Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Corporality: Rambam's inconsistent views

There is no question that the Rambam is strongly against the belief that G-d has any physicality.

Third principle of faith Commentary to Mishna (Sanhedrin 10:3)... 3) G‑d is not a physical entity and has no physical attributes such as a body or physical power… All the physical description found in the Bible such as walking or standing, sitting or speaking are only metaphors and are not meant literally but are metaphors. Our sages described this as “The Torah speaks in the idiom of man.”
Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva 3:6–8,14): [6] These are the people that have no portion in the World to Come but are cut off and lost and judged for eternity because of their great wickedness and sins: .... [7] Minim are those who say G‑d doesn’t exist, or that the world has no ruler, or that it has a ruler but there are two or more divine entities, or that there is one divinity but that he has a body and physical attributes...
Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 1:9): If so, what is the meaning of the expressions employed by the Torah: "Below His feet" [Exodus 24:10], "Written by the finger of God" [ibid. 31:18], "God's hand" [ibid. 9:3], "God's eyes" [Genesis 38:7], "God's ears" [Numbers 11:1], and the like?
All these [expressions were used] to relate to human thought processes which know only corporeal imagery, for the Torah speaks in the language of man. They are only descriptive terms, as [apparent from Deuteronomy 32:41]: "I will whet My lightning sword." Does He have a sword? Does He need a sword to kill? Rather, this is metaphoric imagery. [Similarly,] all [such expressions] are metaphoric imagery.

A proof of this concept: One prophet says that he saw the Holy One, blessed be He, "clothed in snow white" [Daniel 7:9], and another envisioned Him [coming] "with crimson garments from Batzra" [Isaiah 63:1]. Moses, our teacher, himself envisioned Him at the [Red] Sea as a mighty man, waging war, and, at Mount Sinai, [saw Him] as the leader of a congregation, wrapped [in a tallit].

This shows that He has no image or form. All these are merely expressions of prophetic vision and imagery and the truth of this concept cannot be grasped or comprehended by human thought. This is what the verse [Job 11:7] states: "Can you find the comprehension of God? Can you find the ultimate bounds of the Almighty?"

In addition, according to Rav Chaim, the Rambam does not allow for a mistaken belief in physicality. The only way you get the World to Come is by not having a belief in physicality.

Rav Elchonon Wasserman(Explanations of Agados #2): The view of the Rambam is that a person who believes G‑d is physical is a heretic. The Raavad commented: “There are greater and better people than the Rambam who erred in this issue because of mistakenly accepting the literal meaning of verses and agada.” I heard in the name of Rav Chaim Brisker that the Rambam views that there is no such thing as inadvertent heresy. Irrespective of how a person arrives at a mistaken belief, the fact is that he believes something which is heretical. Furthermore, it is impossible to be a member of the Jewish people without proper faith. Rav Chaim used to say that “a nebach apikorus (mistaken heretic) is also a heretic.” It would appear that he must be correct since all heretic and idol worshippers are mistaken. Obviously there is no one more mistaken than one who sacrifices his son for idol worship and yet he is subject to capital punishment. However, this approach is problematic since a baby also doesn’t have proper faith and yet he is part of the Jewish people. Furthermore, a person who was denied proper education (tinok shenishbah) is allowed to bring a sacrifice to atone  -  without being labeled as a heretic (Shabbos 68b). Thus from these two cases it would seem that the Torah exempts an unwitting error also in the realm of beliefs? This can be answered by what we mentioned previously  -  the foundation principles of faith are obvious and no intelligent person could accept heretical beliefs. It is only because a person wants to reject his obligations to G‑d that he rationalizes that religious beliefs are not correct. Therefore, there is no such thing as an inadvertent heretical belief. On the other hand, if a person doesn’t intend to rebel against religion but mistakenly thinks something sinful is permitted by the Torah  -  then this is truly inadvertent. Perhaps this is what the Raavad meant that the person erred “because of misunderstanding verses and agada.” In other words, the person erred not because he wanted to reject religion but because he mistakenly accepted the literal meaning of religious texts. Thus, the Raavad would classify him as someone who mistakenly says a sin is permitted according to the Torah and therefore inadvertent heresy does exist… The Rambam on the other hand seems to feel that one could not err in thinking that G‑d has a body and that if he was serious about his religion it would be obvious to him that the texts cannot be taken literally…

And yet we see below an acknowledgement that the average man can't have a belief in a non-physical G-d. In fact the Rambam acknowledges that the use by the Torah itself of physical descriptions is an acknowledgement of the need for some physicality. So does that mean that all those who can't grasp the non-physical nature of G-d have no portion in the World To Come?

