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Encyclopedia Judaica:

Jewish Concepts: Table of Contents | Belief | Ecology

ANTHROPOMORPHISM, the attribution to God of human physical form or psychological characteristics. Anthropomorphism is a normal phenomenon in all primitive and ancient polytheistic religions. In Jewish literary sources from the Bible to the aggadah and Midrashim, the use of anthropomorphic descriptions and expressions (both physical and psychical) is also widespread. Yet at the same time it is accepted as a major axiom of Judaism, from the biblical period onward, that no material representation of the Deity is possible or permissible. The resolution of this apparent contradiction requires consideration and understanding of virtually every anthropomorphic expression. In every instance it should be asked whether the expression is an actual, naively concrete personification of God, or a fresh and vital form of religious awareness resorting to corporeal imagery, or an allegorical expression, in which the anthropomorphism is not merely an aesthetic means for the shaping of a particular perception or utterance, but is rather a conscious method of artificially clothing spiritual contents in concrete imagery.

The evolutionary approach to the study of religion, which mainly developed in the 19th century, suggested a line of development beginning with anthropomorphic concepts and leading up to a more purified spiritual faith. It argued, among other things, that corporeal representations of the Deity were more commonly found in the older portions of the Bible than in its later books. This view does not distinguish between the different possible explanations for anthropomorphic terms. It especially fails to account for the phenomenon common in the history of all cultures, that sometimes a later period can be more primitive than an earlier one. In fact, both personifications of the Deity as well as attempts to avoid them are found side by side in all parts of the Bible. The paucity of anthropomorphisms in certain works is not necessarily proof of any development in religion, but may well be due to the literary characteristics and intentions of certain biblical narratives, e.g., the narratives designed to express the growing distance between God and man through describing His relationship to Adam, the patriarchs, and the early and late prophets, etc.

In The Bible

An obviously anthropomorphic expression is found in Genesis: ẓelem Elohim ("the image of God"), and there are references to actually "seeing" God (Ex. 24:10–12; Num. 12:8). The limbs of the human body frequently serve as allegorical descriptions of the acts of God as perceived by man. Thus divine providence is referred to as "the eyes of the Lord" and "the ears of the Lord" (very common in Prophets and Psalms); "the mouth of the Lord" speaks to the prophets (both in Torah and Prophets); the heavens are the work of His fingers (Ps. 8:4), and the tablets of the covenant are written by the finger of God (Ex. 31:18). Striking figurative expressions are af ("nose"; i.e., "the wrath of the Lord"), "His countenance" (which He causes to shine or, alternatively, hides), yad, ("hand," "His right hand," "His arm," "His sword"). At times the personification is startlingly extreme: God (or His voice) "walks about in the garden" (Gen. 3:8); He "goes down" in order to see what is being done on the earth (Gen. 11:5; 18:21) or in order to reveal Himself there (Ex. 19:18; 34:5), and He "goes up again" (Gen. 17:22; 35:13); He goes through the land of Egypt and passes over the houses of the Israelites (Ex. 12:12–13); He sits on a throne (Isa. 6:1), causes His voice to be heard among the cherubim who are over the ark of the tabernacle (Num. 7:89), dwells in Zion and in Jerusalem (Ps. 132:13; 135:21); the hair of His head is as wool (Dan. 7:9); Moses sees "His back" (Ex. 33:23). Anthropomorphic expressions abound in the song at the Red Sea (Ex. 15) and in the song of David (II Sam. 22; Ps. 18).

More important from a theological perspective are the anthropopathisms, or psychical personifications of the Deity. Scripture attributes to God love and hate, joy and delight, regret and sadness, pity and compassion, disgust, anger, revenge, and other feelings. Even if one explains these terms as being nothing but picturesque expressions, intended to awaken within man a sense of the real presence of God and His works, nonetheless they remain personifications. The basis for such terms is the conception of God as a Being who wills in a personal (though not exactly in a human) way. This personalized conception of the Deity, in conjunction with the axiomatic belief in His absolute transcendence, leads to unusual boldness in the use of anthropomorphic imagery.

Ultimately, every religious expression is caught in the dilemma between, on the one hand, the theological desire to emphasize the absolute and transcendental nature of the Divine, thereby relinquishing its vitality and immediate reality and relevance, and on the other hand, the religious need to conceive of the Deity and man's contact with Him in some vital and meaningful way. Jewish tradition has usually shown preference for the second tendency, and there is a marked readiness to speak of God in a very concrete and vital manner and not to recoil from the dangers involved in the use of apparent anthropomorphisms.

