Monday 10 June 2019



In this article, we examine how the later scholars often view the theological teachings of the early Talmudic rabbis through various lenses. These lenses are either their own, or as is often the case, they are the filters created by a previous generation of scholars. In both instances though, the original Talmudic teachings, particularly those dealing with less tangible, non-Halachic and theological matters, run the risk of being distorted.

This distortion, however, would not necessarily apply to the Talmudic pronouncements and discussions on practical Halacha as by their very nature, they are more concrete, clear and less prone to misrepresentation.

I draw from a technical but fascinating scholarly paper[1] by Yeshiva University graduate, Professor Dov Weiss, who writes:

[Some modern][2] scholars of Judaism...typically read statements about God in the classical sources of Judaism - Mishna, Midrash and the Talmuds - with a mediaeval philosophical lens. By doing so, they sought to demonstrate the essential unity and continuity between rabbinic Judaism, later mediaeval Jewish philosophy and modern Judaism.”

In other words, the more modern scholars were happy to read Talmudic statements about theology through the ‘more sophisticated’ philosophical lenses of mediaeval rationalists like Rambam. This made such teachings seem more acceptable to the modern mind.


Weiss points out a common mistake that many of us make when we read the classical Talmudic texts: Depending on which side of the fence we sit - we read the Talmud through the filters either of the philosophical/rational views of Rambam, or the mystical views of the mediaeval Kabbalists (both of which emerged during the mediaeval period around the 1200’s).

And when we do this, our understanding of the original classical Talmudic texts (particularly on theological matters) is often distorted.


Weiss proposes, therefore, that:

 “[W]e should confront the theological rabbinic texts on their own terms, without the guiding hand of either [rational or mystical][3] mediaeval Jewish framework.”

In other words, we need to look at Talmudic perceptions of divinity as if there were no rational Rambam nor mystical Kabbalah vying for our attention and colouring our interpretation of early rabbinic (Talmudic) theology.


Let us now turn to some ‘raw’ Talmudic statements on the nature of G-d, without the hindsight of  1,500 years of interpretation and explanation:

Weiss cites R. Dr Alon Goshen-Gottstein who notices that:

“[I]n all of rabbinic [i.e. Talmudic][4] literature there is not a single statement that categorically denies that God has body or form.”

Of course, this does not mean that the Talmudic Sages all believed that G-d has some ‘form’, but the fact that a corporeal G-d was not specifically outlawed somewhere within the vast expanses of Talmudic literature, is significant.

The notion that G-d may have been understood by some Talmudic sages as possessing some ‘form’ or corporeality is astounding but not unusual. [See The Notion that G-d has a ‘Body’, and The Tosafists[5].]

Weiss puts it a little more directly:

“[W]e seem to have full acceptance - at least on a straightforward reading – that the rabbinic God, much like the biblical G-d, should be viewed as embodying a human-like personality.”

Ironically, “as further evidence”, Weiss cites Professor Guy Gedalyah Stroumsa, who shows how early Christian thinkers from the same time as the Talmudic period, like Origen (184-253), Justin Martyr (100-165) and Basil the Great (330-379) “criticised the Jewish belief in the corporeality of God.”[6]

Were these sources mistaken or were they able to base themselves on something more substantial?


Weiss continues:

“Posing a problem for later Jewish philosophers, some [Talmudic][7] rabbis anthropomorphize God in ways that outdo anything we encounter in the Hebrew Bible...

 Although in Scripture, God is conceived as having humanlike limbs and organs such as arms, eyes, and legs, and humanlike emotions such as love, anger, regret, and jealousy, rabbinic literature expands the anthropomorphic...field by having God assume humanlike roles and features never entertained by biblical authors.”

What follows are some examples of this rabbinic “intensification” of the corporeality of G-d: - Remember, we are reading the ‘raw’ Talmudic and Midrashic texts without the aid of any later Kabbalistic or rationalist filters, explanations or interpretations:

The 3rd-century Amora, Rav, described  G-d as using His finger (to burn angels who opposed man's creation) and His hand (to diminish the size of Adam after he sinned).  [San. 38a]

R. Akiva (50-135) and others suggest that G-d went into ‘exile’, implying a type of physical bondage with the Jewish people after the Temple was destroyed.

