Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

God’s Body? I

In an earlier post on the top 10 misunderstandings about Judaism — I called them “lies,” though admittedly that was intended as a bit of a provocation — I mentioned that the chief Jewish objection to Christianity shouldn’t be, as you often hear, that Jews always and everywhere viewed with abhorrence the idea that God could take on bodily form. Now, attributing a body to God is anathema to Jewish tradition. However, to say that all Jews have always seen things this way, and that’s why they rejected the Christian teaching about Jesus, seems not to be true. Judaism and what Jews believe are not the same thing, as I often have cause to point out on this blog.

The evidence is as mainstream as any standard edition of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. Maimonides himself writes of 5 classes of heretics (minim) who have no share in the World to Come. One class is that of the heretic who says “There is one Lord [God] but that he possess a body and physical image” (Laws of Repentance 3:7). Right there in the margin is printed Maimonides’ traditional critic and contemporary, the 12th-century Provencal sage Rabbeinu Abraham ben David (called Raavad, as Maimonides is called Rambam). To Rambam’s statement, the Raavad objects, “Why does he call such a person a heretic when many greater and more virtuous [individuals] than himself have followed this view according to what they saw in the Scriptures and even more what they saw in the words of [certain] rabbinic teachings that confuse the mind?”


What Ravad meant is not that God has a body but that from the Hebrew Bible and midrashic teachings, you could easily come away with the opinion that God takes on a physical form. What’s amazing is that Ravad attributes this view not to heretics but to otherwise exemplary Jews who followed the surface meaning of the holy texts, not a group of people to be condemned.
What, then, is the main Jewish objection to Jesus? That the Messiah can’t be someone who died and came back later to finish his job? Nope, not that either. But that’s another post.
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Gabriel Hanna

posted August 26, 2009 at 9:30 pm

So what does Maimonides have to say about the meaning of “Man is made in God’s Image”?
Turmarion and I already know the answer, but we’d like you to share it with the rest of the class.

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posted August 26, 2009 at 10:44 pm

The Raavad is not saying that belief that God has a corporeal form is not heretical. He is saying that if a person comes to this heretical belief through an innocent misunderstanding of those Biblical passages or Rabbinic statements that could be misunderstood in this manner, this mistaken individual does not have the legal status of a heretic. This issue of the inadvertent heretic is a matter of some debate among the legal authorities, with Maimonides taking the more stringent position.
Also, when the Raavad refers to righteous individuals who accepted corporealism, he is not referring to people who believed that God might adopt the form of some normal physical object. Corporealism refers to the application of any physical concept to God. If we speak of God as moving, remaining still, abandoning a location, occupying a location, having divisions or accidental attributes, we run into the risk of corporealism unless we carefully qualify our statements. It is quite easy to fall into this error without even realizing it.
Identifying any physical object, including a human being, as God is idolatry. This is true regardless of your position on corporealism. Even a corporealist would assert that God – whatever form He might have – would be fundamentally distinct and separate from all of Creation. None of the corporealists referred to by the Raavad would have considered the Christian man-god concept to be even remotely legitimate.

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Gabriel Hanna

posted August 26, 2009 at 10:51 pm

None of the corporealists referred to by the Raavad would have considered the Christian man-god concept to be even remotely legitimate.
I don’t know if Christians would accept this characterization of Christ; all I know is that the discussion makes my head hurt. Famously, Christians killed one another about this
vs this:
Turmarion may have useful insights here.

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posted August 26, 2009 at 11:53 pm

“Now, attributing a body to God is anathema to Jewish tradition.”
“What’s amazing is that Ravad attributes this view not to heretics but to otherwise exemplary Jews who followed the surface meaning of the holy texts, not a group of people to be condemned.”
When you say “exemplary Jews,” do you mean any major Jewish scholars?
If so, are you sure you can say corporealism is anathema to Jewish tradition?
Now, I am no corporealist. I’m just wondering how to reconcile these two statements above. In addition, the second statement and another statement also need reconciliation. The way you worded things are problematic. Ravad talked about people “greater than the Rambam”, yet you then wrote that they only “followed the surface meaning of the holy texts” I’m sure this was an accident, but you’re implying that Rambam couldn’t even get himself to understand the SURFACE meaning of the holy texts.)