However, this anthropomorphic style is frequently accompanied by mitigating expressions indicating reservations. The basic opposition to all such personifications is decisively formulated in the Decalogue. In addition, it finds expression in many verses which maintain that nothing can be compared to God, who has no form or shape, cannot be seen, is eternal and without end (very frequent in the Pentateuch, Former and Latter Prophets, Psalms, Job, and Chronicles). Yet, many of these verses appear to contradict others which describe God in corporeal terms (for example, Ex. 20:4; Deut. 4:15, as against Gen. 1:26; Num. 23:19 and I Sam. 15:29 as against Gen. 6:6; I Kings 8:27 as against Ex. 25:8, and other such examples). These verses emphasize the transcendent nature of the Divine, not in philosophical abstractions but in vivid descriptive expressions. In other places one finds attempts to avoid such personifications and to substitute less daring imagery; if it is said, on the one hand, that the Lord dwells in His sanctuary (Ex. 35:8), and also appears in the cloud over the cover of the ark (Lev. 16:2), on the other hand there are verses which speak instead of God's kavod ("glory") or Shemo ("His name"; Ex. 24:16–17; Lev. 9:23; Num. 14:10; Deut. 12:5, 11; 16:2, 6; I Kings 8:11). Some scholars (S.D. Luzzatto and Geiger) argued that the present vocalization of Exodus 34:24 "to appear before the Lord" was emended by the masoretes from original לִרְאוֹת (lirot; "to see") to לֵרָאוֹת (lera'ot; "to be seen"), to avoid an objectionable anthropomorphism.

There is no evidence of any physical representation of God in Jewish history (in contradistinction to the worship of Canaanite and other foreign gods by Israelites). Even the golden calves of Jeroboam represented, according to the view of most scholars, only a footstool for the invisible God. In archaeological excavations no images of the God of Israel have been unearthed. Biblical Hebrew is the only fully developed language which has no specific term for the notion "goddess."

The Targumim

The method of mitigating offensive anthropomorphisms by means of small emendations, described by the tannaim as "biblical modifications of expression," is also prevalent in the early translations of Scripture. *Onkelos often renders the name of the Lord in such substitutes as "the glory of the Lord," "the Word of the Lord," and "fear of the Lord." Similarly, he translates "He saw" or "He knew," referring to the Deity as "it was revealed before Him"; "He went down" becomes "He revealed Himself"; "He heard" becomes "it was heard before Him," and other similar examples. If the same verb is used in the Bible to describe an action of God and of man, Onkelos uses two different words in order to distinguish clearly between the Divine and the human (Gen. 32:29; 40:8; Ex. 14:31; and others). He is less hesitant, however, about attributing man's psychical qualities to God, and he translates such expressions as hatred, love, anger, and the like without making any changes except for those words which indicate regret and sadness on the part of God (for example, Gen. 6:6). Yet Onkelos is not consistent in his treatment of anthropomorphism as Maimonides already observed (Guide of the Perplexed 2:33), and it has been suggested that he prepared his translation with the simple worshiper in mind: expressions whose metaphorical meaning was obvious, were translated literally; where misunderstanding and error were likely, his translation circumvents the anthropomorphism by a paraphrase. The other Aramaic translators follow a similar course, although the Targum known as "Yerushalmi" goes even further in avoiding anthropomorphisms than do Onkelos and the Targum Jonathan to the Prophets.

The same generally applies to the Greek translations. For instance, temunah ("likeness") is always translated in the Septuagint as μορΦή ("form") or ὸμοίωμα ("likeness"), and, if it refers to the Deity (Num. 12:8), it is rendered δόξα ("that which appears"). The Septuagint is extremely careful with God's "wrath," "anger," and similar terms, which the Aramaic Targumim never hesitate to translate literally. Yet even within the Septuagint one finds no consistency in handling anthropomorphisms. Among the other Greek translations, of which only fragments are extant, Symmachus is the most consistent in avoiding personifications of the Deity. For example, in Genesis 1:27, he separates the terms "in the image of God," reading instead: "in the image – God created him" (the Targum Yerushalmi attributed to Jonathan treats this verse similarly).

Hellenistic Philosophy

Aristobulus deals in a systematic way with the "true" (that is, the allegorical) interpretation of anthropomorphic verses in Scripture, basing himself on Greek thinkers and poets. The consistent avoidance of any personification of God led Philo of Alexandria to the concept of a Deity who neither acts nor creates, who is without attributes or qualities and hence no kind of positive relationship to this world could be attributed to him. At the same time Philo could not be unaware of the dynamic vitality and activity of God as portrayed in the Bible. This contradiction caused him to posit an intermediate being between God and the world. His biblical exegesis is an allegorization of Scripture in this direction. Hence the memra ("word") of Onkelos and the logos of Philo, despite their terminological similarity cannot be equated.

