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Monday, 28 March 2016

076) WHAT WAS RAMBAM'S REAL VIEW ON 'THE REVIVAL OF THE DEAD'?





A fascinating chapter of great intrigue confronts us when we look at Rambam’s view on Techiyat HaMeitim (Revival of the Dead), with allegations abounding of forgery or possible coerced retraction.






The problem is basically juggling Rambam’s views as recorded in the following three texts:

1) PEREK CHELEK: The Revival of the Dead concept, is declared by Rambam to be one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith that every Jew is required to believe in.[1]

2) MISHNEH TORAH: Rambam then appears to contradict these Principles, by declaring that there will be no bodily form in the World to Come and it will only be a world of spirit and souls.[2]

3) MA’AMAR TECHIYAT HA’METIM: To top it all off, Rambam proceeds to write an essay, in his latter years, where he appears to retract the previous statement and unequivocally declares that in the future, the soul will be reunited with the body.

Strangely enough, in his Guide for the Perplexed, there is no reference at all to this fundamental doctrine! So besides apparent contradictions and possible retractions, we are faced with omissions as well.

What indeed was Rambam’s real position on the issue of Revival of the Dead?

Let’s look at each of these three texts in greater detail:

1) PEREK CHELEK:

In Perek Chelek, Rambam elucidates on the Thirteen basic Principles of Faith that every Jew is required to believe in. The thirteenth and final Principal of Faith is the belief in the Revival of the Dead, where at some point in the future, all those resting in the dust will arise to a new life. This is described as a ‘fundamental truth and foundation of our faith’. So much so that; “one who says that the resurrection of the dead is not taught in the Torah, has no share in the World to Come.”

But then, in an apparent turn around, Rambam seems to add a caveat and limitation which tends to undermine the very fundamentality of this concept.

“Men do not do anything except to achieve profit or to avoid loss. Most men would regard any other action (where there is no reward) as useless and meaningless. Under these circumstances it is hard to say to one who is studying Torah; ‘Do certain things and refrain from doing certain other things but not out of fear of divine punishment and not in order to acquire a reward.’ This is an exceedingly difficult thing to do because most men have not achieved such truth that they are able to be like Abraham our Father (who acted without concern for reward). Therefore, in order that the masses stay faithful and do the commandments, it was permitted to tell them that they might hope for a reward (such as the Revival of the Dead) and to warn them against transgressions out of fear of punishment.

Then he almost makes an apology for this view and says; “Let no one blame me for the freedom with which I have used certain expressions or made certain statements in this book, though they may irritate some scholars.”

After all this, Rambam goes on to enumerate the Thirteen Principles of Faith, which he does in great detail. However when it comes to the Thirteenth Principle, surprisingly, he only writes a single line on this most fundamental issue.

"The Thirteenth Fundamental Principle is the Resurrection of the Dead, as we have already explained."

This very terse, single sentence is disappointing because we don’t know whether his statement; ‘as we have already explained’, refers to his fundamental view (that without belief in the Revival of the Dead one is not a true believer) - or to his alluded view (that people need to think in terms of great reward otherwise they will not be sufficiently motivated).

2) MISHNEH TORAH:

In Mishneh Torah, Rambam declares that; “In the World to Come there will be no bodies, only souls...”[3]

This non-corporeal view of a purely spiritual World to Come was so novel and controversial that Raavad fiercely challenges Rambam and says; “It seems to me that this man (Rambam) is almost saying that there is no concept of Revival of the Dead for bodies, only for souls? - On my life, this is not the views of the sages!”[4]

So clearly, Rambam’s alluded view in the previous text, and his stated view in this one, did not find favor in the eyes of his contemporaries.

To add to the mystery, Rambam writes just five chapters earlier and in the same volume, that; “One who denies the Revival of the Dead concept...has no share in the World to Come.”[5]

So far, both our key texts each seem to contain two very divergent and contradictory statements on the importance of belief in the Revial of the Dead.

3) MA’AMAR TECHIYAT HA’METIM:

We do know that many Jews, who denied a belief in a literal Revival of the Dead concept, claimed to base their belief on some of Rambam’s previous teachings. This created much opposition and controversy. Eventually, Rabbi Shmuel ben Ali, who was the leader, or Gaon, of the school of Talmudic study in Baghdad, publicly accused Rambam of discarding a most fundamental precept within Judaism!

So, in 1191, Rambam wrote his Essay on the Revival of the Dead, to defend himself against this open charge of heresy.

