and even G-d Himself has a form. What is His form? The form of Man. (Perhaps they determined this based on the verse, ‘For in the image of G-d made He man,” Genesis 9:6.) Therefore they specifically forbade the image of Man, as they said, “‘You shall not make before me’ — you shall not make Me.”
And thus ruled the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah, paragraph 141, section 4): “It if is forbidden to draw the images [of those who are] on the level of theShechinah, such as the Four Faces [ox, man, lion and eagle; see the note of the Shach that Ezekiel turned the ox into a cherub, as Reish Lakish said in Hagigah 13b] and also the forms of the Sepharim and Ophanim and the Heavenly host, and also the form of Man.” (It would be interesting to ask: According to the Shulchan Aruch, what form do the Heavenly hosts have?) The Tosfot on Avodah Zarah 43a, s.v. lo ta’asun iti, wrote: “This is puzzling, for the face of Man by itself is forbidden, so why did they have to forbid the forms of those who serve in the Heavens? [The Tosfot understood that those who serve in the Heavens resemble Man, and explained:] it should be said that certainly there is, above, neither angel nor Seraph nor Ophan with an actual human form, as is said in Hagiga 15a, ‘they have no…back.’.” That is, the angels have human form, but no backs. (?)
But these laws again contradict the Gemara in Yevamot 49b: “Menashe killed Isaiah… He said to him: your teacher Moses said, ‘No man can see Me and live’ (Exodus 23), and you said, ‘And I saw G-d sitting on a high and extolled chair…’ (Isaiah 6:1)? [And Chazal explained:] All the prophets looked through an aspaklaria [glass, and some say a mirror] which is not clear, but Moses our teacher looked through an aspaklaria which is clear.” Rashi explained: “[All the prophets] thought they were seeing, but they did not see, while Moses looked through a clear aspaklaria and knew that he was not seeing His face.” So we see all the Sages agreeing that Moses and the prophets all saw a physical G-d who has a form. The Sages merely discussed the quality with which they saw Him and which parts of Him they saw. We should say, incidentally, that according to this Gemara there was no need to forbid the forms of ox, lion, and eagle, for the prophets only saw these forms because they looked through unclean glass…
Come and see that not only to G-d and the angels do the Rishonim grant physicality. Nachmanides anthropomorphized even Heaven and Hell. This is what he wrote in the book Torat HaAdam, Shaar HaGmul, section 121: “Here are some of the places where they [Chazal] spoke of Gehenna [Hell], and of the sorrow and punishment of those who go there, in the Talmud and in the midrashim, and they measured its shape. These things and the like should not be considered a parable or a puzzle, for they named its place and measured its length and width.”
In section 123 he wrote, “Paradise is found in this world, in one of the places on earth. This is a fundamental of the Torah and its interpretation by the Sages. Paradise is a place on earth from whence four rivers originate; one of them is the Euphrates which surrounds the land of Israel. Whatever is written explicitly in the story of Creation is all true. The Scripture should not be taken out of its literal context, and people acquainted with measurements will say that the garden of Eden is just below the equator, so that the day will not be prolonged or shortened. In the ancient Greek medical books and in the book of Asaf the Jew it is said that Asclepius, a Macedonian wise man, and 40 learned magicians went through the land and past India, east towards Eden to find medicinal trees and the Tree of Life to make themselves greater than all other wise men on earth. But when they came to that place, the glint of the turning sword burned them all; not a single one of them escaped…All of this is true and well-known, even to this day, for many who traveled from this land eastwards have seen from afar the glint of the turning sword.” In short, Paradise is “beyond India” (that is, in China), and therefore that country is called, to this very day, “the Communist Paradise”…
We have already learned that the Heavenly hosts have no backs (but they do have wings, see below). And we also learn about the heavenly angels that they do not understand the Aramaic language! It is brought in Tractate Shabbat 12b: “R’ Judah said: a person should never ask for his needs in Aramaic, and R’ Yochanan said: anyone who asks for his needs in Aramaic is not heeded by the heavenly angels, for the heavenly angels do not understand Aramaic.” The Tosfot on Shabbat 12b, s.v. she’ein malachei, asked: “And we wonder at this, for they even know the thoughts in men’s hearts, but the Aramaic language they do not know?” But the Rosh, on the second chapter of Berachot, section two, answered the Tosfot’s question: “They know and recognize the thoughts in men’s hearts, but they find this language improper to heed.” According to the Rosh the angels do understand Aramaic, they merely find it improper. Aside from the question of what is improper in the Aramaic language (after all, there are Aramaic words in the Pentateuch and the Holy Writ) the Rosh also ignored an explicit gemara (Sotah 36a): “Don’t the heavenly angels know Aramaic? Yet the Tannaim said: Yochanan the High Priest heard a Heavenly Voice from the Holy of Holies saying [in Aramaic], ‘They have won — the lads who went forth to battle to [the city of] Antioch’….” Since the voice the High Priest heard spoke in Aramaic, it follows that the angels not only understand Aramaic, they even speak it. So they explained, “It was Gabriel, as it is said: Gabriel came and taught him [Joseph — see Sotah 36b] seventy languages.” From this it is clear that unlike the opinion of the Rosh, that the angels do understand Aramaic but find it improper, the opposite is true: Aramaic is not improper (for it is spoken in the Holy of Holies) but Gabriel is the only angel who understands Aramaic, since he knows seventy languages.
