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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

What’s Wrong with a Corporeal God?

by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff (Posted on September 9, 2016)
Topics: Torah, Sefer Shemot, Ki Tisa, Machshava/Jewish Thought, God, Faith, Religiosity & Prayer

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This article is part of Torat Chovevei, a Community Learning Program led by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah with the support of the Covenant Foundation. The goal of the program is to connect communities to YCT through the medium of Torah learning. All topics discussed weave relevant contemporary issues together with Torah and non-Torah sources in monthly home-based learning groups (chaburot). These groups are guided by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff, Rebbe and Director of Community Learning at YCT. For further information about Torat Chovevei, and how your community can get involved, please contact Rabbi Resnikoff at hresnikoff@yctorah.org.

The idea that plain matter can be imbued with divine essence is a fundamentally dangerous doctrine according to the Torah. It leads to the fallacy that matter, and particularly humans can speak with the divine voice. This is problematic both from a practical and a theological point of view. Beside the fact that it makes you vulnerable to charlatanism and religious abuses, it also distracts and distances us from the truth about God, which is that God is truly non-material. Much as we might wish the opposite, this makes problematic our relationship with Hindu religion and also those parts of Christian religion that involve acknowledging their theological assumptions. However, it also makes problematic some authentically Jewish movements (kabbalism chief among them). I am not yet ready to label those movements as idolatrous. Despite that, I am left to grapple with the parts of Judaism that make God radically immanent.

Swami Dayananda Saraswati, New India Express, March 9, 2008

Last year Hindu and Jewish religious leaders, representing the two oldest traditions in the world, commenced an inter-religious dialogue in New Delhi. Following that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the delegation from the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha held the second round of inter-religious dialogue at Jerusalem in February 2008.
The Jerusalem meet concluded with a landmark declaration that Hindus worship ‘one supreme being’ and are not really idolatrous…
The declaration reads: ‘It is recognized that one supreme being in its formless and manifest aspects has been worshipped by Hindus over the millennia. The Hindu relates to only the one Supreme Being when he/she prays to a particular manifestation. This does not mean that Hindus worship ‘gods’ and ‘idols’.’…
In India Hindus not only gave sanctuary to the Jews when they were hounded out all over the world but also gave them the freedom to pursue their religion with dignity. Yet their notion, entirely due to a wrong perception, that Hindus worship many gods without one Supreme Being and that they are idolaters remained, with the result their theological conflict with Hinduism was seen as irreconcilable. Now after an honest and open dialogue they have realized that the accommodating heart of a Hindu is born of his/her acceptance of one Supreme Being who is invoked in many ways and in many forms by different faiths including theirs.
In fact, the crux of the problem was no doubt the worship of forms.
When they understood that no form is separate from Isvara and the particular form enshrined in a temple is but an altar of worship, they did not see any real issue to contend with. They were visibly relieved and thanked the delegation for removing the wrong perception held for more than two thousand years.

Shri Swamnaryan Mandir, London Website

Murti Puja: Image Worship in Hinduism
Murti puja is the key Hindu practice of worshipping sacred images of God and divine personalities. It helps Hindus to establish, express and enhance their relationship with these divinities.
A murti becomes venerable for Hindus only after it is enlivened with the spiritual energy and essence of the Deity. Because it contains the living presence of the Deity, a murti is more than a physical representation or a meditational tool. And so devout Hindus can see beyond the stone or metal or paint, and endeavour to relate to and serve the divine spirit within.
Hindus believe that God pervades everything and so he already has a presence in all beings and objects. However, when an image prepared according to scriptural prescriptions is ritually infused by a spiritual authority, such a murti becomes especially worthy of and conducive to worship…
Invocation Ceremony
What sets apart murtis from other statues or paintings of Deities is the invocation ceremony, or pran-pratishtha vidhi. This is the culminating ceremony in an elaborate set of rituals which begin with various purifactory rites to prepare the images, shrines and entire mandir for the presence of God. After various other rituals, this concluding ceremony involves invoking each part of the Deity into the corresponding part of the image, before finally, the pran – life-source – is also invoked, transforming the image into a murti with the living presence of the Deity.
Most importantly, the pran-pratishtha ceremony must be performed by a brahmaswarup guru – an enlightened being in whom God fully resides and through whom he works. As the Vaihayasi Samhita (9.82-84 & 9.90) of the Panchratra tradition stipulates: In whose every limb and organ fully resides God, only that pure guru is eligible to perform the pran-pratishtha ceremony, for it is only such a great soul who can invoke the Supreme within his heart to enter the murti.
So just as a piece of stone becomes a statue at the hands of an expert sculptor, at the hands of an enlightened guru, the statue is transformed into a sacred image of God…

