I am currently in the midst of reading “The Limits of Orthodox Theology” by Marc Shapiro, and one of the chapters discusses the incorporeality of God. Indeed, the point of the chapter, and the book as a whole (which is more than worth reading, just by the way), has little to do with this post. But I did just want address the topic of God’s body a whole…
In truth, there really is no big argument when it comes to this issue. Yes, there were some rather minor medieval philosophers who seemed to be of the opinion that God possessed a body (which in itself might surprise some — indeed, Shapiro attempts to show that some Talmudic scholars might have even been of this opinion), but I’d like to explain what that means. Again, there’s really little argument here.
Let’s begin with the famous Raavad in which he disagrees with the Rambam’s statement that anyone who thinks that God has a body or form/shape is a heretic (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 3:7). The Raavad disagrees stating that there were many great people who have felt that God does have a body, and so how could you say that such a thought qualifies one as a heretic?! The key here, of course, is that the Raavad never suggests that he believes such a thing, nor at all that it is the correct belief, but rather just that it does (or should not) qualify someone as a heretic.
Ok. So far so good.
In fact, Rav Chaim Brisker explains the argument as arguing over whether or not someone is still chayiv for his religious philosophies if they came through his genuine study of Torah. If someone truly tries, and his intentions are pure, but he simply comes to the wrong conclusion — namely, in this case, that God has a body — is he still held accountable? Is such a person still considered a heretic? Raavad would say surely not. Rambam would say surely the man has tried, but he happens to have terrible views! It’s unfortunate, but a heretic is still a heretic.
Now, let’s understand: God has a body… What in the world does that mean? Try to explain that to me.
Is God infinite? Yes. What does “infinite mean”? No form? Sure. No beginning, no end. All true. But we cannot define infinity in an idea, because ideas are finite. When you think of God you are already not thinking infinite! It is a finite form. We can only really think of God in a negative way (as in, what He is not, but we can never really say what He is).
So we accept that there is no form to God. Everybody does.
So how does God have a body? How could anyone suggest that? Bodies have limitations!
You have to say, then, that what this all means is that the infinite God expressed Himself via certain tools that have metaphorically physical form. And, in truth, we all agree to this! Do we not all agree that God has certain attributes? He is wise, intelligent, gracious. Also vindictive, and angry, and vengeful. God is a lot of things. Aren’t these forms? And so on. So, we all believe that God has/expresses Himself via various forms. The question is what do we mean when those people say that God has a body.
Rambam, when addressing terms in Tanach of physicality attributed to God, explains them as merely a metaphorical expression that is written with physical terminology for whatever reason. But it’s not a real body! Others, though, do not mind saying that it is a real body. It’s not defining God. It’s God of infinity expressing himself via certain tools.
But the gap between these two opinions is not really so big at all.
Let’s take a detour for just a moment to explain an important point… We all have bodies. Are we a body? No! You do not equal your body. There is you, and there is your body. When you lose an arm there is not less you. When you gain weight, there is not more you now. You do not need to repurchase your car now, because there is a part of you that didn’t own it before!
So there is a you that has a body. A body is a nice tool, a suit. The body grows and changes. And after, it disintegrates and rots. Fun stuff. But you exist outside of that body. We religious folk call that a “neshamah” — but we don’t know what that means anyway. Call it “X”, for all I care.
(Is the soul your feelings, for instance? No. Because when you die you still have a soul, but your feelings are dead with your body. And so on. Emotions have nothing to do with the soul. The soul is X. It expresses itself in emotions, but they are merely tools, and expressions. So we don’t really know what it is.)
So what is a soul? I don’t know. Is it finite? Actually, yes. It had a beginning and it can end. Anything with a start and end is not infinite, by definition. Is a soul finite in the sense that you can touch and know it? Certainly not. It’s another type of metaphysical finite matter that we have no idea about. Compared to other tangible, finite matter, we would call a soul infinite. But that is actually ignorant, because it is not really infinite. It actually is quite finite. It exists in another plane of existence, outside of experiential existence, but it is not infinite.
So what are we talking about when we say the “body of God”. It definitely doesn’t mean flesh and blood. Do we think that God has hairy legs? No, we mean some kind of finite form in which God expresses Himself. That’s it! God also has a body, so to speak! He created a tool through which he expressed Himself. The Rambam feels that this body stuff is all purely metaphoric, and others say that it’s not!
So the argument is rather small. It has nothing to do with having a hand the way you know it. No one thinks God has a eye. No one wonders how much God must weigh. It’s like the posuk in Yeshayahu:
“The heavens are My throne, and the earth is My footstool…” (Yeshayahu 66:1)
He must have some long feet! Even those that argue with Rambam didn’t think that he had long feet. Please.
So once we define the argument as such, it’s really difficult to understand exactly what they were really arguing about. It’s really up there in the fine-tuned language of philosophy.