Shiur #07: Incorporeality

  • Rav Joshua Amaru

1.         Introduction: The Third Principle


If God had a body, what would it look like?  Asked today, this question is almost too silly to be heretical.  Incorporeality (not having a body) is a basic aspect of our understanding of God, and thinking of God as a being with actual physical proportions is absurd.  Whenever we encounter language, either in the Bible or in Rabbinic sources, that indicates that God has a physical manifestation, we naturally and automatically interpret this language as metaphorical.  Thus the visions of God experienced by the prophets[1] should not be interpreted literally, and any attempt to do sounds either idolatrous or ridiculous. 


            Perhaps the person most responsible for the fact that attributing corporeality (having a body) to God is ridiculous today is the Rambam, who enshrined incorporeality as his third principle of faith:


The third foundation is the denial of corporeality to Him; to wit, that this One is neither a Body nor a force within a body.  None of the characteristics of a body appertains to Him, either by His essence or as an accident thereof, as for example, movement and rest.  It is for this reason that they [the Rabbis], may they rest in peace, denied to Him division and continuity in saying "There is no sitting, nor standing, no oref [backwards] nor ippui [forwards] in heaven" (Chagiga 15a).  They meant that there is no 'division' which is oref, nor is there any continuity, for ippui means continuity as it is said…[2]


Were God a body, He would resemble [i.e., be comparable to] bodies.  Everything mentioned in the Scriptures which describes Him, may He be exalted, as having attributes of a body, such as moving from place to place, or standing, or sitting, or speaking, and so on, is all metaphors, allegories and riddles, as they [the Rabbis] have said, "The Torah speaks in the language of man" [Berakhot 31b].  And men have philosophized a great deal about this matter.  This third foundation is attested to by the verse, "You saw no image" (Devarim 4:15), meaning, you did not perceive Him as having an image, for He is, as we have said, neither a body nor a force within a body.[3]


There are two things worth noting regarding this passage.  First, the Rambam's conception of incorporeality is much more radical than merely the notion that God is not physical. According to the Rambam, God should also not be conceived of as “a force within a body,” which I think in modern terms could be conceived of as energy, in distinction from matter.  So God is not only not made out of matter, He is not made out of energy either.[4]  The Rambam goes on to emphasize that claiming that God has no body is not merely to conceive of Him as insubstantial.  God is not made up of spiritual substance either; He does not occupy space of any sort, and that is why continuity and division, which are attributes of spatial objects, are irrelevant to Him. 


2.         The Controversy


            That being said, it is striking that the question of whether it is possible to believe that God has a body was the subject of fierce debate in the Middle Ages.  No less a luminary than the Ra'avad comments as follows on the Rambam's insistence that anyone who believes in corporeality of God is a heretic:


Why does he [the Rambam] call such a one a heretic [min], while several greater and better than he subscribed to this thought [i.e., believed that God has a body] in accordance with what they found in Scriptures, and even more so because of what they saw in the Aggadot (Rabbinic narrative) that distort thinking?[5]


It is clear that the Ra'avad himself did not believe that God has a body.  His objection is that such a belief is not unreasonable given the evidence of Scripture and especially the (unfortunate, by his lights) influence of Aggada.[6]  Many good Jews (greater people than the Rambam!) have believed in the corporeality of God, and such a belief does not make someone a heretic.  The fact is that the Ra'avad has a good point.  It appears to be unfair to demand of people that they not conceive of God corporeally, given that corporeal imagery is so pervasive in both Tanakh and Chazal.  More significantly, one could ask: if it is so crucial that we not believe that God has a body, why are the sources full of anthropomorphic (human-like) descriptions of God with no qualifications?  Why does the explicit insistence that it is all metaphor and allegory appear only in the Middle Ages, alongside the attempt to describe Judaism in philosophical language?  Yet it is clear that to ascribe a physical body to God is inconsistent with everything else that we know about Him. 


To summarize, we need to answer two questions:

1.  Why was no one bothered by corporeal imagery about God until Judaism came into contact with philosophy?

2.  What is so bad about ascribing corporeality to God in the first place? 


3.         Existence and Nature


We can answer both of these questions by considering what it means to have a body.  Think of the alternative: what would it mean for an entity to be bodiless, to have no extension in space?  Does something that takes up no space even exist?  It is philosophical thought that extends existence to abstractions like numbers or properties.  Ask a normal non-philosopher, which is more existent – that rectangular table or an abstract rectangle?  He or she will almost certainly answer that the table is a real thing, while the abstract rectangle is merely a way of thinking about real things that have that shape.  So in terms of existence, or “realness,” having a body, i.e., extension in space, seems to be a feature of what makes something real, or at least to be a feature of full reality.


