Shiur #06: Negating Personification – for Scholars or for the Masses?

  • Rav Chaim Navon



A.        The Negation of Personification


One of the most important and lasting influences of the Rambam's philosophy is the rejection of the notion of God's corporeality. Today it is difficult for us to appreciate the significance, since it seems so obvious to us. However, during the time of the Rambam, there were many Jews who believed that God has a physical form. In fact, the Rambam was even denounced and attacked for his position. From a letter that the Ramban wrote to the French rabbis who had proscribed the Rambam's books, it seems that one of the reasons for their fierce opposition was that he stated "that there is no form or figure on High" (Writings of the Ramban 1, Chavel edition, p. 345).


Even a scholar of the stature of the Ra'avad, whose true faith was firm and unwavering, believed that the Rambam had gone overboard in his war on the belief in God's personification. In his Laws of Repentance (3:7), the Rambam writes:


There are five categories of people who are called heretics: one who says that God does not exist and the world has no ruler; and one who says that there is a ruler – but they are two, or more; and one who says that there is one single ruler, but He is corporeal and has features…


The Rambam asserts that someone who believes that God is corporeal is a heretic. The Ra'avad comments on this assertion as follows:


And why does [the Rambam] call such a person a heretic? Some people greater and better than him (gedolim ve-tovim mimenu) maintained this idea, in accordance with their understanding of certain biblical verses and, to an even greater degree, based on the homiletic passages of the sages, which can confuse one's thinking.


The Chazon Ish (Yoreh De'ah, 62:21) writes that the word "mimenu" is not intended here to serve in the third person singular ("greater and better than him") but rather in the first person plural ("than us") – i.e., some reputable and respectable Jews had believed this. In any event, the Ra'avad thought that someone who believed in God's corporeality should not be defined as a heretic.


Concerning the Rambam's tremendous contribution to the Jewish world through his opposition to corporeality, Rav Kook wrote:


And I ask how we can ignore the gratitude due to our teacher, the Rambam, for his great work that is the Guide, in establishing the sacred principle of faith, and in removing the terrible vanities concerning the corporeality of God from within the bounds of Judaism. It is easy to imagine what would have become of our faith, had it not been for this holy work… And thank God this endeavor of his brought about the cessation and severing of this mistaken belief from the heart of the entire nation, and it was established in every heart as a principle of our faith, to believe with perfect faith that God has no corporeality, nor do any of the concepts relating to corporeality apply to Him, and He has no image whatsoever. (Ma'amarei ha-Ra’aya 1, p. 106).


In this shiur we will address a fundamental question related to the rejection of corporeality: how did the Rambam envisage the translation of this concept into an educational approach? Did he think that it should be taught to every person, on any level; or did he think that here too, as in other realms of knowledge, there should be a scaled approach? In other words, is it permissible and advisable to offer a corporeal view of God to the masses, as an intermediate stage in their education? Our point of departure here is the fact that the Torah itself seems to permit the use of material descriptions in order to convey spiritual messages to the masses.


B.        "The Torah Spoke in the Language of Men"


The Rambam exerts enormous efforts to explain the anthropomorphic language and imagery that the Torah sometimes employs in relation to God. He constructs a sophisticated exegetical system that explains these terms as a metaphor for spiritual aspects of God and His manifestations. However, this does not spare him the challenge of the obvious and difficult question: why does the Torah employ such language at all? After all, corporeal terms and descriptions are very likely to cause misunderstanding, leading people to conclude that God does have some sort of material existence. To this the Rambam responds:


Hence the description of God by attributes implying corporeality, in order to express His existence: because the multitude of people do not easily conceive existence unless in connection with a body, and that which is not a body nor connected with a body has for them no existence. (Guide, I:26)


The Torah uses corporeal language in relation to God because this is the only language in which the Torah can address the common people. Simple, unlearned people regard only that which has material, tangible existence as real. In order to say that God exists, then, the Torah needs to speak of Him using corporeal terms. However, the Torah expects a person to transcend this level and to reach the understanding that such expressions are mere metaphors. Once again, then, this is evidence of the Rambam's realistic view of the need to progress gradually in the study of true wisdom.


The Rambam goes on to note that the Torah is selective in the corporeal descriptions attributed to God:


Whatever is regarded among us as a state of perfection is attributed to Him, in order to indicate that He possesses every aspect of perfection and is in no way deficient. But there is not attributed to God anything which the multitude consider a defect or want.