One way or another, 1500 more years of deep Torah study had passed, and the Mishnah Berurah came and ruled, in Orach Chaim 101:4, “An individual who asks for his needs may ask in any language he chooses aside from Aramaic. Therefore if one prays in his home he may not say any of the Yakum Purkan prayers.” Indeed, the Mishnah Berurah ruled well. Gabriel may be busy and who of all the other angels would understand the Yakum Purkan?
A man must honor angels even if they don’t speak Aramaic. Thus the Gemara says in Brachot 60b: “When one enters the bathroom he should say [to the angels who accompany him] ‘Please, holy honored ones, servants on High, leave me until I go in and do what I will and I will come to you.’ Abaye said: a man should not say thus, lest they leave him. He should say, ‘Watch me, watch me, help me, help me, wait for me until I go in and come out, for this is the way of man.'”
We have spoken of angels; we have not yet spoken of demons. Nachmanides wrote on Leviticus 17:7: “There was also created an object out of two essences — fire and air — which was given a body that could not be sensed by one of the senses… It is a spiritual body; it can fly easily in fire and air…Therefore our rabbis said in Chagiga 16a, ‘Six things have been said of demons; in three they are like the heavenly angels and in three they are like men. In three they are like the heavenly angels: they have wings as angels, and fly as angels do, and know the future as angels do…In three they are like men: they eat and drink as men do, they reproduce as men do, and they die as men do.'”
Chazal’s faith in demons was so great that they even said in Tractate Megillah 3a: “Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi said: a man is forbidden to greet his fellow at night lest he be a demon.” Thus, too, ruled the Shulchan Aruch in Even HaEzer, paragraph 17, section 10: “If they heard a voice saying that a certain person died and they went and did not find there a man [who could say it], they should allow his wife to remarry [as a widow]. But if they heard this voice in a field or in a ruined place, she may not be allowed to remarry based on that voice, for fear that it was a demon.”
Maimonides, who rejected anthropomorphism and fought so hard against it, and who even called all the adherents of anthropomorphic views heretics and apostates — what did he say of the anthropomorphization of angels? In “A Guide to the Perplexed,” part two, chapter six, he wrote: “The intent in those sayings is not what the fools believed, that He speaks or thinks or asks council and advice of others…for the powers are all angels. But how very bad and harmful is the blindness of stupidity! Behold, were you to go and tell to one of those who think themselves the sages of Israel that an angel would enter a woman’s belly and make there the fetus — he would find it good and accept it, seeing in it a sign of G-d’s greater power and His wisdom. Such a man would also believe that an angel has a body of fire which burns, that his skin is as a third of the whole world, and all this would seem possible to him in G-d’s laws. But were you to tell that man that G-d put in sperm a power which creates and forms these characteristics and limbs, and this power can be described as an angel, or that the conduct of all the forms is determined by the Active Intellect, which is the angel whom the Sages described as the minister of the world — he would always flee such notions…But our Sages OBM had already clarified to those who are wise that each of the powers of the body has an angel, all the more so do the other powers, which are scattered in the world…And they also had explained to those who understand that the power of imagination may also be called an angel, and the mind — a cherub. This is very acceptable to those who understand and very disgusting to fools.”