According to what we just said, for something to really exist, it must have extension in space, and surely God really exists!  We could thus explain the history of Jewish attitudes towards the corporeality of God with the following simple sketch of intellectual history: in a pre-philosophical stage, Jewish thought about God did not hesitate to think of Him as having extension in space because the alternative would have been a kind of unreality.  Anything that really exists must have extension in space, therefore, so too must God.  However, the Greeks, at least from Plato on, had a different conception of reality, which favored the abstract over the concrete.  From the Greek philosophical perspective, only the abstract is “really real” and the concrete is merely the expression of the fuller reality of the ideal world.  When the medieval monotheistic philosophers[7] accepted this idea, they were led to conclude that God must be an abstraction rather than a physical being.  


Though it is true that Greek philosophy, at least in its Platonic manifestations, largely reverses the order of precedence in its conception of reality, making the abstract “more real” than the concrete, this explanation is too simplistic.  It does not give enough credit to either pre-medieval Jewish thought (i.e., Biblical and Rabbinic) or to Greek philosophy.  It forces us to choose between abstraction and concreteness as the basic form of “reality.”  If we choose the former, then the original Jewish way of thinking is “primitive” and the philosophical development is “progress.”  If we choose the latter, then the original Jewish way is largely correct and the medieval development is a kind of philosophical distortion.  But both early Jewish thought and Greek philosophy have deeper things to say about this issue.


Why was the Rambam so forceful in his objection to attributing a body to God?  The source of his motivation is not merely the obscure ontological (theory of being) theory that grants priority to abstraction over concreteness.  In fact, today, we might be skeptical of such a theory, yet we certainly identify with the Rambam's rejection of God having a body.  The answer is that the Rambam, under the influence of Greek philosophy, approaches the question of Divine corporeality with a conception of nature that remains with us to this day.  That is the conception of nature as structured by (scientific) laws.  Matter and energy (which, in our physics, are the basic stuff of nature)[8] are constituted such that everything that happens in the physical world is (in principle) explainable in terms of these laws.  Given this conception of nature, it is clear that God cannot be made out of matter or energy.  To claim so would place God within nature, making the Author of nature subject to the laws of nature.  Then even God could not travel faster than the speed of light, or do anything that contradicted His nature as a physical being. 


What is the alternative?  Before discussing the alternative that I believe the Rambam actually proposes, I want to briefly discuss an alternative which I think many people accept yet the Rambam would reject.  That would be to posit a “spiritual” realm in which beings made out of spiritual substance exist with no physical basis.  God and the angels (and perhaps human souls before they are “placed” in bodies) are such beings.  As spiritual beings, they are not subject to the laws of nature.  So we can insist that God does not have a body without relating to Him as an abstraction that has no substance at all. 


This approach does not really solve the problem of a corporeal conception of God; it just adds obscurity to it.  God cannot have a physical body because as a physical entity He would be subject to the laws of nature.  That is simply what being a physical entity is.[9]  But the same problem exists for spiritual substances.  For to be a substance, even a non-physical substance, if it is a coherent notion, must have positive implications beyond blank existence.  We can say that spiritual beings are not subject to physical causality, but they must be subject to something; they must have a nature of some sort or another (and that is what is obscure).  As such, to conceive of God in terms of spiritual substance is to subject Him to the limitations of such a substance, and avoiding such limitations was precisely the motivation for entertaining the idea of spiritual substance in the first place.[10]


So in order to avoid subjecting God to the laws of nature, or to any other set of laws that He Himself made, the Rambam takes the opposite extreme.  Just as it drives us to conceive of God as somehow existing outside of time, systematic philosophical theology drives us to conceive of God as existing outside of space.  God is not a being in the ordinary sense of the word; to be a being, if it means anything, involves being subject to those limitations that constitute the realm in which it exists.  God, therefore, exists (and we cannot really even say that) in a manner that is, at least from our perspective, wholly abstract, not part of any realm or world; He is the Creator of all realms, though even understanding Him as Creator is problematic – it  implies that He is a subject who can act, with attendant limitations. 


So we are once again left with a paradox: in fully denying God's corporeality, which we must do if He is not constrained by nature, we are left with nothing to say, with a blank conception of God.  All of the Biblical and Rabbinic anthropomorphism (i.e., attribution of human qualities) about God must be understood as non-literal language.  Elaborating how not to be misled by such language is the main project of the first part of the Rambam's Guide of the Perplexed.  But we are left at a loss with regard to what can replace it. 