Surprisingly, in the Essay, Rambam writes quite scathingly about his adversary the Gaon of Baghdad; “I received a copy of the writing of the Gaon (attacking Rambam). I found it was a collection of homilies and legends that he had gathered. Everyone known that scholars are not expected to rehearse the homilies and the curious tales, of the sort that women tell one another in their condolence calls.”

Yet, notwithstanding this brazen insult, for the most part, Rambam’s Essay on the Revival of the Dead does read like a retraction of some his earlier views.

In it, he states that the belief in resurrection is critically fundamental to Judaism and even has a biblical source.[6]

He says; “And I will state that the Revival of the Dead - which is widely known and recognized among our people, which is accepted by all groups among us, which is mentioned in numerous prayers and stories composed by our prophets and sages – refers to the return of the soul to the body after it departed.”

“Concerning this, there has never been any heard any disagreement in our nation, nor does it have any (allegorical) interpretation (other than its literal meaning). Nor is it permissible to rely upon any individual who believes otherwise...Now, when it is reported of me that I maintain that the Revival of the Dead is metaphorical, this is a downright lie and a pure invention. My writings are in circulation – let them be perused, and let someone show you where I said this.” 

(This last statement is astounding, given his Mishneh Torah text, quoted above!)

In the final analysis, though, the Essay text (written in his latter years), does appear to be his conclusive, clear and assertive endorsement to the fundamental importance of belief in a literal Revival of the Dead concept. There does not appear to be any room for ambiguity on the subject, and it reads almost like a retraction.

The question of course is: was this a coerced retraction, a genuine change of heart, or as some assert, a simple forgery? [7]

There are many and varied ways to deal with these difficulties:

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS:

It is plausible that the answer is none of the above. 

This is because of a very interesting distinction Rambam makes between two future eras:

In the Essay, Rambam maintains that the era of Resurrection is different from the more important era known as the World to Come (which he says is overlooked by those who purport that the phenomenon of Revival of the Dead is more important). 

He says that prior to the era of the World to Come, there will be an era of Resurrection – BUT those resurrected will again die and will not live forever!

Even the Messiah will die, according to Rambam: “But the Messiah will die, and his son and his grandson will reign in his stead.”[8]

The era of the Word to Come, however, will be purely spiritual and eternal.

[This way, one would not be considered a heretic by denying the literal and physical Resurrection concept, since belief in a spiritual World to Come is a different tenet of faith which is entirely removed from that of Resurrection!  - Perhaps this distinction could have protected Rambam from charges of heresy (and could be reconciled with the Mishneh Torah text which actually makes reference to the World to Come as purely spiritual without bodies.)]

Some, like Shem Tov ben Yosef Shem Tov[9] , take a very different approach by going so far as to say that this Essay was an outright forgery, and reiterates that Rambam “did not believe in a physical resurrection”.[10]

Others, like Abarbanel, wrote that Rambam believed that only the first five Principles of Faith were fundamental to Jewish belief, and that the last eight (which includes the Revival of the Dead) were meant for the masses who innately felt a need to believe in such things.[11]

It also seems as if no one knew about the Essay on the Revival of the Dead while Rambam was still alive. He passed away twelve years after (allegedly?) writing the Essay, which would have been enough time for people to have become familiar with the work.

Even his son, Avraham ben HaRambam, who wrote extensively on the topic of resurrection, did not mention the Essay in his deliberations.

CONCLUSION:

After considering all the different components making up this debate, and as a result of so many pressures and agendas coming from all sides - it is very difficult to know with any degree of certainty, what Rambam’s real views were in regard to this crucial concept of  Revival of the Dead.


 As he himself says; “The worst offenders are preachers who preach and expound to the masses what they themselves do not understand. Would that they keep silent about what they do not know.[12]



NOTE:

Regarding the general concept of Revival of the Dead, there is an interesting argument between the kabbalist Abulafia[13] and the nasi, Sheshet ben Yitzchak of Saragossa:

Abulafia (who in general was a supporter of Rambam), was at first very opposed to his view on resurrection. 

He writes; “For what purpose does the body stand watch for its G-d...if the body is not resurrected, where is its hope and where can it find it?”[14]

In other words, why do we have so many restrictive laws regarding the upkeep and holiness of the body if it is not to be rewarded at some later stage?

Rabbi Sheshet took umbrage to Abulafia’s ‘simple and material’ view and writes in defense of Rambam; 

“To bring down our fathers from the highest levels...where they can live forever...to the level of man in an impure body which needs to eat and drink...as opposed to a life of wisdom which is greater than foolishness, as light is greater than darkness...
These words (of Abulafia) seem to me like the writing of one who is confused... If the soul, while still in the body was yearning for its Maker subordinating its passion to its reason, then when it leaves the body it will attain the highest levels for which it yearned while still in the body?”[15]

Interestingly, after the Essay on the Revival of the Dead was published, Abulafia withdrew his criticism.