Moreh Nevuchim (1:26): You, no doubt, know the Talmudical saying, which includes in itself all the various kinds of interpretation connected with our subject. It runs thus:

 "The Torah speaks according to the language of man," that is to say, expressions, which can easily be comprehended and understood by all, are applied to the Creator. 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. Whatever we regard as a state of perfection, is likewise attributed to God, as expressing that He is perfect in every respect, and that no imperfection or deficiency whatever is found in Him. But there is not attributed to God anything which the multitude consider a defect or want; thus He is never represented as eating, drinking, sleeping, being ill, using violence, and the like. Whatever, on the other hand, is commonly regarded as a state of perfection is attributed to Him, although it is only a state of perfection in relation to ourselves; for in relation to God, what we consider to be a state of perfection, is in truth the highest degree of imperfection. If, however, men were to think that those human perfections were absent in God, they would consider Him as imperfect. 
You are aware that locomotion is one of the distinguishing characteristics of living beings, and is indispensable for them in their progress towards perfection. As they require food and drink to supply animal waste, so they require locomotion, in order to approach that which is good for them and in harmony with their nature, and to escape from what is injurious and contrary to their nature. It makes, in fact, no difference whether we ascribe to God eating and drinking or locomotion; but according to human modes of expression, that is to say, according to common notions, eating and drinking would be an imperfection in God, while motion would not, in spite of the fact that the necessity of locomotion is the result of some want. Furthermore, it has been clearly proved, that everything which moves is corporeal and divisible; it will be shown below that God is incorporeal and that He can have no locomotion; nor can rest be ascribed to Him; for rest can only be applied to that which also moves. All expressions, however, which imply the various modes of movement in living beings, are employed with regard to God in the manner we have described and in the same way as life is ascribed to Him: although motion is an accident pertaining to living beings, and there is no doubt that, without corporeality, expressions like the following could not be imagined: "to descend, to ascend, to walk, to place, to stand, to surround, to sit, to dwell, to depart, to enter, to pass, etc.

It would have been superfluous thus to dilate on this subject, were it not for the mass of the people, who are accustomed to such ideas. It has been necessary to expatiate on the subject, as we have attempted, for the benefit of those who are anxious to acquire perfection, to remove from them such notions as have grown up with them from the days of youth.


  1. Rambam's views are not inconsistent. His views are consistently opposed to corporeality, to the point that he writes in halacha that anyone holding such a belief is a heretic (and Raavad's need to offer a blunt criticism).
    He consistently describes the imagery of the Torah in terms of "moshul". But he says it was given for the simple man to get a grasp, or perhaps a child.

    Thus his revised view on the Shiur Qomah document which he wished to be expunged.

    Raavad's criticism does carry some weight. Can someone be called a heretic for reading the torah or midrashim in their pshat form?

    However, the use of moshul of human attributes is less problematic than the use of polytheistic moshul. There is no such moshul in the torah itself.

    1. It is clear from the Rambam that if a person died before developing a proper understanding of physicality he would have no portion in Olam Habah. It is also clear that everyone must go through this heretical view and that the Torah itself is written in a heretical manner - of necessity.

    2. The Meshech Chchoma takes a more acceptable approach in which there is no intermediary stage of heresy.

      Meshech Chochma (Shemos 12:21): It is said about the Jews that they are believers the descendants of believers (Shabbos 97a). However Taanis (5b) notes that non Jews have stronger religious beliefs than Jews - even when their religion is utter nonsense. “The Kittites worship fire and the Kedarites worship water, and even though they know that water can put out fire they have not yet changed their gods but My people hath changed their G d for that which doth not profit.” And even if you want to answer that the faith that is being praised, is believing in things that will happen in the future such as the resurrection of the dead - non Jews also have strong faith in events that will happen in the future. To explain the distinction between Jewish and non Jewish faith, one must note that the appreciation of things such as love, beauty and power are all inherent in a person. The ancient peoples sanctified all these natural powers and placed high value on them and described them as resulting from specific gods. Thus they had a god of beauty, a god of power and a god of love as is well known. A person who personified one of these natural attributes was described as a godly person. Even today, the peoples of the world make images and sanctify these tangible - directly experienced characteristics. Even the Moslems have sanctified the grave of their savior in Mecca and done other things. Consequently, we see that the emotions and senses directly support their faith which is built upon experience and imagery. Thus, non Jewish religious faith is essentially just an extension of natural emotion. That is not how G d conceives religious faith…. In fact, all tangible existence is totally separate from the one Creator. All this is such pure abstract intellectual awareness that Chovas HaLevavos (1:2 Shaar HaYichud) asserts that true service of G d is for either the philosopher or prophet. Nevertheless, all Jews - even without reaching the levels of prophets or even philosophers - truly believe in these pure abstract thoughts of His existence and His unity and they scoff at all that which is entirely based upon natural emotional experience. They understand that faith based entirely on innate human feelings and thoughts is worthless and transient representing only conjecture - G d in the image of man. This is why Chazal state, “How did the Jews merit to recite the Shema which extols the unitary of G d? Because they were descendants of Abraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov.” Because of this knowledge gained from their forefathers - Jews understand this profound abstract philosophical issue and scorn emotion based faith...