Attention should be paid to the careful formulation here. The Rambam speaks of that which is "regarded among us as a state of perfection.” In truth, it makes no difference whether we say of God that He descends into the world, or that He sleeps, or is ill: any and all such descriptions refer to God as a corporeal being, and this is the ultimate debasement of Him. However, from the human perspective, the ability to walk and move is perceived as a positive quality, while sleep and illness are perceived as negative qualities indicating weakness. Therefore the Torah attributes motion to God, but not illness. The images that the Torah uses in relation to God all have the same purpose: to convey the knowledge that God exists, and that He is perfect in every way that we are capable of imagining.


Of course, the Rambam expects a person to reach a level where he understands that even the positive depictions employed by the Torah do not truly describe God, since He is incorporeal. The Rambam's aim is "to remove these false notions which have grown up with them from childhood."


The Rambam summarizes his position on this question with Chazal's teaching, "The Torah spoke in the language of men.” He explains this teaching as follows:


That is to say, expressions, which can easily be comprehended and imagined by all, are applied as pertaining of necessity to God.


Scholars who study the Rambam have pointed out that the original meaning of Chazal's teaching was very different from the one that the Rambam attributes to it. As an example, let us consider one of the places where it is mentioned in the Gemara:


'If You will indeed look' (im ra'o tir'eh) (I Shmuel 1:11) – Rabbi El'azar said: Channa said to God, 'Master of the universe, if You will look (im ra'o) – well and good; if not – then 'You will see' (tir'eh): I will go and conceal myself from Elkana, my husband, and since I will be suspected of an intimate encounter [with another man], I will be given the waters of a sota, and You will not cause Your Torah to be false, as it is written, 'then she shall be cleared, and she shall conceive seed' (Bemidbar 5:28). This accords with the opinion that if the woman [given the waters of sota to drink and found to be innocent] was barren, she would bear children. However, there is an alternative opinion [maintaining that this applies to a woman who already had children]: if in the past she had experienced difficult childbirths, she would henceforth bear easily; if she had given birth to girls, she would now have boys; if her previous children had been dark-skinned, she would now have light-skinned children; if until now she had borne children who were short, she would now bear tall children. According to this opinion, why does she say, 'If You will indeed look'? Because the Torah spoke in the language of men. (Berakhot 31b)


The Gemara addresses the redundant expression in Channa's prayer – "im ra'o tir'eh.” One of the sages explains that Channa is challenging God, as it were. If He does not grant her a son, she will deliberately place herself in a situation which the Torah regards as grounds for suspicion of having been unfaithful to her husband. In this situation, the woman is subjected to a special procedure which clarifies what truly occurred, and if she is exonerated, she bears children – as a reward for the humiliation that she suffered. A different sage suggests that the Torah is not promising children to a barren woman who is suspected as a sota. He therefore rejects this interpretation of Channa's redundant expression, explaining instead that "the Torah spoke in the language of men.” In other words, it is not necessary to explain every superfluous word; sometimes the text simply speaks as a person in the given situation would: with some repetition and without meticulous attention to every word.


In fact, the Rambam uses the expression "the Torah spoke in the language of men" in the opposite manner of Chazal. Chazal invoke this phrase in order to convey the idea that a certain verse is not meant to be understood literally, and its formulation should not be analyzed too closely and deeply. The Rambam employs the same teaching to explain that a certain verse should be given more attention, and we should not suffice with its simple, literal meaning. This is a fundamental element in the Rambam's exegesis and his social philosophy, with regard to the relationship between learned scholars and the simple people.


A Contradiction: Is Negation of God's Corporeality A Necessary Belief for Everyone?


We have seen that the Rambam's main argument in chapter twenty-six is that anthropomorphic descriptions may be used as an educational technique, conveying God's existence and reality to people who are incapable of understanding that there is also a kind of existence that is not physical. However, in chapter thirty-five he seems to say the opposite:


Do not think that what we have laid down in the preceding chapters on the importance, obscurity, and difficulty of the subject, and its unsuitableness for communication to ordinary persons, includes the doctrine of God's incorporeality and His exemption from all affections. This is not the case. For in the same way as all people must be informed, and even children must be trained, in the belief that God is One, and that none besides Him is to be worshipped, so must all be taught by simple authority that God is incorporeal; that there is no similarity in any way whatsoever between Him and His creatures.