[1] Rambam’s commentary on the Mishna, Sanhedrin ch. 10.
[2] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, ch. 8, 2.
[3] Hilchot Teshuvah, ch. 8,2
[4] HaSagot HaRa’avad ibid. There are Talmudic references to the Revival of the Dead, such as (Sanhedrin 72a) where it speaks about the righteous whom G-d will resurrect, and (Ketuvot 111b) where it speaks about the dead being resurrected wearing their clothes.

[5] Hilchot Teshuva, ch. 3,6
[6] Daniel 12:2-13; “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake...”
There are, however, other verses that dispel the Revival concept, such as “ If a man dies, can he live again?” (Iyov 14:14)
[7] If there has to have been a forgery (as opposed to a reconciliation of texts), and if one accepts that Ma’amar Techiyat HaMetim was indeed written by Rambam - could not the Mishneh Torah text, which blatantly contradicts this text, have been the forgery?
[8] See Perek Chelek.
[9] Passed away in 1440.
[10] Yosef Albo (15th century) also supports the notion of a non-physical ‘revival’. He believes that although the concept is mentioned in the Talmud, it referred to ‘the reward of the souls and its life in the world of souls’ not bodies.
[11] Rambam did differentiate between ‘true beliefs’ and ‘necessary beliefs’ (which were adopted by segments of society that had a need for them). Often it is difficult to know which is which.
[12] From (his?) Ma’amar Techiyat HaMetim.
[13] Rabbi Meir ben Todros HaLevi Abulafia, also known as Ramah. (Not to be confused with Ramoh, Rabbi Isserless.)
[14] From Abulafia’s letter to the rabbis of Lunel.
[15] This was written in the year 1200, just four years before Rambam passed away.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

075) WHY WAS RASHBAM SO RUTHLESSLY ATTACKED AND CENSORED?

INTRODUCTION:

Not too much is known about Rashi’s grandson, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir or Rashbam, brother of Rabbenu Tam. He lived in northern France, but the dates of his birth and passing are not clear, although they are believed to be from around 1080 to 1160.

THE PSHAT MOVEMENT:

During this time there was great trend amongst the commentators to expound the pshat, or simple, literal and contextual meaning of the Torah text. In a strange irony, his grandfather Rashi claimed to have only commented according to the pshat[1] or simple meaning of the Torah, yet most of his commentary is taken from midrashim (earlier texts which go far beyond the literal interpretation, often offering detailed explanations for gaps in the Torah narrative).
It was his grandson, Rashbam, however who really did stick faithfully to the simple literal text (to his own detriment, as we shall see), and Rashi is said to have acknowledged the fact that Rashbam was the pure pshatist.

RASHBAM’ S MANUSCRIPTS:

It’s also interesting to note that Rashi’s commentaries were always popular and abundant, with literally hundreds of his early manuscripts surviving to this day. This was not the case with Rashbam, as only one manuscript of his Torah commentaries survived until it disappeared during the Holocaust. And even that manuscript had sections missing. Fortunately, in 1705 the manuscript was published in print form[2]. This means that there could not have been much serious study of Rasbam’s Torah commentaries before the 1700’s.

RASHBAM’S TORAH COMMENTARY VS TALMUDIC COMMENTARY:

Another irony is that Rashbam (besides his interest in pshat), was also a founder of the analytical school of Talmudic study known as Ba’alei Tasafot[3]. In his Talmudic commentary he is known to have adhered exactingly to Talmudic thought[4] and conventional halachic practices - which was not always the case when he commented on the pshat of Torah.

It’s almost as if he meant his Torah commentary to be taken academically while his Talmudic commentaries were to be taken halachically and pragmatically. In his Torah commentary he was prepared to explain, theoretically and academically, some things that were at variance to accepted halachik practices (although he never ever advocated any practical departure from standard halacha).[5]
It is with regard to some of his Torah commentary, that much controversy abounds, and it is there that he is considered by some to be a radical commentator.[6]

SETTING THE STAGE FOR THE SHOWDOWN:

One of the key points of contention between the members of the Pshat movement themselves,was how to interpret a verse of the Torah if the contextual meaning differed from accepted halachic practice.

Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) believed that halacha always trumped pshat, so that in cases where the contextual meaning contradicts the accepted halachic practice, one would always choose the halachic interpretation over the contextual meaning.[7]

Rashbam, on the other hand, being a purist, believed that under the same circumstances, when studying pshat, one would always adhere to the contextual meaning instead of ignoring it for the halachic interpretation.[8]  Rashbam explained this clearly when he said; ‘I have not come to expound the halachot, even though they are vital. The halachot can be learned from my grandfather’s (i.e. Rashi’s) commentaries, but I have come only to explain the literal and contextual meaning of the verses.’
Then, in the same paragraph, he again emphasizes that on a practical level halacha is never to be dismissed. It’s just that he makes the stark distinction between the theoretical study of pshat and the practical religious requirement of halachic observance.[9]

THE CONTROVERSY:

We don’t have to wait long for one of the greatest controversies to play out.  Commenting on verse 5 of Genesis, Rashbam drops a halachik bombshell. Everyone knows that the Jewish day begins in the evening and ends the following evening. But Rashbam points out that while that may be the case, we need to understand that the accepted convention is not in accordance with the pshat of the Torah.

He explains: “And it was evening and it was morning” – it’s not written ‘night and morning’, but ‘evening and morning’, implying that as the first day unfolded, the ‘light’ set and then turned into evening which then transitioned into morning. It was only after morning arrived that the Torah declared ‘one day’. Thus a biblical day was morning to morning.[10]

Rashbam’s definition of a biblical day, according to his understanding of the contextual pshat, is morning to morning, as opposed to the halachic definition of evening to evening!

IBN EZRA’S ‘SHABBOS LETTER’:

When Ibn Ezra got wind of this interpretation, we witness one of the most aggressive reactions ever to take place within the world of Torah commentary.
It appears as though one particular Friday, a manuscript of Rashbam’s Torah commentary innocently arrived in England, where Ibn Ezra was living at that time.[11]

Ibn Ezra tells the rest of the story himself (paraphrase):

“One Shabbat[12], I, Avraham the Sephardi, also known as Ibn Ezra, was on the island known as the Edge of the World. In the middle of the night, I had a dream in which a man handed me a letter from Shabbat herself. Initially I was so excited and honoured that Shabbat had sent me a letter until I got to the end, when my heart dropped. I couldn’t understand why Shabbat was so upset with me as I had always cherished her with all my soul.

The letter read:

‘I am Shabbat. The forth of the Ten Commandments, the day on which the manna did not fall, the day which brings joy and calmness to all, the day when mourners do not mourn  and the dead are not eulogized, when even animals rest, and when wisdom is to be found a hundredfold compared to weekdays. I have always protected you and you have guarded me.
But now a mistake has been made. And you have a book in your house which will cause people to desecrate the seventh day. How can you remain silent and not protest?’

In the dream, the messenger told me that my students had brought me a book the previous day in which it is written to desecrate Shabbat. He told me to fight at all costs against the enemies of Shabbat.

I awoke trembling and angry. I washed my hands and found the (Rashbam’s) book and took it to the moonlight, where I read that the definition of a day was morning to morning! I wanted to tear my clothes as well as the page out of the book, but I did not want to desecrate Shabbat. I made a vow that I would not sleep the next night until I had written a letter explaining the true interpretation that ‘day’ is measured evening to evening.

This (Rashbam’s) interpretation is causing all Israel to go astray. Anyone who reads it out loud or believes it - may their tongue stick to their palate. Any scribe who writes it - may their hand dry up and be blinded – while all the rest of Israel will have light!” [13]

ANALYSIS:

Although Rashbam made it quite clear, as we mentioned above, that he always upheld practical halacha - he nevertheless believed there was a place for theoretical and contextual interpretation of Torah verses even when they were in opposition to halacha (as long as inferences were not made that laws could be changed). This ‘disclaimer’ was not enough for Ibn Ezra, hence his violent attack against Rashbam.

One wonders if Rashbam’s duel ‘academic\halachik approach’ was not one of the reasons why his Torah commentaries were so rare in the centuries which followed, and why only one partial manuscript survived till 1945.

This may also be the reason why some modern editions of Mikraot Gedolot, a compendium of various Torah commentators, chose to either leave out Rashbam entirely, or censor out some of his controversial sections such as the example we cited.[14]

SUPPORT FOR RASHBAM’S VIEW:

The interesting fact, though, is that one can make a very strong argument is support of Rashbam’s position.  No less an authority than Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishna, a thousand years before Rashbam, held a similar view that according to the contextual pshat of the verses, a biblical day may indeed have been morning to morning.[15]

Also Rashi comments that; ‘the sun rules for half a day followed by the moon for the other half, making one complete day’.[16]

It seems as if Rav Saadiah, according to pshat, held this view as well.[17] So did Rabbi Reuven Margaliot.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yoseph cites many sources explaining that the day was measured from morning to morning until the Torah was given at Sinai, when it was changed by convention to evening to evening.