So, “cherub” and “angel” are just names that men of reason give to various qualities of creatures, the power of the mind, and the creative wisdom. All these are internal powers (within nature and man) and not separate entities. These words of Maimonides are wonderful and make sense to any person of reason. But even so, how does Maimonides explain the explicit words of the Talmud, such as the statement that angels do not understand Aramaic or the matter of the bathroom? When Maimonides says “those who think themselves the sages of Israel” does he mean some of Chazal and Nachmanides? Or does he mean the Tosfot, who said on Tractate Niddah 16b, “The angel appointed over pregnancies — but over birth no angel is appointed, as it says at the start of Taanit [p. 2a], ‘Three keys are held by the Holy One, blessed be He: of life, of rains, and of the resurrection of the dead”? If angels are expressions of internal forces which act in man and in nature, what is the point of saying what the Tosfot said? And even though Maimonides said several times about himself that the gates of commentary are not sealed (and that he can explain the anthropomorphisms of G-d found in the Scriptures), but our view is as that of Ibn Ezra on Daniel 1:1 — “How is it possible in a human language that a man would speak one word and mean another? One who supposes so would be considered a madman.” We are forced to say what is so very clear from the words of Ra’avad’s critique: many of the Sages, the Tannaim, the Amoraim, and the Rishonim held anthropomorphistic views and believed that G-d and His angels, demons, Paradise, and Hell all had actual physical forms and a specified place in the world of our senses. In his fight against theanthropomorphic concepts of G-d Maimonides did not tread a well-trod path, but came out against the opinion of many of the best of Jewish sages. Maimonides’s fight against those views was not easy, for the Scriptures are full of anthropomorphic descriptions of G-d and His servants, and it seems clear that the authors and readers did indeed believe in their physical nature. Maimonides himself admits that to block the opening he even distorted the text in the name of reason.
And do not think, student who seeks knowledge, that the victory of Maimonides’s opinion was easy or immediate. Many years after his death the rabbis of Ashkenaz still fought his opinions, his books were banned and burned, and his view of G-d as non-corporeal was angrily dismissed. These viewpoints, which today are accepted by all (the 13 Principles of Maimonides are indeed the principles of faith to any believing Jew) were not accepted at all, even hundreds of years after his death. Note the words of the GRA (Yoreh Deah 179, subsection 13) who comes out strongly against Maimonides for denying the physical reality of demons, incantations, and witchcraft, as he wrote, “All his [Maimonides’s] successors disagreed with him, for many incantations were given in the Gemara, but he followed the way of philosophy. Therefore he wrote that witchcraft and magic names and incantations and ghosts and amulets are all false, but they have already struck him over the head, for we have found many incidents in the Gemara of magical names and witchery…Philosophy mislead him, and he used it to interpret the words of the Gemara allegorically and to deprive them of their simple meaning, G-d forbid.” We have cited the GRA’s words in what we wrote on the portion of Bamidbar, see there. And what would the GRA say about Maimonides’s dismissal of anthropomorphisms concerning G-d? Would he also claim that these matters stand as in their plain meaning (in the Scriptures and in Gemara) and that it was only philosophy which, G-d forbid, misled Maimonides to say that G-d has no body nor physical form? Delve deeply into this matter.
Finally, on the issue of anthropomorphism philosophy won, and thus now believes anyone who follows the Torah and the commandments. Well did the author of Chovot HaLevavot write in Shaar HaYichud, chapter four: “Anything one wishes to know, when one doubts its existence, one first has to ask if it exists or not. When it has been proven to exist, one must investigate what it is and how it is and why, but about the Creator no man is allowed to ask anything aside from whether He is one.” This is as the author of Kzot HaChoshen wrote in his introduction, “What can human intellect understand in the Torah of G-d?”
But it seems as though we can’t do without anthropomorphizing the Heavens. After anthropomorphism was rejected by most religious people, the philosophy of Kabbalah began to spread in public. The Kabbalists were faced with a problem: How could they speak of G-d, Who cannot be contemplated at all through any viewpoint or understanding? What could they say about Him? They could not go without saying anything about G-d, for then they could not write about all their discoveries and imaginations. They played a cute trick — they said that the Creator of the world created 10 sfirot and the Kabbalists merely speak of these, not, G-d forbid, of the infinite G-d. Even when they speak of the sfirot they do not, Heaven forfend, speak of a physical presence, but only of the most secret things. As the Ben Ish Chai wrote in his responsa Rav Poalim, part one, paragraph one: “Know that the most high G-d, He who inspired and created and formed and made everything, is infinite, and about Him it was said in Ptichat Eliyahu (may he be recalled for good), ‘The Master of the universe is one, unique, and cannot be contemplated. He is one, most high, the most secret of secret, there is no way of contemplating Him’…You should also know, that when we call the ten sfirot “sfirot” and “lights” we do not mean to consider them lights such as we see with our eyes, but because our minds are short-sighted and stuck in the material…and all the worlds and the holysfirot above have no image or physical likeness at all, and there is none who can know how they stand and what their order is…For, after all, no human intelligence can know, understand, or contemplate them at all.” Well did he write. Here you have the paradox: No human intellect can know, understand, or contemplate, yet they fill entire books with those things which no mind in the world can know, understand, or contemplate… We say to those Kabbalists who have some inner honesty: If you do not understand what you say and cannot contemplate what you write, stop speaking of it. Why go into what is G-d’s area?
As our teacher, Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz OBM, has said: “Whatever can be said of G-d has no relevance to Him.”
Words of True Knowledge