We have already seen that according to the Rambam, there are many matters of metaphysical philosophy that should be concealed from the masses. Therefore he emphasizes here that the negation of God's corporeality does not belong to that realm of knowledge; every Jew must know that God is incorporeal. In his introduction to the eleventh chapter of Massekhet Sanhedrin, the Rambam indeed includes this as one of the thirteen principles of faith that every Jew must know. Further on in chapter thirty-five of Book I, the Rambam contrasts those matters which should be hidden from the masses, with the matter at hand:


But the question concerning the attributes of God, their inadmissibility, and the meaning of those attributes which are ascribed to Him; concerning the creation, His providence, in providing for everything; concerning His will, His perception, His knowledge of everything; concerning prophecy and its various degrees; concerning the meaning of His names which all indicate the same unity, although they are more than one; all these things are very difficult problems, the true "secrets of the law," the "secrets" mentioned so frequently in the books of the prophets, and in the words of our sages, the subjects of which we should only mention in the headings of the chapters, as we have already stated, and only in the presence of a person satisfying the above-named conditions.


On the other hand, that God is incorporeal, that He cannot be compared with His creatures, that He is not subject to external influence; these are things which must be explained to every one according to his capacity, and they must be taught by way of tradition to children and women, to the ignorant and the congenitally handicapped.


What the Rambam is saying here is clear enough, but it seems to be a direct contradiction of the idea he sets forth in chapter twenty-six – that the Torah allows for a situation in which, at a certain stage, people believe that God is corporeal, so long as they believe that He exists, and only later will they come to understand that God has no physical existence.[1]


The contradiction is obvious, and even the earliest commentators on the Guide point it out, and suggest possible solutions. R. Shem Tov ben Yosef explains that the Rambam is speaking of different stages in a person's development. As a first stage, a person may be permitted to believe in an anthropomorphic God, but then he must be caused to part with this belief (even before other false beliefs are addressed). The problem with this interpretation is that chapter thirty-five seems to suggest that even the simplest Jew, even a child, may not believe in the corporeality of God.


A slightly different explanation is offered by R. Profiat Duran, the "Efodi.” He maintains that a distinction should be drawn between the educational policy of the Torah and the educational policy that we set and follow ourselves. The Torah sets down the most basic level, educating first and foremost to an awareness of the very existence of God. However, when it comes to educating the masses, we must also teach them that the concept of corporeality is to be rejected.[2] The Torah, as a text that is open and available to all, cannot convey this message effectively, and it therefore suffices with the most basic level of knowledge, with the assumption that teachers will elaborate and explain.


We might offer a further suggestion. Perhaps what we have here, according to the Rambam's view, is a certain historical development. Perhaps in the generation that received the Torah it was possible to leave the simple people with their anthropomorphic view of God, since non-material, spiritual concepts were beyond them. In our generation, however, we must go further, and even the masses must be taught to reject corporeality.[3]


C.        The Severity of Belief in Corporeality and the "Unwitting Apostate"


Whatever the solution to the contradiction in the Rambam’s sources may be, chapter thirty-five issues a clear educational directive: the negation of corporeality must be inculcated among the masses, even though other beliefs and aspects of wisdom must be hidden from them. What is the difference between the negation of corporeality and these other dimensions of wisdom?


To understand the answer to this question, let us contemplate the concept of faith in God. “I believe in God.” Beyond this declaration, what content am I conveying by it? What am I thinking when I say "God?” Let us imagine that a person states that he believes in God, and, after questioning him, it is apparent that he thinks that God is a green fly that lives on Mars. Is he still a partner in Jewish faith? Obviously not. In contrast, the debate over whether God is transcendental or immanent – i.e., beyond and above the world, or fundamentally within it – is an argument that has been maintained over generations of Jewish thinkers, and at no point has either of these two views been pushed outside the boundaries of Jewish faith. In other words, there is room for debate in matters of faith, but at some stage the chasm becomes so wide, so significant, that the two sides are actually talking about two different gods. Concerning corporeality, the Rambam asserts:


It is not proper to leave them in the belief that God is corporeal, or that He has any of the properties of material objects, for this is just like leaving them in the belief that God does not exist. (I:35)


One who believes in a corporeal God does not believe in the God of Israel.