4.         Anthropomorphism in the Bible and Chazal


I have already pointed out that prior to the great synthesis of Jewish thought with Aristotelian philosophy in the Middle Ages, no one seemed to be troubled by the use of corporeal language about God.  In the Bible, God is conceived as a “person,” a subject who both acts Himself and communicates with people, who has an outstretched arm and a strong hand, who gets angry, who changes His mind, etc.  The Rabbis were no less free with anthropomorphic imagery, particularly focusing on the image of God as the King of Kings, who sits in the divine court, ruling and judging the Universe.[11]  In one place, God is even conceived as wearing tefillin.[12] 


This comfort with corporeal language should be understood within the context of a very different conception of nature.  The Bible does not present the world as a closed physical system in which all activity can be explained in terms of physical laws, nor did the Rabbis conceive of it as such.  The world is God's creation and the expression of His will, and that which happens is a function of that will.  Now Chazal were well aware of the regularity of nature, but they did not feel obliged to explain that regularity in terms of inherent laws that constitute the nature of matter and energy.  The regularity of nature is an expression of God's chesed, His grace, making life possible.  Within this non-scientific conception, thinking of God as having a body does not have the same implications.  It is not troubling to describe God as a King, with His mighty hand and so on. God exists, and existence implies some sort of corporeality, but the corporeality of God is not subject to laws of nature because physicality is not constituted by laws, it is simply a way in which God manifests Himself within His creation.


5.         Conclusion and What's Next


Realizing that Chazal do not share our conception of nature as constituted in accordance with laws frees us to understand how corporeal imagery did not trouble them.  It does not involve subjecting God to the laws of nature because nature has much less to it.  We are left, however, with three problems. 


First of all, this approach solves the surface problem of subjecting God to nature, but it does not touch on the deeper problem (of which the Rambam was well aware) that any conception of God, particularly conceiving of God as a perceiving and acting subject, involves conceiving Him as limited.  Yet our ability to say anything about God and to understand the way God is presented in the Bible or Chazal requires us to conceive of God in some such way.  The alternative is religious emptiness. 


Second, though our traditional sources are comfortable with anthropomorphism or with ascribing corporeality to God, these modes are radically limited to verbal imagery.  The objection to physical imagery (i.e., drawings, sculpture, etc.) is pervasive and unequivocal.  So even from within the sources, without adding any philosophical perspective, ascribing corporeality to God seems problematic. 


Finally, my presentation here has focused on competing conceptions of nature as the root of whether corporeality is objectionable.  But we do not want to choose between these conceptions: we want both a scientific notion of nature that is constituted by laws as well as a religious notion of nature as the product of the Divine will.  How can we have both?  In next week's shiur I will lay out a different way of thinking about these issues which will allow us to at least begin to answer these questions. 


[1]      Most notably, see Shemot 24, Shemot 33, Yechezkel 1-2, Yeshayahu 6.

[2]      I have taken the liberty of leaving out the Rambam's proofs that the translation of 'oref' and 'ippui' should be respectively division and continuity.  The Rambam's interpretation, even with the help of the prooftexts, is quite radical.

[3]      Translation by Menachem Kellner, Dogma in Jewish Thought, (Oxford: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 11-12.

[4]      So much for “Star Wars” theology.  Below I will explain how identifying God as a spiritual substance or even as “the Force” does not solve the problem presented by claiming that God has a body.  The Rambam's radical conception of incorporeality is the only way to go.

[5]      Ra'avad's (1120-1198, Provence) comment appears on Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva, 3:7.  This is my translation.

[6]      The Ra'avad is not the only one of the Rishonim who was troubled by what he found in the Aggadot of Chazal.  A fairly dismissive attitude to Aggada is found amongst some of the Gaonim.  A brief overview of this topic, in English, can be found at

[7]      This question preoccupied not only Jewish philosophers but Muslims and Christians as well. 

[8]      I am skipping the Aristotelian physics with which the Rambam would make this point and converting it into the terms of our science.

[9]      Superhero comics and movies are often deceiving in that they imagine certain scenarios as possible though they are manifestly not so.  Superman's flying with no means of propulsion comes to mind. 

[10]     The Rambam (and most of his contemporaries), under the influence of the neo-platonic Theology of Aristotle, accepted that there are spiritual substances that make up the Separate Intellects and angels.  God, however, at least in one standard reading of the Rambam, is outside of this system and cannot be thought of in terms of substance at all. 

[11]     This imagery appears in hundreds of places.  God as the Divine Judge is particularly emphasized in the context of Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment.  See Rosh Hashana 16a.

[12]     Berakhot 6a.