R. Akiva and R. Yishmael debate [Mechilta de'R. Yishmael on Shemot 12:2] how the calculation for the new month was explained to the people.  R. Yishmael says Moshe showed them the new moon, while R. Akiva says the "G-d pointed out with his finger", as He did in three other instances when Moshe found something difficult to understand.

Regarding this particular Mechilta, Professor Meir Bar Ilan points out that in some copies the manuscripts were altered and "corrected" by "scribes who preferred not to relate anthropomorphic ideas to God."
In some instances, the phrase "G-d's finger" was purified to read "a finger" and in other instances, it was omitted entirely.  
Then, in Midrash haGadol, R. Yishmael says that on various occasions, G-d used different fingers to achieve different ends. [ See link to his paper at the end of this article.]

The ‘vertical hierarchy’ of G-d’s relationship with man is downplayed, whereas the ‘horizontal relationship’ is emphasized. Thus G-d is depicted as a ‘friend’ or ‘brother’ – and “the rabbinic God at times assumes a weaker position in the human-divine metaphor.” I would assume that this refers to instances in the Talmud where G-d is happily ‘defeated’ by the scholarly debates of the Sages.

Sometimes G-d is depicted as laughing and dancing with the rabbis, studying and teaching Torah in the study hall, and “spending His free time playing with mythic sea-monsters”. G-d is described as a sage who wears Talit and Tefillin.

There are also dozens of Midrashic references to G-d’s clothing and crown. G-d is depicted as riding on a horse and kissing the walls of the Temple as well as some of “His most beloved human followers”.

G-d is also depicted as suffering alongside the suffering Jews.

These examples portray G-d in a far more corporeal manner than the Torah itself.


These corporeal depictions of G-d posed some serious questions for some of the more rationalist schools of rabbinic thought which followed during the post-Talmudic and Gaonic period and which eventually culminated with the Rambam in the late 1100s.

The rationalist schools felt the need to ‘neutralize’ the Talmudic and Midrashic literature which dealt with corporeality:

“[T]hese apologetic manoeuvres included decanonizing or devaluing the non-legal sections of the Talmud and Midrash...seeing these strange divine images as ‘poetic conceits’ for the uneducated masses.”


Then Weiss, citing Yair Lorberbaum makes the point that it was Rambam who:

...created a virtual stranglehold on Jewish theology – even for later academic scholars.
From Maimonides onward, rabbinic texts concerning God were typically read through mediaeval philosophical lens...

To buttress their view, these scholars typically argued that the rabbis used the phrase ‘as it were’ [keveyachol][8] as a method to signal their lack of seriousness or literalness in what was being said...

In short rabbinic theology was not read on its own terms. ”[9]


This apologetic trend of the rationalists continued for centuries where explanations were given for some of the “most daring” corporeal descriptions of G-d in the Talmud as simply being expressions of “the consciousness of the presence of G-d”.[10]

The Midrashic idea that after the destruction of the Temple, G-d suffers with His people, is now described allegorically as an “intimate bond between God and his people”.[11]

And Louis Ginsberg, writing in 1901 states rather categorically that:

“Sa’adia [tenth century] is in full harmony with Rabbinical Judaism when he maintains that the corporeality of God is contrary both to reason and Scripture”.

Weiss refers to these examples as being a result of a:

“...Maimonidean hijacking of classic rabbinic thought...which...imposes abstract mediaeval categories and conceptions retroactively onto rabbinic material.”


THE 1940s:

Weiss goes on to explain that one of the first scholars to break with this ‘Maimonidean stranglehold’ was  Arthur Marmorstein (d. 1946) who made a distinction between the two Talmudic schools of R. Akiva and R. Yishmael. R. Akiva takes the Torah more literally and “affirms a corporeal God” – while R. Yishmael adopts a non-literal approach on these matters and “rejects divine corporeality”.

By pointing out that there were two very different Talmudic schools within the early rabbinic era, Marmorstein shows that the matter of corporeality was actually debated at that time, and that the school of R. Akiva did indeed maintain the notion of divine corporeality (having authored the Shiur Komah - a work which claimed to give precise measurements of the Divine Being). [18]

THE 1960s:

Later, in 1962, Abraham Joshua Heschel took this a step further when he suggested we reject the Maimonidean tendency to rationalize away the strong corporealism of the Talmudic sages, and stop downplaying and minimizing the rabbinic anthropomorphic tradition.