Aggadic Literature

Rabbinical aggadah essentially follows the biblical manner of boldly using anthropomorphic imagery, while at the same time qualifying it. The number of substitute terms for God increases. To the memra of the Targum are now added other names and circumlocutions, such as gevurah ("strength"), shamayim ("heaven"), makom ("place"), etc. Sentences in which personifications occur are softened by means of the qualifying term kivyakhol ("so to speak," "as it were") or by means of sayings such as "if it were not written in Scripture, it would be impossible to utter it." Occasionally, anthropomorphic personifications of God are justified for didactic reasons and by the need to make divine truth accessible to human understanding: "The Torah speaks in the language of men." At times the rabbis resort to anthropomorphic language in order to drive home a moral lesson. Thus God's "descent" on Mount Sinai is used for the following exhortation: "Let a man always learn from his Creator, for here the Holy One blessed be He forsook all of the mountains and high hills and caused His presence to rest on the lowly Mt. Sinai" (Sot. 5a). Similarly, on the third day after the circumcision of Abraham, "the Holy One blessed be He said to the ministering angels: Let us go down and visit the sick man."

However, definite attempts to qualify anthropomorphic tendencies are evident in other homilies on the revelation at Sinai: "The Divine Presence never descended, nor did Moses and Elijah ever ascend to heaven" (Suk. 5a; Mekh. Ha-Ḥodesh 4). The commandment to cleave to the Lord is explained in the Talmud in this way: "As He is compassionate, so should you be compassionate; as He visits the sick, so should you visit the sick" (Shab. 133b; Sot. 14a). But the original version of the Midrash read: "As He is called compassionate and gracious, so you be compassionate and gracious," thereby avoiding the potential personification involved (Sif. Deut. 11:22). The rabbis did not recoil from such terms whenever they thought them useful to impress man with an awareness of the existence of God, His love and His fear, and, hence, aggadic literature abounds in statements to the effect that the Holy-One-blessed-be-He studies the law (Ḥag. 15b), puts on tefillin (Ber. 6a), weeps over the destruction of the Temple, and the like.

In the Middle Ages

The proper explanation of the anthropomorphic passages in biblical and aggadic texts became a major problem in Jewish theological thought. Generally one may discern three main trends of thought, although there are no clear lines of demarcation, and the number of intermediate positions is considerable: (1) Allegorization: every anthropomorphic description of the Deity is explained simply as a metaphor. This approach developed chiefly through the influence of Greek and Arabic philosophy. (2) Talmudic orthodoxy: a well-nigh literal understanding of the sayings of the rabbis. Philosophical, i.e., allegorical, exegesis was considered a danger to religion, since the whole biblical, halakhic, and aggadic tradition might easily evaporate into allegorical ideas. (3) The mystical view: there are intermediate beings between God and the world (or stages of God's self-manifestation), and all anthropomorphic expressions refer to these emanations from the Deity. Further support for this line of thought is found in the Targumim and aggadah, which make frequent use of such names as Shekhinah ("Divine Presence").


The medieval Jewish philosophers aimed at purifying the concept of the Deity of any trace of anthropomorphism. *Saadiah Gaon held that all corporeal references to God refer to noncorporeal matters, and that strictly speaking only the attribute of existence could be ascribed to God. The forms which the prophets saw in their visions were not actually the Deity but His Shekhinah ("Presence") – viz. the divine light or kavod ("glory") created by Him. Later thinkers developed Saadiah's views, although many of them defended the unlettered, simple believers who were intellectually incapable of properly understanding Scripture and approaching God without material notions (Joseph b. Ẓaddik, Baḥya ibn Paquda; Abraham b. David of Posquières' gloss to Maimonides' Yad, Teshuvah 3:7). Judah Halevi even saw a logical justification and a didactic value in such anthropomorphisms (compare his comment on the golden calf episode (Kuzari 1:97)). Discussion of the problem reached its zenith in the philosophical work of Maimonides, who insisted upon a nonliteral, allegorical understanding of all anthropomorphic expressions, both physical and psychical, and ruled that every anthropomorphism was outright heresy.