The Rambam continues to discuss this subject in chapter thirty-six. He introduces this chapter with the assertion that expressions of divine "fury" and "wrath" in Tanakh are directed solely towards idolatry. The Rambam gives a brief presentation of his theory concerning the development of idolatry, which is elaborated upon at greater length in his Mishneh Torah (chapter one of the Laws of Idolatry). According to his view, the early idolaters did not deny God's existence; they chose to bow down to His creations (the stars, etc.) as a demonstration of honor and esteem to their Maker – God. The stars were perceived as agents mediating between man and God. As time went on, however, God's existence came to be forgotten, and worshipping the stars became the end in itself:


As time went on, the exalted and awesome God was forgotten from all of creation and from their consciousness, and they no longer recognized Him. (Guide 1:2)


The Rambam explains, in the Guide, that this is the reason for the death penalty that idolatry entails: even if the idolater believes in the existence of the true God, his actions will bring about a situation where ultimately others will reject and deny his faith, and they will think that those stars, etc. are the true and only gods:


For the masses notice only the rites, without comprehending their meaning or the true character of the being which is worshipped. (Guide, I:36)


The Rambam addresses his attitude towards idolatry in the context of discussing God’s incorporeality, in order to draw a comparison between these two theological errors:


For this [the view of God as corporeal] is unquestionably more severe than one who worships idolatry with the knowledge that it is a means.


One who worships idolatry is punished only because he is likely, in the future, to cause others to fall into mistaken belief. How much more severe, then, is the situation of a person who holds a mistaken belief concerning God Himself, such as the belief that He has some material existence! Thus, the Rambam notes:


Therefore bear in mind that by the belief in the corporeality or in anything connected with corporeality, you would provoke God to jealousy and wrath, kindle His fire and anger, become His foe, His enemy, and His adversary in a higher degree than by the worship of idols.


Here the Rambam is contending with possible arguments against his position. If we suggest that people who believe that God is corporeal are not deserving of punishment, because that is what they were taught, then the same may be said of idolaters. If we suggest that those who believe in corporeality are innocent, since the plain meaning of the text misleads them to believe this – as the Ra'avad argues – then the same may be said of idolaters, since "it is only deficient thoughts and perceptions [that] caused them… to worship [idols]." The Rambam rejects the argument that those who attribute a corporeal existence to God are not accountable for their false belief, because by the same logic we would be forced to conclude that idolaters are similarly innocent, since the tradition in which they were educated, and their own deficient understanding, led them to this error. The Ra'avad might counter this by drawing a distinction between a person who believes wholeheartedly that what he believes is actually Jewish faith (what we might call an "unwitting apostate"), and one who believes in idolatry, with the knowledge that this is not Jewish faith (a "deliberate apostate"). The Rambam, however, does not accept this distinction, and, as he sees it, a person is always responsible for the worthiness and purity of his beliefs.


How is it actually possible to blame a person for a mistake that he commits unwittingly? If a person genuinely believes in God's corporeal existence (or in idolatry), how can he be punished? To this the Rambam responds:


There is no excuse whatever for those who, being unable to think for themselves, do not accept [the doctrine of the incorporeality of God] from the true philosophers.


In other words, even if a person genuinely believes that his (erroneous) faith is true, he is accountable for having adhered to it; he should have acknowledged his intellectual limitations and relied upon the teachings of the true sages. Even if he was unable to understand everything that they taught, it would be sufficient – according to the Rambam – for him to know just the "bottom line" of faith, as a condensed declaration, without all of the proofs that it entails. (Indeed, this is the Rambam's intention in his formulation of the thirteen principles of faith.)