None of these views suggest any practical deviation whatsoever from the parameters of the halachik day, and no one seems to have been upset with them for their theoretical reading of pshat.
Yet Ibn Ezra, as we pointed out, believed that pshat must never be allowed to contradict halacha, hence his strenuous opposition to Rashbam.

Furthermore, historically, there were sectarian Jews who did depart from traditional convention and did indeed begin observing Shabbat from Saturday morning to Sunday morning.[18] This too must also have sparked his opposition and may have been the cause for his ‘targeted attack’ against Rashbam.

AFTERTHOUGHT:

I have another theory as to why there may have been such remarkable antagonism towards Rashbam in particular. In the same section of commentary that we have been dealing with, there is yet another theological bombshell that may have been overlooked by many.

Rashbam comments; “In the beginning G-d created – this means that at the beginning of creating heaven and earth, at the time that the supernal heaven and earth were already created – whether that lasted a long time or a short time, the earth was void and without form.”

Never mind the controversy over the pshat as to when the day begins, but there may additionally be the other thorny issue of some aspect of creation lasting ‘a long time or a short time’...

--------------------------------

UPDATE:

I am so happy to be able to offer additional insight by my dear friend and respected Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Chaim Finkelstein:

The time period of the Rishonim can really be called the best of times and the worst of times. The best of times in the proliferation of creative thinking and writing, both in halacha and theology and yet the worst of times in that the self same creativity came under great scrutiny and criticism from the major Rishonim, who berated those views deemed questionable and did so in the most vitriolic way. The question begs, why is it that sages of great mental ability, minds immeasurably superior to ours, could not cope with the novel approaches and could not see the rationale in the same way we can analyse these opinions today and find favour with them?

The answer perhaps presents itself when we appreciate the full import of what the Rishonim were doing in those days. At that point in time the Talmud was basically a closed book, the language, the style of dialectic, the simple meaning, was all impossible to understand without user friendly aids. The Rishonim were deciphering and creating a standard interpretation of the Talmud for posterity and setting down the principles upon which the halacha would rest. In other words the Rishonim were the keepers and the preservers of the oral Torah, a Torah which was not accessible in its current state.

Understanding the need for exactness in such a critical project, and that creativity could cost the integrity of the transmission of the oral Torah, it stands to reason why purists had to defend the Torah with severe outcries against any perceived distortion, because one wrong thought would translate into generations of wrong lore and practice. An extreme example was cited in Rabbi Michal's blogabout the community of Crete who observed Shabbos from Saturday morning to Sunday morning, an error of epic proportions which could have started with a creative twist of an interpretation.


In our times when the guidelines are set and the Shulchan Aruch forms the basis of expository halacha, we can consider novel ideas with more open mindedness, and even try to resolve them, as these ideas don't threaten the basis of our Mitzva performance, like in the times of the Rishonim, only our paradigms and comfort zones.

....................

The Gemara in Hullin 83a and 83b discusses the prohibition of slaughtering the mother and calf on the same day. Rabbi Shimon held that the day means first night then day and derived it from "yom echad" to follow creation. Rebbi derived something else from "yom echad", not that day follows night. Interesting that Rebbi is Rabbi Yehudah who could hold that "yom echad" in Breishis does not mean that after night and day "yom echad", but that after erev and bokker the day finishes and "yom echad" means something else... 
   


