By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
You’re definitely the longest-running petitioner! Here’s part 3 of your 13 principle series:
Maimonides writes the following in his commentary:
“The third principle is that God is totally non-physical.”
“We believe that this Unity (God) is not a body or physical force. Nothing associated with physicality can be associated with Him in any way. We, therefore, cannot say that God moves, rests, or exists within a given place…The Prophet says ‘To whom will you liken Me? To what am I equal?’ (Isaiah 40:25). If God were physical then He would resemble other physical things.”
“In many places, however, our Holy Scriptures do refer to God in physical terms; therefore we find such concepts as walking, standing, sitting and speaking used in relation to God. In all these cases, however, scripture is only speaking metaphorically … ”
“The Torah teaches us this third principle when it says, ‘you have not seen any image’ (Deut. 4:15), which teaches us we cannot conceive of God as having any image or form … ”
Maimonides clarifies this apparent discrepancy in his Code: “Once we know this (God’s non-physicality) to be true, we might find it difficult to understand many passages in the Torah, which uses expressions such as ‘beneath His feet,’ ‘written with God’s finger,’ ‘the hand of God,’ ‘the eyes of God’ and ‘the ears of God’? All these expressions are adaptations to human intellect, which can only think in terms of the physical. The Torah thus speaks metaphorically in the language of man. For example, we find in the Torah such expressions as ‘I will sharpen my flashing sword’ (Deut. 32:41). Should we then say that God wields an actual sword, or that he needs an actual sword to carry out his judgment? We perforce understand that this statement is allegorical, and the same is true of all similar statements.” (Yad, Yesodei Hatorah 1:8-9)
Maimonides further elucidates this concept in other writings, in the context of the workings of the human intellect. He explains that man is only capable of fathoming concepts which in some way stem from or relate to the finite, corporeal world in which he lives. The Torah, knowing that, uses anthropomorphisms, or the allegorical use of physical terms. In this way, we can have an understanding of completely non-physical occurrences with which we would have no appreciation. This explanation is found in many of the early foundational works on Jewish philosophy.
There is, however, another explanation of the Torah’s use of human physical terms to describe God’s actions. The Kabbalists offer a profound insight into the workings of the upper, heavenly worlds. There is a Godly system of transcendent, spiritual worlds through which God funnels His power, sends down His blessings and exacts justice. These worlds are purely spiritual, but are set up in the spiritual image of the human body and are referred to as the “primordial man.”
This gives us a converse explanation of the allegories of the Torah: They are not really allegories at all! True, God has no physical “outstretched arm.” Our arms, however, are merely a reflection of certain acts that God performs through the “arms” of “primordial man.” Every part of our body replicates a different aspect of God’s providence.
The totality of our body forms a microcosm of the entire workings of the universe. This is a deeper insight in our creation in the “image of God.” It also reflects the global impact of our actions, which, in turn impact those upper worlds that mirror which parts of our bodies that carry out positive or negative acts.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.