A morning at the Leader Minyan
Feeling proud

First theomorphism class

I'm taking a class this summer with Shaiya Rothberg on theomorphism. The class aims to explore the image of God in Jewish tradition. Does God have an image? Well, that's the open question. In general, if you ask Jews whether God has an image or a body, the answer is "of course not!" Sure, Torah frequently speaks in those terms, but those passages are meant to be read metaphorically. (If this subject interests you, read on; what follows is a recap of the remarks that opened class, before we got to the hevruta/paired text study.)

God doesn't have an image: that's the standard answer because we're products of the Maimonidean tradition. Rambam (a.k.a. Maimonides) was deeply influenced by Aristotelianism, and also by Islamic thought. His Guide to the Perplexed regards the anthropomorphism in Torah as completely metaphorical. There's a sense that matter, physicality, is "lower" or less valuable than mind/spirit. God is understood as pure form/intellect, transcending the material stuff that one can perceive using physical senses.

We've inherited that idea, and we've also inherited a lot of ideas from the Wissenschaft des Judentums, the beginning of the academic study of Judaism in the nineteenth century. (Think Biblical criticism, documentary hypothesis, all that jazz.) That generation of scholars got to determine the meaning of Jewish sources and how they would present those sources to the world, and they were deeply invested in this idea of a formless God. That was a period of time when "mythology" was a dirty word. Mythology, paganism, anthropomorphism: all of that stuff was seen as inferior.

Of course, once Gershom Scholem began writing and teaching about kabbalah, it became clear that there's a strain of Jewish tradition that's heavily mythological -- and anthropomorphic, too! The Zohar especially, which talks about God's beard, God's hair, all kinds of aspects of God's physical self. Scholem writes about the revenge or return of mythology, describing it as a force which rose back up and conquered the rabbinic tradition during the middle ages.

And even that picture is changing and evolving now. Our culture is less rationalistic, and more open to mythology, than it was even twenty years ago. Today we're likelier to scoff at abstract theology, perceiving it as devoid of human content; we're interested in living stories with real human power. That's a shift. The midrash is full of anthropomorphism and wild stories, which was something of an embarrassment to the academics of the 19th century; today that's coming back into its own.

We've also become much more self-aware about reading texts within the social, political, and theological contexts in which they were written. We don't expect texts from the first century C.E. to hew to the standards of the thirteenth century, or the eighteenth. Being more conscious of our assumptions helps us read more closely and critically.

In our first session we looked at several texts from Tanakh, among them the passage in which God shields Moshe in the cleft of a rock and allows him only to see God's afterimage (because man cannot look upon God's face and live); the dual creation stories at the start of Genesis, one of which references the human as created in God's image and one of which talks about the human being created out of dust from the earth; and a snippet of Ezekiel's mystical vision of God, featuring something like a throne on which something like a man was seated. In our next class we'll look at some rabbinic interpretations of these stories. We'll see what picture -- of God, and of our perceptions of God -- emerges for us over the course of the next few weeks.

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