[1] Or, as Rashi called it; ‘peshuto shel mikrah’. This trend towards the pshat (the plain meaning of the Torah text) became so widespread, that a movement was started that become known as the Pshat movement. See Masters of the Word, by Rabbi Yonatan Koltach, p. 91.
[2] Interestingly, other parts of the missing manuscript were discovered in 1853 by a German Reform rabbi, Abraham Geiger, who published it and made it available to the Jewish world. Then in 1881, David Rosin reconstructed other missing sections and published an almost complete edition (with only parshat Pinchas missing). This edition then became the basis for its inclusion in the well known Mikraot Gedolot series (such as the Shulsinger edition of 1950, and HaMaor of 1986).
[3] Rashbam and the Baalei Tosafot generally did not quote mystical sources. (But see Masters of the Word, ibid. where a different view is cited, p.94 note 5.)
[4] He wrote commentaries to two Talmudic tractates (which were actually a completion of Rashi’s commentaries to those same tractates), namely Bava Batra and Pesachim.
[5] See Rashbam – A Short Bio, by Rabbi Martin Lockshin, Ph.D.
[6] Although he generally stayed on the straight and narrow in his Talmudic commentaries, there is an instance where he denounced a ‘problematic section of the Talmud as “a later insertion of a long commentary by fools” (Bava Batra 137b). Rabbenu Tam criticized his brother for this unorthodox approach.’ (Masters of the Word ibid. P. 92.)
It should also be added that the other time his brother (Rabbenu Tam) complained about him was when he emended ‘the text of the Talmud “twenty times as often” as their grandfather did and that he used to write his emendations in the text of the Talmud itself, not in the margins, as Rashi did.’ (See Rabhbam – A Short Bio ibid.)
[7] See Ibn Ezra’s introduction to his Torah Commentary.
[8] See Rashbam’s introduction to Parshat Mishpatim.
[9] Another irony is that Ibn Ezra, although championing the halachic component over pshat, was never regarded as a great halachist by his contemporaries, nor is he generally quoted in reference to any authoritative halachic ruling. Some even spoke disparagingly about his halachic acumen. Rashbam, however, was often quoted as an authoritative halachik opinion.
[10] See Rashbam commentary to Genesis 1:5 ‘she’alah amud hashachar – harei hushlam yom echad.’
[11] According to many, Ibn Ezra passed away in England as well.
[12] 14 Tevet 4919. (1158)
[13] See Introduction to Ibn Ezra’s Igeret HaShabbat.
[14] Rabbi Professor Marc Shapiro in his Seforim Blog has famously brought to our attention how ArtScroll censored out these sections of Rashbam in their edition of Mikraot Gedolot, without any indication or notification that sections had been removed. The most complete version of Rashbam’s commentary can be found, however, in the Torat Chaim edition.
[15] See Emor VeAmarta, by Rabbi Eliyahu Katz, as cited by Marc Shapiro.
[16] Rashi on Bereishit 1:14
[17] See Perushei Rabbenu Saadia Gaon al HaTorah, p. 71, as cited by Marc Shapiro.
[18] According to Marc Shapiro who cites Binyamin of Tudela, these may have been the Mishawites of Cyprus.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

074) THE NOTION THAT G-D HAS A 'BODY' - In Early and Modern Rabbinical Writings:

INTRODUCTION:

The notion that G-d has some form of ‘body’ is today so far removed from most people’s perception and comprehension, that the very concept appears to be somewhat absurd. But, surprisingly, this wasn’t always the case. There were some leading rabbis during both the Talmudic period as well as that of the Rishonim, who did ascribe some type of bodily form and ethereal substance to G-d. This concept was even given a title, namely hagshama[1] or corporeality.

THE SHIUR KOMAH:

The whole question of corporeality probably has some of its roots in an astounding work known as the Shiur Komah, or ‘Measurement of the (Divine) Height’. This book, attributed to Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva, goes right back to the Tannaic period of around the second century. It is a Midrashic Text forming part of the Heichalot and Merkavah literature, the oldest form of post biblical mysticism.

The angel Metatron is said to have revealed these teachings to Rabbi Yishmael, who in turn transmitted them to Rabbi Akiva. The purpose of this book is to ‘measure’ the ‘figure in the form of a man’ which Ezekiel had seen in his vision.[2]

It describes in great detail, the seemingly physical dimensions of G-d, in terms of size measured in parasangs (or parsaot, which is a measure of about three to four miles). The height of G-d is given as 236 000 parasangs.[3]
Here are some other examples: “From His right arm to His left arm is 77 ten thousand (parasangs). From His right eye to His left eye is 30 ten thousand (parasangs). The skull on His head is three and one third ten thousand (parasangs)...The black of His eye is 11 500 (parasangs)...”

The parasangs were divided into miles which consisted of two thousand amot, and each amah comprised three zeratot or fingers. Each finger is a ‘divine finger’ which is from ‘one end of the world to the other’.

The various ‘parts of G-d’ are given names that were seemingly never intended to be pronounced. The right eye for example is called: AZRYYH ATTYTVS.

Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva say that everyone who studies this text and knows it well, is assured of a place in the world to come, but ‘only if they recite this mishna every day’[4].

REACTION TO SHIUR KOMAH:

To the modern western mind these concepts surely must seem rather unusual and surprising. This appears to be anthropomorphism at it crudest, something we do not usually associate with Jewish teachings.

Even the Karaites took umbrage to this book and used it as one of their arguments against the Rabbinites. 
  