As Weis emphasizes:

“For him [Heschel][12], when the Akivan school describes God as suffering with His people, for example, it means just that.”

THE 1980s:

Then in 1988, Moshe Idel[13] took this rejection of Maimonidean philosophy even one step further. Idel disputed his teacher, Gershom Scholem’s premise that Kabbalah was an alien and non-Jewish transplantation of other mystical traditions based on Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism. 

Instead, Idel argued that its origins were indeed intrinsically Jewish and very Talmudic. Kabbalistic theurgy, claimed Idel:

 “...already occupied a central place in [Talmudic][14] rabbinic thought.”

This being the case:

“Idel reads anthropormorphic [and corporeal][15] rabbinic texts literally, thereby refusing to adopt a metaphoric reading as Scholem had done.”

THE 1990s:

And finally - in the 1990s - Michael Fishbane did not mince his words after he examined, sans Maimonidean filters, dozens of early rabbinic statements about G-d and declared that according to Midrashic texts, G-d was conceived of as sometimes being a ‘vulnerable’ and ‘limited’ being!

And not only were the Jewish people in need of redemption, but so was G-d who also experienced destruction and was also in Exile![16]

In accordance with this view, Fishbane explained that the expression ‘keveyachol’ or ‘as it were’ (which often followed these expressions of corporeality) was not used to imply an allegorical interpretation as it did in the Maimonidean sense - but rather to show that the Talmudic view of G-d was so literally radical, that they could not even find accurate sources for it within the Torah text itself!

As Weiss puts it, the use of the expression of ‘keveyachol’:

“...signalled the rabbinic self-awareness that their theological claims had a tenuous link to Scripture.”

Interestingly, Weiss makes the point that Fishbane’s position was adopted by “leading rabbinics scholars of the day, such as Daniel Boyarin...Meir Bar-Illan...and Alon Goshen-Gottstein...


This has only been a limited presentation of Professor Weiss’ research on how various historical schools have tried to understand and (re?)read the classical Talmudic and Midrashic texts dealing with G-d.

Whether one chooses to agree or disagree with the conclusions of the scholars he cites, I believe Weiss touches a nerve concerning one of the most fundamental issues of Hashkafa (Jewish worldview) that is often overlooked.

Thus, for example, were one to have been schooled in Chassidic theology, it is very likely that one would view theological[17] Talmudic literature through that filter and read Chassidic nuances into the ancient text.  On the other hand, were one to have been schooled in the Lithuanian style of study, one might view theological Talmudic literature as being an extension of the Lithuanian worldview and unconsciously interpolate that view within the text.

The Chassid may consider a Talmudic sage to be like a Rebbe - while the Lithuanian might view the same individual as a Lithuanian scholar. And to compound matters even further, a Rambamist rationalist might frame the theological Talmudic texts more allegorically than literally - while a mystical Kabbalist might read something a little closer to the plain meaning of the original theological text.

Unless we are prepared to remove the filters, it is very difficult to accept that in all probability, the same Talmudic sage may actually have been in an entirely different category altogether!

I believe this holds true not only of the way we filter the classical texts, but it also applies to how we choose (or are told) to relate to every single text and even to ideas we come across.

We are always hearing explanations that amount to:  What it says is not really what it means.

We stop listening to a text or an idea but immediately engage the ‘correct’ filters before that text or idea has a chance to express itself.

Sadly, so many ideas and concepts in Judaism get lost, suppressed, redefined and bent by filters which silence the intention of the original text.