Vachanamrut, Gadhada Pratham, 68

God for the worship of his devotee gives them idols which are of eight types and in which God enters by the own wish… However, as I have stated earlier, such sanctity is not observed by a devotee, and he considers the idol as merely a picture or a piece of wood, stone or metal. And the great saint is being looked upon as an ordinary human being, whereas God says that in the eight types of idols and also in the saint with the spiritual attainment, He dwells with all His powers and divinity. In spite of this, the devotee spurns this divine presence of God or the sanctity of the saint and is not afraid of God. Has he therefore known God ?
… “One whose knowledge is sublated does not recognize the presence of God in an idol. He will then develop the same attribute for a saint who had attained spiritual heights. Not only that but God who is now manifesting himself before you in human form will also be looked upon with the same sceptic eyes. His divine abodes like Goloka, Brahmpura will also be looked upon by him as fallacious. The evolution, sustenance and destruction of this universe will be taken as a natural phenomenon bound by temporal conditions. He will never believe such a phenomenon to be due to the will of God. He will then become a confirmed atheist.

Questions:

  1. Is there any contradiction between Swami Dayananda’s report of the meeting between Hindu clerics and the Rabbanut and the description of icon worship in the later texts?
  2. Even if the theology of murti puja is understood according to the Vachanamrut, is there any harm in it? Considering the overall positive relationship between Jews and Hindus described by Diananda, is there any need for us to condemn their form of worship?
  3. What is the benefit theologically of murti puja according to the Vachanamrut? Why does one who rejects it ultimately become a confirmed atheist? How does that fit with our theology?

Shemot 32

(א) וַיַּ֣רְא הָעָ֔ם כִּֽי־בֹשֵׁ֥שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה לָרֶ֣דֶת מִן־הָהָ֑ר וַיִּקָּהֵ֨ל הָעָ֜ם עַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּאמְר֤וּ אֵלָיו֙ ק֣וּם׀ עֲשֵׂה־לָ֣נוּ אֱלֹהִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ כִּי־זֶ֣ה׀ מֹשֶׁ֣ה הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר הֶֽעֱלָ֙נוּ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לֹ֥א יָדַ֖עְנוּ מֶה־הָ֥יָה לֽוֹ: (ב) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֲלֵהֶם֙ אַהֲרֹ֔ן פָּֽרְקוּ֙ נִזְמֵ֣י הַזָּהָ֔ב אֲשֶׁר֙ בְּאָזְנֵ֣י נְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם בְּנֵיכֶ֖ם וּבְנֹתֵיכֶ֑ם וְהָבִ֖יאוּ אֵלָֽי: (ג) וַיִּתְפָּֽרְקוּ֙ כָּל־הָעָ֔ם אֶת־נִזְמֵ֥י הַזָּהָ֖ב אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶ֑ם וַיָּבִ֖יאוּ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹֽן: (ד) וַיִּקַּ֣ח מִיָּדָ֗ם וַיָּ֤צַר אֹתוֹ֙ בַּחֶ֔רֶט וַֽיַּעֲשֵׂ֖הוּ עֵ֣גֶל מַסֵּכָ֑ה וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ אֵ֤לֶּה אֱ-לֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶעֱל֖וּךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:1 And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him: ‘Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.’ 2 And Aaron said unto them: ‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.’ 3 And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. 4 And he received it at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said: ‘This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.’