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Bill from Up on the Hill

posted August 26, 2009 at 11:54 pm

I think the Christian concept of God taking physical form is one way of claiming a unique and exclusive revelation of God to the Jews and Christians. Many Christians view all non-Judeo-Christian revelations as having nothing to do with the one true God. I’m not sure if Judaism as a whole takes that position.

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posted August 27, 2009 at 12:57 am

There are actually two versions of the Raavad’s statement. The standard version, printed as a critical gloss on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, states (translations are my own):

“Why does he call this person a heretic? There were many greater and better than him that followed this idea because of what they saw in Scripture and, even more, from aggadic statements that confuse [people’s] minds.”
Another version is quoted by R’ Joseph Albo in his famous Sefer Ikkarim (1:2) (and cited in the Kesef Mishna commentary by R’ Yosef Karo on the page in standard editions of the Mishneh Torah):

“Even though the principle of the faith is so (i.e. as Maimonides has stated), one who believes that [God] is a body because of his grasp of the language of the verses or midrashim according to their simple meaning, it is not proper to call him a heretic.”
The Kesef Mishneh prefers the second version.
If there were major Jewish figures who openly taught corporealism, they have been forgotten by history. (There is one, rather obscure figure from the period, R’ Moses Taku, who supposedly taught such ideas. Even the source for this is an obscure manuscript first published in the late 19th century.)
In the Maimonidean controversy, some of Maimonides’ opponents were labeled corporealists, an accusation they vehemently denied, because the Maimionidean’s argued that their theological statements about God were, by definition, ascribing to Him a corporeal form. The non-Maimonidean’s absolutely denied corporealism, and insisted that their ideas did not conflict with that principle. While the Maimonidean’s were probably correct, this only tells us that they were better philosophers than the non-Maimonidean’s (no surprise there), not that the non-Maimonidean’s were actually corporealists. Indeed, the very fact that such an accusation was considered ammunition in the controversy is evidence that this idea was broadly rejected.

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posted August 27, 2009 at 1:00 am

(I don’t know why the blockquote tag keeps acting up.)

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posted August 27, 2009 at 11:14 am

This is my take:
1. Maimonides, in line with almost all major Western philosophers, pagan, Jewish, or Christian, says that it is absurd to think that God has a body, and that Scriptural verses speaking as if He did are to be taken metaphorically. I can’t think of any non-fringe Jewish or Christian groups today that would disagree with this.
2. Raavad seems to me to be saying that if someone is so ignorant that he takes Scripture literally, though his belief is heretical, he is not himself a heretic (this distinction is what Catholic theology terms the difference between material and formal heresy).
3. Following LazarA’s post, it seems that the followers of Rambam accused his opponents of being corporealists, which they denied. Just on what we’ve got here, it seems there’s no way to sort this out.
4. None of this seems to me to be anywhere near saying that any kind of traditional Jewish though allows God to be thought of as having a body in any sense of the word.
5. Christianity (in its little-o orthodox forms) asserts that God did become incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Christ has two distinct natures which are not “mixed”, but unified in one hypostasis (person). That is, he has a divine nature and a human nature, but only one “soul” or “personality” (to put it crudely), which is the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. Even after his death and resurrection, he maintains his human nature in a now immortal, incorruptible form. I won’t go into any further depth–Gabriel’s isn’t the only one’s head who hurts after a bit of this!
6. Whether point five is intelligible in a purportedly monotheistic religion has been a point of debate and tomes of theology among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Suffice it to say that Christians say it is (and as a Christian, I agree), and Jews and Muslims have always vehemently denied that it could be.
7. Having said all this, I’m not aware of any Jews who are not considered heretical or apostate, or at least suspected of heresy or apostasy, by the mainstream Jewish community, who’d say that even in principle that God could have a body or (which is not quite the same thing) become incarnate as a human. The closest to these concepts are the notion of the Shekhinah, or Presence of God, which in some strains of mystical Judaism is almost personified as a literal embodiment of God on Earth–but it’s hard to sort out the metaphor and allegory from what’s actually being asserted; and the opinion among some of the more extreme Lubavichers that the late Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, was actually God incarnate–for which reason some have called for declaration of some or all of Chabad as heretical.
Does this help?

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