The violence of Maimonides' polemic against anthropomorphic beliefs and doctrines suggests that these were fairly widespread, and that a great many people were affected by "the aggadot ("homilies") which confuse one's mind" (so Abraham b. David of Posquières, loc. cit.). The influence of Maimonides, however, was both powerful and lasting. Even against the vehement opposition of more conservative thinkers of his day, his "Guide" determined what was to become the Orthodox concept of God within Judaism for a long time. There is evidence (Jedaiah ha-Penini of the 13th century, Moses Alashkar of the 15th) to show that it was the writings of Maimonides which finally did away with all anthropomorphic notions among Jews. Whereas in his lifetime Maimonides' orthodoxy was suspected because of his opposition to anthropomorphic beliefs, Spinoza was equally strongly denounced in the 17th century for his rejection of Maimonides' principles of exegesis and for his contention that scriptural anthropomorphisms were originally meant to be taken literally.

[R.J. Zwi Werblowsky]

In the Kabbalah

The talmudic *Merkabah (the heavenly throne-chariot) mysticism taught the ascent of the ecstatic soul into the realm of the divine throne. A description of the revelation of the divine majesty in the form of a human figure (following Ezekiel 1:26) became the focal point of this vision. This description is found in fragments of a tract called Shi'ur Komah, literally "the measure of the body," i.e., the body of God as He appears, revealing Himself in this form. The text, attributed to the two mishnaic rabbis R. *Ishmael and R. *Akiva , gives enormous figures for the measurement of each organ of that divine primordial man on the throne. Such measurements are preserved, for example, of God's right and left eyes, of His lips, and other parts. The description of God's organs is designedly linked with the description of the beloved one in the Song of Songs 5:11–15, and it is certainly connected with some esoteric doctrine about the Song of Songs as a mystical text. It constitutes a major piece of theosophy, no longer clear, evolved precisely within the circle of strict rabbinical Orthodoxy. The age of these fragments, which were forcefully attacked by the *Karaites as a profanation and degradation of the religious concepts about God, was long debated. Some philosophic apologists of the Middle Ages, for whom the existence of these doctrines was a source of embarrassment, tried to explain them away as late forgeries. Judah Halevi justified the Shi'ur Komah "because it brings the fear of God into the souls of men" (Kuzari 4:3). Later Maimonides ruled that it was unquestionably an idolatrous work and should be destroyed (Teshuvot Rambam, ed. Freimann, nos. 373, 694). Scholars like *Graetz assumed that they were due to the influence of an anthropomorphic school in early Islam. These opinions are no longer tenable. The term Shi'ur Komah appears as the keyword of an esoteric doctrine connected with the Song of Songs in the hymns of Eleazar ha-Kallir, which are pre-Islamic. The existence of an esoteric doctrine about the Song of Songs is attested in the third century by the church father Origen who lived at Caesarea. By this he cannot have meant the openly accepted allegorization of the Song of Songs as the relationship between God and Israel, but rather as a doctrine about the appearance of God in the form of the beloved one, such as is taught by the Shi'ur Komah. Saul *Lieberman has shown that in the earlier aggadah the revelation of God on His Merkabah at the exodus from Egypt and the revelation on Mount Sinai are in fact attested in a manner which fits into the traditions of the Shi'ur Komah. However it is clear from the extant fragments that this extreme form of anthropomorphism was not really meant to describe the Divine Being as corporeal. The description here is of a visionary apparition, however exotic, but not the appearance of God Himself. In kabbalistic literature, Shi'ur Komah was interpreted as a symbol for the revelation of the Divinity in the Sefirot (Divine Emanations) and therefore it was favorably appraised. Important parts of the *Zohar , in particular the Great and Small Idras, represent a kind of kabbalistic adaptation or imitation of the Shi'ur Komah. In them, the theosophic beliefs of the kabbalists are quite consciously expostulated in the form of concrete descriptions of the features of the head of the Divinity, in order to doubly stress their symbolic character. Parallels to the Shi'ur Komah are also found in the second century in the *gnostic literature of Christian heretics who had a knowledge of Aramaic, such as Marcion. His description of the "Body of Truth" comes particularly close to the traditions of the Shi'ur Komah.