Yet great scholars like Ibn Ezra, Rabbi Moshe Narboni[5] and Yehuda Halevi defended the Shiur Komah maintaining it was not to be taken literally but rather as an allegory for much deeper teachings. 
The Zohar, by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai one of Rabbi Akiva’s most eminent students, is said to have been influenced by the work[6].

RAV SAADAIH GAON:

On the other hand, Rav Saadiah Gaon actually expressed doubt about the authenticity and origin of the text. He writes; “It is not found in either the Mishna or Talmud, and we have no way of knowing whether it was indeed written by Rabbi Yishmael, or by someone pretending to write in his name.” But he also makes the point that if the text were to be authenticated, one would have to understand it allegorically.[7]

RAMBAM:

Rambam’s response, however, is more direct and is typical of his fierce anti-anthropomorphic philosophy. He was asked whether the book was reliable (or, allegedly, a forgery by Karaites), or whether it contained mystical teachings instead. His response was unequivocal; “I never ever believed it came from the rabbis...It is nothing more than a forgery by the Greek darshanim. It would be best to destroy the work as it nothing but idolatry.”[8]


A Copy of the SHIUR KOMAH



A MORE ‘ELEGANT’ FORM OF CORPOREALITRY:

As we have seen, some believe the Shiur Komah is a deeply mystical book to be understood metaphorically. Others believe it to be an outright forgery and clear idolatry. But I have not come across any sources that take the book literally.

What it may have done, however, was to sow seeds that lead to an undeniable thread within Jewish thinking, that was later to embrace a more ‘sophisticated’ or 'elevated' concept of hagshama or corporeality.

RABBI MOSHE BEN CHASDAI TAKU (1250-1290):

The great Tosafist Rabbi Moshe Taku was known to be an opponent to the rationalist thinking of Rav Saadia Gaon, Rambam and Ibn Ezra[9]. He claimed that Rambam had created a ‘new Judaism’ that never existed before.

Rabbi Taku writes in his polemic, Ketav Tamim, that the notion of some form of corporeality relating to G-d, has roots in the earlier Talmudic period. He championed the view that Torah texts describing G-d in human-like  idiom, should be taken on a more literal level.[10]

He believed that three major catastrophes shook Judaism to its roots, Christianity, Karraism and (the rationalism of) Rav Saadia Gaon[11]!

To be accurate, Rabbi Taku himself believed that G-d, while generally non-corporal, can sometimes appear in a human form. He went so far as to say that to deny this thesis would actually be heretical. (Yet he also was among those who considered the Shiur Komah to be a forgery.)


RIVA (1234-1300):

In a similiar vein, the Italian Talmudist, Rabbi Isiah ben Elijah of Tarani, known as Riva, records that there were a number of Torah Sages who believed in a corporal G-d. 
This G-d, although not of human substance, was of spiritual substance, and of enormous human form.

To be accurate again, the Riva himself did not hold of this belief, but amazingly makes the statement that if one did choose to believe in a G-d defined like this, that person would not be considered a heretic because some of the holy sages of the Talmud also believed that G-d had some ethereal form and a huge human shape. [12]  

Thus, according to him, there was some historical precedent dating back to Talmudic times that incorporated a concept of corporeality.

RABBI SHMUEL ben MORDECHAI of MARSEILLES:

Rabbi Shmuel ben Mordechai of Marseilles wrote that most of the rabbis of northern France were of the belief that G-d comprised some form of corporeality[13]. This opens the fascinating question of whether or not Rashi was indeed a corporealist or not.[14]

RAMBAN (1194-1270):

This report by Rabbi Shmuel ben Mordechai of Marseilles must have been quite prevalent because it prompted Ramban (Nachmanides) to write to the scholars of northern France and censure them for going against Rambam (Maimonides) who declared such corporeal views to be heretical.

RAMBAM (1135-1204):

Rambam writes on the first page of Moreh Nevuchim that the words used in Genesis describing man as being created in the ‘image’ of G-d, have led many to believe that G-d has a “figure and shape and therefore was corporeal.. they believed that to deny that would be heretical.. they conceded though, that G-d was not made of flesh and blood (but of some other ethereal substance).”[16]  

Rambam, however, made his view very clear that belief in any form of corporeality would be totally against and antithetical to the Torah ethos and would be absolutely heretical.