Rashbam, Shemot 32:4

אלה א-להיך ישראל אשר העלוך – וכי שוטים היו שלא היו יודעים שעגל זה שנוצר היום לא העלם ממצרים? אלא כל עובדי ע”ז יודעים שא-להינו שבשמים ברא את העולם, אך בזה היו טועים. שהתרפים יש בהם רוח טומאה כמו הנביאים שיש בהם רוח הקדש, וסבורים שהעגל שהיה מדבר ברוח הטומאה כאילו היה מדבר ברוח הקדש של מעלה, ולכך אומרים אלה א-להיך ישראל אשר העלוך, כלומר רוח הקדש יש בו וכאילו רוח הקדש הולך לפנינו. וכן לבן אמר על התרפים למה גנבת את אלהי. ולנסות בו את ישראל נתן בו רוח הטומאה של מיני מכשפות. ואוב וידעוני [נתן] כח בו להכחיש פמליא של מעלה ולהגיד נולדות, לדעת אם יהיו תמים לי”י א-להיהם ולא יהיה בהם מעונן ומנחש ומכשף ולא מאמין לאות ומופת של נביאי רוח הטומאה…
‘This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up’ – And were they fools that they didn’t realize that this calf that was made today, did not bring them out of Egypt? Rather, all idolators know that our God in Heaven created the world. However, they err in this: For the idols have in them an unclean spirit like the prophets who have in them the holy spirit, and they thought that the calf which spoke with the unclean spirit as though it was speaking with the holy, elevated spirit. And therefore they said, “This is thy god O Israel, which brought you up.” That is, ‘it has the holy spirit in it and it is as though the holy spirit goes before us.’ And thus Laban said about his idols, “Why have you stolen my gods?” And [God] put the unclean spirit of various types of magic into it to test Israel with it. And God gave to the Ov and the Yidoni (soothsayers) power through it to contradict the powers of the Most High and to divine the future, to know if they will be faithful to God their God and will not have amongst them an astrologer, soothsayer, and a sorcerer and will not believe in the signs and wonders of the prophets of the unclean spirit…

Questions:

  1. According to the Rashbam, why did the people believe that the עגל could be God?
  2. What is the problem with the reverence of idols according to the Rashbam? What if the unclean spirit were to instruct the people to follow the Torah and cling to the one God? Would they still be problematic? How does this relate in any way to murti puja?

Rambam, The Guide of the Perplexed, 1:36, Shlomo Pines Translation, University of Chicago Press, 1963, p. 84.

…What then should be the state of him whose infidelity bears upon His essence, may He be exalted, and consists in believing Him to be different from what He really is? I mean to say that he does not believe that he exists; or believes that there are two gods, or that He is a body, or that he is subject to affections; or again that he ascribes to God some deficiency or other. Such a man is indubitably more blameworthy than a worshipper of idols who regards the latter as intermediaries or as having the power to do good or ill. Know accordingly, you who are that man, that when you believe in the doctrine of the corporeality of God or believe that one of the states of the body belongs to Him, you provoke His jealousy and anger, kindle the fire of His wrath, and are a hater, an enemy, and an adversary of God, much more so than an idolater…

Xenophanes, Diels-Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Xenophanes frr. 15-16

But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.

Ethiopians say that their gods are snub–nosed [σιμούς] and black
Thracians that they are pale and red-haired.

Questions:

  1. What is problematic, according to the Rambam, about attributing human attributes to God? Is this the same as Xenophanes’s concern? Do either of these two positions resonate more to you? Which one?
  2. What would the Rambam say if, from anthropomorphizing God, one increased their devotion to Torah and Halakha and the oneness of God? What would a Jewish Xenophanes say?

Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra, 25a

ר”ע אומר: לכל רוח הוא עושה ומרחיק חמשים אמה, חוץ ממערבה דאינו עושה כל עיקר, מפני שהיא תדירא. א”ל רבא לרב נחמן: מאי תדירא?… תדירא בשכינה… ורבי אושעיא סבר: שכינה בכל מקום, דאמר רבי אושעיא, מאי דכתיב: אתה הוא ה’ לבדך אתה עשית את השמים וגו’? שלוחיך לא כשלוחי בשר ודם, שלוחי בשר ודם – ממקום שמשתלחים לשם מחזירים שליחותן, אבל שלוחיך – למקום שמשתלחין משם מחזירין שליחותן, שנאמר: התשלח ברקים וילכו ויאמרו לך הננו, יבואו ויאמרו לא נאמר אלא וילכו ויאמרו, מלמד שהשכינה בכל מקום. ואף רבי ישמעאל סבר: שכינה בכל מקום, דתנא דבי רבי ישמעאל: מנין ששכינה בכל מקום? שנאמר: הנה המלאך הדובר בי יוצא ומלאך אחר יוצא לקראתו, אחריו לא נאמר אלא לקראתו, מלמד ששכינה בכל מקום… ורבי אבהו אמר: שכינה במערב…Rabbi Akiva says, “One can make [a slaughterhouse or a cemetery or a tannery] in any direction [from a settlement] as long as it is fifty cubits away, except for the West because it is frequented.” Rava said to Rav Nachman, “What is ‘frequented’? If you say it is frequented by winds… Rather what is ‘frequented’? Frequented by the Shechina.”…
And Rabbi Oshaya believed: the Shechina is everywhere. As Rabbi Oshaya said, “What does it mean when the Torah says, ‘You alone are God. You made the Heavens, etc.’? Your messengers are not like the messengers of flesh and blood. The messengers of flesh and blood come back to the place they were sent from. But your messengers return to the place they were sent to. As it says, ‘Can you send out lightning and it goes and says here I am?’ It doesn’t say ‘comes and says’ rather ‘it goes and says’. From this we learn that the Shechina is everywhere.” And Rabbi Yishmael also believed that the Shechina is everywhere. As it is taught by the school of Rabbi Yishmael, “How do we know that the Shechina is everywhere? As it says, ‘Behold the angel who spoke to me went out and another angel went out to meet him.’ It doesn’t say ‘after him,’ rather it says ‘to meet him’. This teaches us that the Shechina is everywhere… And Rabbi Abahu held that the Shechina is in the West…