[1] The Rabbinic God and Mediaeval Judaism, by Dov Weiss.
[2] Parenthesis mine. Weiss is referring particularly to the more modern scholars from the time of the Wissenschaft des Judentums (1819) until the late 1980s.
[3] Parenthesis mine. (Weiss refers to the difference between mediaeval philosophical and mystical schools as opposed to rational and mystical schools.)
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] Both these links deal with some post-Talmudic rabbinic views of a corporeal G-d. Our focus in this article is on a possible Talmudic view of a corporeal G-d.
[6] For a more thorough examination of this issue, see The Body of God in Ancient Rabbinic Judaism: Problems of Interpretation, by Jose Costa.
[7] Parenthesis mine.
[8] Parenthesis mine.
[9] I would add that this was indeed the case with regard to the religious rationalists and the (often secular) academic scholars who followed after Rambam. However, this was not always the case with the Kabbalists (and many Tosafists) who were often known to have taken Midrashic literature quite literally. And it should be pointed out that to a large extent the Kabbalistic view did, in fact, become the de facto worldview of mainstream Judaism despite the influence of the anti-mystical views of Rambam.
[10] Philosophies of Judaism: The History of Jewish Philosophy from Biblical Times to Franz Rosenzweig, by Julius Guttmann (1966) 34.
[11] Ibid. 35.
[12] Parenthesis mine.
[13] Kabbalah: New Perspectives, Moshe Idel.
[14] Parenthesis mine.
[15] Parenthesis mine.
[16] The Kotzker Rebbe is said to have made a similar statement. While the rest of the Jewish world believed in Tikkun Olam (rectifying the world), in Kotzk they had the audacity to believe in rectifying G-d (so to speak?).
[17] As opposed to Halachic.
[18] Not everyone agrees with this distinction between R. Akiva and R. Yishmael, as we saw earlier with Midrash haGadol where R. Yishmael is also described as a corporealist. Furthermore, both R. Yishmael and R. Akiva are said to have authored Shiur Komah.  
Meir Bar-Ilan shows that it is possible that the Midrash haGadol version, quoting R. Yishmael, and which has no parallel in other rabbinic sources, may have been "due to some kind of interior censorship" by scribes unhappy with some of these anthropomorphic depictions of G-d.


The following is a list of some references to Magshimim (corporealists) from around the time of Rambam:

Abraham Ibn Daud reports that masses of Jews believed God to be a material being.1

Maimonides, who argues so forcefully against the corporealists, himself speaks of numerous people, including "the majority" of the ignorant, who held to anthropomorphic views. He also mentions meeting a talmudic scholar who was unsure if God had a body.2

Yedaiah Bedershi writes how it is well known that the belief in God's corporeality was spread throughout virtually all Israel in "previous generations" (i. e. before Maimonides was able to reverse matters).3

Other scholars who testify to anthropomorphic views being held by Jews include R. David Abudarham,4 the anonymous author of Ma'amar ba-Sekhel, 5 R. Isaac ben Yedaiah,6 R. Moses of Salerno,4 and R. Shem Tov ben Joseph ibn Shem Tov, the well known commentator on the Guide. 8

In addition, R. Moses Nahmanides,9 R. David Kimhi,10 R. Abraham Maimonides,11 R. Solomon ben Meshullam da Piera,12 R. Samuel Sapurto,13 R. Shem Tov Falaquera,14 R. Isaac ben Latif,15 and R. Moses Alashkar16 all speak of anthropomorphism being accepted by scholars.17

Although it was difficult for post-medieval scholars to sympathize with the anthropomorphist position, this was not the case for R. Samuel David Luzzatto.18 Although he obviously did not subscribe to this belief, he nevertheless defended it with all his vigor, for, in his opinion, it was all that the masses were able to grasp. Because of this, he maintained that it was proper for the Sages to ascribe corporeality to God. However, sensitive to the implication of what he was saying, he added that this was not a base corporeality, but a perfected corporeality. "The early ones ascribed to God and the angels and the souls a very fine spiritual essence, more subtle than any body known to us but nevertheless characterized by form and build."19 Rather than this being heresy, Luzzatto claimed that it is the doctrine of incorporeality which, through its association with philosophy, leads to heresy. He felt that it would be infinitely better if Jews were to return to the simple belief in a corporeal God.20