He writes; "You know very well how difficult it is for men to form a notion of anything non-material and devoid of any form of corporeality, except after much training." (M.N. 1:49)

RAAVAD (1125-1198):

Rabbi  Avraham ben David, or Raavad, was a famous Talmudic commentator and father of kabbalah [17] who frequently argued with Rambam. He disagreed with Rambam’s position that believing in a form of corporeality was against the Torah, because ‘many people even greater and better than Rambam’ did espouse of some form of corporeality.[18]

RAV KOOK (1865-1935):

In a fascinating piece of modern day rabbinical writing, Rav Kook says; “We are probably closer to the view of Raavad than Rambam in this regard. As long as a person who believes in some form of corporeality does not physically make an idol, he is still within allowable spiritual limits, and would not be considered a heretic.”[19]

Rav Kook writes further; “With regard to the faiths that originated from Judaism, like Christianity and Islam, the problem is not so much their theology of G-d, but the fact that they departed from observance of the commandments.”[20] 
Amazingly, he is not too concerned about theology of G-d incorporating aspects of corporeality.

These do not bother him as long as they remain within the ‘realm of theory’[21] and do not degenerate into open and tangible idolatry.


CONCLUSION:

The hagshama concept is fascinating, controversial to the extreme if not offensive, highly provocative if not spiritually unsettling. Yet one cannot but conclude that, contrary to popular perception, there have always been elements within Torah thinking, that describe G-d differently to the way most of us probably perceive G-d today.



[1] See Moreh Nevuchim, vol 1, ch 31, where Rambam refers to hagshama as a common but mistaken affliction of the masses.
[2] Ezek. 1:26
[3] A reference to Tehillim 147:5 which can be read as; ‘the height of G-d is 236’ (Gadol Ado-neinu veRav Coach). VeRav Coach has the numerical equivalent of 236.
[4] Shiur Komah 1:2
[5] See Iggeret Al shiur Komah, where he explains the book as writing in metaphor. He based much of what he wrote on ibn Ezra’s commentary to Shemot.
[6] Such as the concept of partzufim or ‘divine configurations’.
[7] See Perush Sefer Yetzirah, Berlin 1885, p. 21
[8] Teshuvot HaRambam 117, p. 200
[9] Rabbi Moshe Taku, besides being against rationalism, was also ironically against the mysticism of Chasidei Askenaz and the followers of Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid (not to be confused with the chasdism of the 18th century). This duel opposition placed him in an unusual theological position, possibly making him one of the early ‘centrists’.  He is known for his view that Rambam was not original but only copied the teachings of Rav Saadiah Gaon.
[10] Perhaps this is alluded to in his title Ketav Tamim or ‘pure writings’. Rabbi Taku did deny the authenticity of the Shiur Komah. He writes; “Regarding the Shiur komah... there are books that heretics forged and they used to bury them in the ground to make them look ancient and mislead the world.” (Ketav Tamim 3a)
[11] Rav Saadiah Gaon’s work, Emunot VeDeot (written around 933 CE) was the first systematic presentation of the philosophies and principles of Jewish theology. Written originally in Arabic and translated later into Hebrew by Rabbi Yehudah ibn Tibbon in 1186. Like Rambam who followed after him, he defended rabbinic Judaism against the Karaites who rejected the Oral Tradition. He described how his heart was grieved when he saw how unenlightened religious people commonly perceived of their faith, and how so many others were drowning in a sea of religious doubt. He also wrote about the absolute purity of the monotheistic concept of G-d, denying any notion of any form of corporeality, saying that all scriptural references to ‘G-d’s hand’ etc. were to be understood allegorically.

[12] See Was Rashi a Corporealist by Rabbi Natan Slifkin, Hakirah, The  Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought, cited by Yisrael M. Ta-Shma, Sefer Nimukei Chumash leRabbi Yeshayah di Trani, Kiryat Sefer (5753) 64, p. 752.
[13] “rov chachmei tzorfat magshimim”
Note: Some argue that Rabbi Shmuel ben Mordechai did not intent to state a fact but rather recorded his perception (being a great follower of Rambam’s philosophy) that most French rabbis were corporealists. See Hakira, The Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought, ‘No, Rashi Was Not a Corporealist’ By: Saul Zucker.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Kitvei Ramban, vol. 1 p. 345
[16] Moreh Nevuchim 1,1
[17] Raavad is credited with drawing up the diagram of the Etz Chaim, Tree of Life with the positions of the kabbalistic Sefirot. The actual drawings were done by his son, Yitzchak the Blind.
[18] See his comment to Hilchot Teshuvah 3:7.
[19] Shemona Kevatzim vol. 1, 31
[20] Ibid. 32
[21] Ibid. 30 ‘omed be’tzurato ha’mufshetet’