What we have here is an expression of the Rambam's great faith in the human intellect and logic. He believed that orderly thinking would bring a person to the knowledge of truth. The same intellectual process should bring him to a recognition of the limitations of logic – i.e., a recognition of which subjects lie beyond the areas in which logic (either human logic in general or his own personal intellectual capacity) is capable of arriving at decisive conclusions. If a person arrives at erroneous beliefs, then apparently his thinking was deficient. In order to avoid such mistakes, a person must subject himself to honest and penetrating self-evaluation, and decide whether his intellect is sharp enough and knowledgeable enough to be relied upon. If the answer here is in the negative, he must avoid intellectual inquiry into sensitive subjects and rely instead on scholars who possess greater acumen than him. A person who arrives, through intellectual contemplation, at the belief that God has a physical existence, has erred in his thinking. This outcome itself demonstrates that he should have avoided these subjects and accepted the teachings of those better than him at intellectual inquiry. As the Rambam understands it, there is a religious and ethical obligation that requires a person to think in a true way. Of course, a person cannot be commanded to draw conclusions that are beyond his intellectual capacity. However, he may be commanded to undertake an honest self-evaluation of his intellectual ability and to avoid drawing his own conclusions in areas which lie beyond his ability.


This aspect of the discussion is given the heading of the "unwitting apostate.” Unlike the "deliberate apostate" – a person who knows what Jewish faith is, and deliberately rebels against it – an "unwitting apostate" is someone whose wholehearted contemplation, devoid of any subversive or rebellious intention, leads him to think that his (erroneous) belief represents Jewish faith. The Rambam states that such a person is considered identical to a regular apostate. And we now understand how he justifies this conclusion: that person should have known that he should not rely on his questionable intellectual abilities.


We might perhaps suggest another reason for the Rambam's harsh view of the "unwitting apostate," based on another ruling of his:


Those among Israel who are informers [regarding other Jews, to gentile authorities] and apostates, are liable to the death penalty… because they bring suffering upon Israel and sway the people from following God. (Laws of Idolatry 10:1)


The Torah stipulates that heretics are to be dealt with harshly, since they disseminate negative and erroneous beliefs. The Rambam places the emphasis here on the social and spiritual damage that they cause. Such damage results even from an "unwitting apostate.” One might perhaps interpret the Rambam's words here as merely a description of the wickedness of traitors and apostates, but we may also understand his statement as a justification of their severe punishment in light of the future damage that they will cause. This being so, it may be that according to what the Rambam says in Mishneh Torah, the harsh punishment meted out to an apostate is not so much a punishment, as it is a preventive measure, which seeks to thwart a potential danger to society as a whole. If this is the reason for his punishment, then there is truly no difference between a "deliberate apostate" and an "unwitting apostate.”[4]


It must be stressed that this discussion does not pertain to the proper attitude towards Jews in our own era who adhere to erroneous beliefs. That is a separate subject requiring extensive discussion in its own right.


In conclusion, it is important to note that many authorities disagree with the Rambam concerning the law of an "unwitting apostate.” Among these opponents is the Ra'avad, whose opinion we quoted at the beginning of this shiur. We might also cite, for example, R. Yosef Albo:


One who adheres to the Torah of Moshe, and believes in its principles, and who, upon intellectual inquiry and his understanding of the text, is misled into concluding that one of the principles is actually to be understood otherwise… this is not a heretic; rather, he is counted among the scholars and pious ones of Israel, even though his is misled in his inquiry. He is an unwitting sinner and he needs atonement. (Sefer ha-Ikarim, 1:2)


Rabbi Albo is far more forgiving towards a person who stumbles in his inquiry and arrives at erroneous conclusions.



Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] The same idea is also repeated by the Rambam elsewhere: "That God exists was therefore shown to ordinary men by means of similes taken from physical bodies; that He is living, by a simile taken from motion, because ordinary men consider only the body as fully, truly, and undoubtedly existing (Guide, I:46).”

[2]It is not clear whether this explanation can be reconciled with what the Rambam writes in chapter twenty-six: "The multitude of people do not easily conceive existence unless in connection with a body." If this is the case, then how can we be asked to educate right away to this understanding?

[3] I later discovered that this had previously been proposed by A. Ravitzky, Iyyunim Maimoniyim, Jerusalem-Tel Aviv, 5766, pp. 70-71.

[4]According to this logic, it is difficult to understand why the Rambam is lenient when it comes to a Jew who was taken captive as a child and held among gentiles (Laws of Rebels, 3:3), since such a person, upon his return to Jewish society, will have the same negative social influence. If, however, the reason for the harsh punishment for the "unwitting apostate" is his guilt in relying on his faulty intellect, then on the basis of the law of the captive, there might perhaps be room for leniency for the apostate if he grew up in a society where everyone around him projected the message that his conclusions were correct and true.