    3. Rav Elchonon's notion that all correct beliefs are obvious seems surprising. Elsewhere, in an essay about the obviousness of belief, Rav Elchonon writes that all heretical ideas are the result of shochad, of being bribed by the pleasures of this world. I never understood his explanation because since this bribery begins the moment a person is born, how is he supposed to overcome it after he grows up not knowing that he is bribed? I will be grateful if anyone can elucidate this point.

    4. This question can be looked at from another angle. If there are "get-outs" from some of the 13 Maimonidean principles, then why not others?

      The late Louis Jacobs, who was once an Orthodox Gadol, and started up his own Masorti ( Conservative) movement once wrote in response to a question from a frum rabbi, that "All Masorti Jews believe in Torah Min Hashamayim, except not in its fundamental meaning".

      This quote is very a useful rhetorical device, when discussing other ikkarim - since all Kabalists accept the Unity of G-d (and Incorporeality - except not in its fundamental (Maimonidean) sense.

    5. However, the use of moshul of human attributes is less problematic than the use of polytheistic moshul. There is no such moshul in the torah itself.
      Would you apply the same standard to say Shlomo HaMelekh who wrote:
      Proverbs 8:1-36 t is Wisdom calling, Understanding raising her voice. 2 She takes her stand at the topmost heights, By the wayside, at the crossroads, 3 Near the gates at the city entrance; At the entryways, she shouts, 4 "O men, I call to you; My cry is to all mankind. 5 O simple ones, learn shrewdness; O dullards, instruct your minds. 6 Listen, for I speak noble things; Uprightness comes from my lips; 7 My mouth utters truth; Wickedness is abhorrent to my lips. 8 All my words are just, None of them perverse or crooked; 9 All are straightforward to the intelligent man, And right to those who have attained knowledge. 10 Accept my discipline rather than silver, Knowledge rather than choice gold. 11 For wisdom is better than rubies; No goods can equal her. 12 "I, Wisdom, live with Prudence; I attain knowledge and foresight. 13 To fear the LORD is to hate evil; I hate pride, arrogance, the evil way, And duplicity in speech. 14 Mine are counsel and resourcefulness; I am understanding; courage is mine. 15 Through me kings reign And rulers decree just laws; 16 Through me princes rule, Great men and all the righteous judges. 17 Those who love me I love, And those who seek me will find me. 18 Riches and honor belong to me, Enduring wealth and success. 19 My fruit is better than gold, fine gold, And my produce better than choice silver. 20 I walk on the way of righteousness, On the paths of justice. 21 I endow those who love me with substance; I will fill their treasuries. 22 "The LORD created me at the beginning of His course As the first of His works of old. 23 In the distant past I was fashioned, At the beginning, at the origin of earth. 24 There was still no deep when I was brought forth, No springs rich in water; 25 Before the foundation of the mountains were sunk, Before the hills I was born. 26 He had not yet made earth and fields, Or the world's first clumps of clay. 27 I was there when He set the heavens into place; When He fixed the horizon upon the deep; 28 When He made the heavens above firm, And the fountains of the deep gushed forth; 29 When He assigned the sea its limits, So that its waters never transgress His command; When He fixed the foundations of the earth, 30 I was with Him as a confidant, A source of delight every day, Rejoicing before Him at all times, 31 Rejoicing in His inhabited world, Finding delight with mankind. 32 Now, sons, listen to me; Happy are they who keep my ways. 33 Heed discipline and become wise; Do not spurn it. 34 Happy is the man who listens to me, Coming early to my gates each day, Waiting outside my doors. 35 For he who finds me finds life And obtains favor from the LORD. 36 But he who misses me destroys himself; All who hate me love death."

      Here in his mashal, he makes a rather polytheistic allusion.

      This quote is very a useful rhetorical device, when discussing other ikkarim - since all Kabalists accept the Unity of G-d (and Incorporeality - except not in its fundamental (Maimonidean) sense.

      That is simply not true. Three introductory texts, Shomer Emunim, Kise Eliyahu, and Kuntres Yesodei HaTorah all insist that any understanding other than a fundamental Maimonidean one is in error.

  2. And yet we see below an acknowledgement that the average man can't have a belief in a non-physical G-d.

    I don't see where the Rambam stated this, nor do I see any inconsistency between Moreh Nevuchim and the other writings of the Rambam.

    Your MN translation is not consistent with the Shlomo Pines English translation I use, which is considered the best English translation. "...all men are capable of understanding and representing to themselves at first thought has been ascribed to Him...the multitude cannot at first conceive of any existence save that of a body alone..." (MN, Chpt. 26).

    The Rambam is simply describing the flaws in the initial beliefs of the "multitude", as opposed to those "whose souls grasp at human perfection." The Rambam does not state that the "multitude" can never attain the correct beliefs in a non-corporeal G-d.

    The Zohar appears to be a strange compilation of statements (some contradicting Torah principles) from different sources at different periods in Jewish history. You simply will not find the contradictions and illogical statements in the MN that seem to abound in the Zohar.


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