[Gershom Scholem]

In Jewish Art

Although Jews have speculated on the anthropomorphic nature of God, visible representation of the Deity was clearly forbidden by the Mosaic law. In spite of this injunction, the Deity has sometimes been represented in Jewish art. In the synagogue frescoes of *Dura Europos (third century C.E.), there are representations of the Hand of God stretching forth from heaven. In certain cases where they depict the visions of Ezekiel the representations might be justified as an illustration of a biblical text (e.g., the prophet said, "the hand of the Lord was upon me"; Ezek. 37:1). No such justification, however, can be used to explain the fact that at Dura Europos and at *Bet Alfa there are representations (as in contemporary Christian art) of the Divine Hand extending from heaven to prevent Abraham from sacrificing his son (it is specifically stated in the Bible that the patriarch was restrained by the voice of an angel). The anthropomorphic tradition was continued in medieval Jewish illuminated manuscripts. In the Sarajevo Haggadah there is a figure of a man in repose which according to one opinion illustrates God taking rest after the labor of creation. Later, the theme was taken up in documents and printed books. One of the vignettes to *Jacob b. Asher's Arba'ah Turim published by Ḥayyim Schwarz (with his son and son-in-law) in Augsburg in 1540 shows the Deity engaged in the work of the sixth day of creation and in the creation of Eve. The Deity was also depicted in small vignettes of scenes from the Vision of Ezekiel on the engraved title page of the Minḥat Shai (Mantua, 1742); on the engraved border of an Italian *ketubbah of the 17th century; and in a representation of the Vision of Jacob at Bethel on the title page of the Ir Binyamin by Benjamin Ze'ev Wolf Romaner (Frankfurt on the Oder, 1698). There is a depiction in relief of God appearing to the infant Samuel (I Sam. 3:10) on the gravestone of Samuel Senior Texeira in the Oudekerk cemetery of the Sephardi Jewish community in Amsterdam (1717). This is especially remarkable in view of the biblical prohibition of graven images. The accumulated evidence shows that it is even possible that the cast figure of Jupiter Fulgur, incorporated in the perpetual lamp of at least two 18th-century German synagogues, was also intended to represent the Deity. It is clear that the prevalent idea that medieval Jewish art would not brook anthropomorphism is certainly incorrect.

[Cecil Roth]


IN KABBALAH: M. Gaster, Studies and Texts in Folk-lore… 2 (1960), 1130–53; A. Schmiedl, Studien ueber juedische, insbesondere juedisch-arabische Religionsphilosophie (1869), 239–58; G. Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism… (1960), 36–42, 118–26 (appendix by S. Lieberman); idem, Von der mystischen Gestalt der Gottheit (1962), 7–48 (On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead (1991), 15–55); Scholem, Mysticism, 63–67; S. Mussayoff (ed.), Merkavah Shelemah (1921), 30a–44b (for the time being the best available texts of the Shi'ur Komah fragments). IN ART: A. Grabar, in: Cahiers Archéologiques, 16 (1964), 245–8; Morton Smith, in: BJRL, 40 (1957–58), 473–572. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: IN KABBALAH: D. Abrams, "The Dimensions of the Creator – Contradiction or Paradox? Corruptions or Accretions to the Manuscript Witness," in: Kabbalah, 5 (2000), 35–53; The Shi'ur Qomah: Texts and Recensions, ed. Martin Samuel Cohen (1985); J. Dan, "The Concept of Knowledge in the "Shi'ur Qomah," in: Studies in Jewish Religious and Intellectual History in Honor of A. Altmann (1979), 67–73; A. Farber-Ginat, "Inquiries in Shi'ur Qomah," in: M.l Oron and A. Goldreich (eds.), Massu'ot, Studies in Kabbalistic Literature and Jewish Philosophy in Memory of Prof. Ephraim Gottlieb (1994), 361–94, Heb.; M. Idel, "Une figure d'homme au-dessus des sefirot (A propos de la doctrine des "eclats" de R. David ben Yehouda he-Hassid et ses developments)," in: Pardes, 8 (1988), 131–50; idem, "The World of Angels in Human Shape," in JSJT (Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought) = J. Dan and J. Hacker (eds.), Studies in Jewish Mysticism, Philosophy and Ethical Literature Presented to Isaiah Tishby (1986), 1–66; Y. Lorberbaum, "Nahmanides' Kabbalah on the Creation of Man in the Image of God," in: Kabbalah, 5 (2000), 287–325 (Hebrew); Ch. Mopsik, "La datation du Chi'our Qomah d'apres un texte neotestamentaire," in: Revue des Sciences Religieuses, no. 2 (April 1994), 131–44; E. Wolfson, "Anthropomorphic Imagery and Letter Symbolism in the Zohar," in: JSJT (Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought), 8 (1989), 161–63; idem, "Metatron and Shi'ur Qomah in the Writings of Haside Ashkenaz," in: K.-E. Groezinger and J. Dan (eds.), Mysticism, Magic and Kabbalah in Ashkenazi Judaism, (1995), 60–92.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.