4. Ha-Emunah ba-Ramah (Frankfurt, 1853), 47, 91.
2. Guide I: 1; A. Lichtenberg, Kovez Teshuvot ha-Rambam ve-Iggerotav (Leipzig, 1859), II, 8a, 8c; Yizhak Shailat, Iggerot ha-Rambam (Ma'aleh Adumim, 1987), I, 320, 322 (Arabic), 341, 346 (Hebrew).
3 . Sbe'elot u-Teshuvot ha-Rashba (Lvov, 1811), "418 (p. 47b). Cf. R. Yom Tov Ishbili, Sefer ha-Zikkaron, ed. Kalman Kahana (Jerusalem, 1959), 59. See also R. Elijah Delmedigo, Behinat ha-Dat (Vienna, 1833), 25, who, entirely ignoring R. Sa'adah Gaon, gives Maimonides all the credit for discrediting the anthropomorphists.
4. Abudarham ha-Shalem, ed. S. A. Wertheimer (Jerusalem, 1957), 362.
5. (Vienna, 1816), 14a.
6. See M. Saperstein, op. cit., 185-86. R. Isaac refers to "faithless 'Sadducees' who say that God is [composed of] a matter which is finer, purer, and more transparent than the matter of any shining star."
7. See J. L. Teicher, op. cit., 84-85.
8. See his commentary to Maimonides' Introduction to the Guide (p. 10a in the standard edition.)
9 . A. Lichtenberg, op. oil., III, 9d; Kitvei Ramban, ed. Chavel (Jerusalem, 1963), I, 345.
10. Lichtenberg, ibid., III, 3c.
11. Ibid., 16ff.                         
12. See the poems published by Hayyim Brody, Yedi'ot ha-Makhon le-Heker haShirah ha-'Ivrit 4 (1938): 102: האומרים כבוד והחשבים דמות / דעות חלוקים הם ולא אל תנאף באומרים גשמות ואם /לא-ל תמונת האנוש צירו העובדים צורם ופיו לא מרו / כפרו/ כמה חכמים אמרו שעור והם Ibid., 34: .אך האמן / ואמור אמן כי יש מנהיג יושב חביון / ובסוד גשמות / אם הוא בדמות / לדעת זאת אין לך רישיון See also Ibid., 91, for another defense of the anthropomorphists and Ozar Nehmad 2 (1851): 85.
13 . See Kerem Hemed 5 (1841): 12. He is apparently the author of this letter directed to the French rabbis, in which he writes: ככם מגשימים הגויים בהבלי היש .See also Sapurto's letter published in Ginze Nistarot 4 (1818): 44ff. (Halberstamm, who edited this letter, does not believe that the letter published in Kerem Hemed was authored by Sapurto; see ibid., 37.)
14. See his letter in A. Lichtenberg, op. cit. III 23ff (lIt also is found in R. Abba Mari Astruc, Minhat Kena'ot [Pressburg, 1838L 183ff.) The letter is anonymous but there is reason to assume that Falaquera is the author; see Heinrich Graetz, Geschichte der Juden (Leipzig, 1863), VII 474. In reference to Rabad's assertion that there were people "greater and superior" to Maimonides who believed in God's corporeality, .(bגדולים ממנו בקומתם וטובי מראה ובריאי בשר (23 ויתכן שהיו :sarcastically responds Falaquera
15. See He-Haluz 7 (1865): 91-92.
16 . She'elot u-Teshuvot Maharam Alashkar (Jerusalem, 1988), #117 (p. 312). Alashkar singles out the French sages. In his words, they were guilty of מגשימים בפרהסיא , a phrase which actually appears in Bedershi's apology. Alashkar further notes that it was due to Maimonides' works that this widespread anthropomorphism was uprooted.
17. I have deliberately avoided mention of evidence that appears in non-Jewish sources. As is well known, Jewish anthropomorphism was also a common accusation of Muslim polemicists.
18 . See Monford Harris, "The Theologico-Historical Thinking of Samuel David Luzzatto," Jewish Quarterly Review 52 (1962): 317ff.
19. Peninei Sbadal (Przenlysl, 1888), 274. See also R. Judah Aryeh Modena, Magen ve-Herev, ed. Shlomo Simonsohn (Jerusalem, 1960), 40.
20. Iggerot ShadaI (Cracow, 1891), 1195-97.

[Extracted from: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles: The Last Word in Jewish Theology?  By Marc B. Shapiro.]


  1. Thank you, Rabbi Michal - just saw this now. Great breakdown of the article.
    Kol tuv, Dov Weiss

  2. Thank you very much. I always enjoy your thoughts and writing.