Questions:

  1. Does this passage indicate any particular discomfort that the Rabbis might have discomfort with the idea that God might have a body? Is the disagreement here an argument about theology or something else?

Meir ben Shimon of Narbonne Me’ili, Sefer Milchemet Mitzva, pt. 2, ed. Moshe Yehudah HaKohen Blau, pp. 319-320.

…ויש לבאר הטעם מה היה מביאם לומר זה. הלא הם ראו בעצמם שהיו צריכים לאכילה ושתיה ויציאה ומי רגלים ושינה ויקיצה וכל צרכי הגוף, ואיך ישיאם לבם לומר שהם אלהים. וגם בני העולם, איך היו נשמעים אליהם? והתשובה בזה היא, כי אלו שהזכרנו היו משכילים ומצליחים בעצתם ודעתם יותר מכל חכמי דורם. ולכן היו אומרים כי אין [נפש] המשכלת בהם כשאר נפשות ב”א בלבד, רק כי האלהות קיבל בשר בהם. ולפי שאמרו מינות וכפירה זו אצל הבורא נענשו ולא מתו מיתת עצמם, שהיו מביאים על זה [ראייה] כי אין ביד הבורא לשנות הטבעים כמו שאין בידם לעשות אחר שהם אומרים שהאלהות בהם. וזו היא אחת האמונת קצת מן הפילוסופים שאינם בני דת, ואינם מודים בחידוש העולם גם לא בהשגחת הבורא במעשה הטוב והרע וגמול ועונש, עד שהורסים מופתי כל התורה מכל וכל, ומתירים לעצמם בזה כל רשע וחמס וניאוף וגזל ורציחה וכל דבר רע…
…And we must clarify what brought them to say this. For they saw in themselves that they were subject to food and drink, excretion and urination, and sleep and waking and all of the needs of the body. And what came into their minds to say that they were gods? And also the commoners, how could they listen to them? And the answer to this is that these people who we mentioned were more enlightened and successful in their understanding and intelligence than all of the wise people of their generation. And therefore, they said that the enlightening spirit in them was not like the souls of humans alone, rather the Divine took flesh in them. And since they said this heresy and denial about the Creator, they were punished and did not die natural deaths, for they would bring from this proof that the Creator cannot change nature just as they could not, since they claimed that the Divine was in them. And this is one of the beliefs of the philosophers who are not people of religion, and they do not acknowledge the creation of the world or the oversight of the Creator in the good and the bad and reward and punishment even to the point of denying the miracles of the Torah entirely. And they permit themselves all wickedness and violence and licentiousness and theft and murder and all bad things…

Questions:

  1. What is R. Meir of Narbonne’s concern with the idea that God could be made flesh. Does this sound more like the Rashbam, the Rambam, or Xenophanes?
  2. How does this critique relate to the practice of Murti Puja? How does his critique fit with central tenets of Christianity? What does this mean about our relationship to Christianity?

Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, University of Chicago Press, 1951, pp. 13-14

… There are three possible relations of the preliminary concerns to that which concerns us ultimately. The first is mutual indifference, the second is a relation in which a preliminary concern is elevated to ultimacy, and the third is one in which a preliminary concern becomes the vehicle of the ultimate concern without claiming ultimacy for itself. The first relation is predominant in ordinary life with its oscillation between conditional, partial, finite situations and experiences and moments when the question of the ultimate meaning of existence takes hold of us. Such a division, however, contradicts the unconditional, total, and infinite character of the religious concern. It places our ultimate concern beside other concerns and deprives it of its ultimacy. This attitude sidesteps the ultimacy of the biblical commandments and that of the first theological criterion. The second relation is idolatrous in its very nature. Idolatry is the elevation of a preliminary concern to ultimacy. Something essentially conditioned is taken as unconditional, something essentially partial is boosted into universality, and something essentially finite is given infinite significance (the best example is the contemporary idolatry of religious nationalism). The conflict between the finite basis of such a concern and its infinite claim leads to a conflict of ultimates; it radically contradicts the biblical commandments and the first theological criterion. The third relation between the ultimate concern and the preliminary concerns makes the latter bearers and vehicles of the former. That which is a finite concern is not elevated to infinite significance, nor is it put beside the infinite, but in and through it the infinite becomes real. Nothing is excluded from this function. In and through every preliminary concern the ultimate concern can actualize itself. 

Questions:

  1. How does Tillich’s interpretation of idolatry relate to imagining God taking flesh? What does this mean about Christianity (Tillich was a deeply committed Christian)? What does this mean about Murti Puja?
  2. What other things does Tillich’s definition of idolatry include that we might not imagine based on a classical definition of idolatry? How comfortable are we with his classification of religious nationalism as an idolatry? Are there things that he would consider idolatry that we might not? Does that mean we reject his definition entirely?

Yishayahu Leibowitz, from the entry, “Idolatry,” in the Lexicon of Jewish Culture in Our Days, p. 379

מעולם לא פסק בעולמה של היהדות המאבק הנואש של האמונה בה’ אחד נגד המשיכה הטבעית של האדם- ובכלל זה גם האדם מישראל- לאלילות, אף במסווה של אמונה בה’ אחד. קשה על האדם ההבדלה בין קודש לחול, בין הבורא שהוא לבדו כדברי הרמב”ם “מצוי אמת” (הלכות יסודי התורה, פרק א’) והוא לבדו קדוש קדוש קדוש, ובין מעמדו הוא בעולמו, שהוא חולין… לעומת זה קלה ונוחה לאדם המיסטיקה- לשון אחר: האלילות, המטשטשת את ההבדלה בין קודש לחול … באלילות הקלאסית האלים שייכים למציאות הטבעית. באלילות הסמויה של הנצרות האל מתגלם באדם. בקבלה, הספירות והפרצופים הם בחינת א-לוהיות המהוות את העולמות או על כל פנים חודרות אותם, עד “לית אתר פנוי מיניה כלל… וזאת לעומת מלוא כל הארץ כבודו (!)…ההבדל שבין הקדושות הללו הוא הבדל שבין האמונה בה’ ובין עבודה זרה.There has never ceased from the Jewish world the despairing struggle between the belief in a single God against the natural inclination of a person – including a person of Israel – to idolatry, even when it is enveiled in the belief in a single God. It is difficult for a person to maintain the division between profane and holy, between the Creator Who is – alone – in the words of Rambam, “the True Existence,” and Who is – alone – “holy, holy, holy,” and between this person’s standing in the world, which is [not essential, and] not holy…In contrast, it is easier and more attractive for a person to turn to mysticism – that is to say, idolatry, which blurs the distinction between holy and profane… In classic idolatry, the gods are part of the natural world. In the hidden idolatry of Christianity, God incarnates Himself in man. In mysticism, the sefirot and the “faces” are an aspect of the Divine that becomes the worlds, or at least penetrates them, until the point that “there is no place at all that is void of Him.”… This is in contrast to the verse that “The whole Land is filled with his glory.” The difference between these two forms of holiness is the difference between the belief in God and the belief in idolatry.

Questions:

  1. How does Leibowitz’s definition of idolatry compare to Tillichs? Would he agree with Tillich? Would Tillich agree with him?
  2. Does Leibowitz sacrifice all sense of the immanence of God in his definition? What role does God’s glory play in his theology?
  3. Are we comfortable labeling various trends in Jewish thought (the mystical school most particularly, but others as well) as “hidden idolatry”? Is there any way to accept Leibowitz’s position without that collateral damage?