This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

He Ain’t Got No Body *

Every good Jew knows that God does not take on human form. This was a standard argument used by medieval Jewish polemicists to challenge Christianity’s status as a monotheistic faith. Maimonides went so far as to insist that any Jew who naively held to the belief that God could take on a physical body was guilty of idol worship. In fact, he argued that a conception of a God who had a body (referring to any three-dimensional entity) is a logically self-contradictory absurdity.

The sophisticated Jewish theologians who professed the doctrine of an incorporeal deity were of course aware that Bible, Talmud and Midrash were not always as scrupulous as they might have hoped about avoiding references to God’s hand, finger, eyes and other body parts. These images were dismissed as metaphors, unavoidable compromises with the limitations of human language, or as profoundly allegorical expressions of metaphysical truths. Even so, some texts seemed so explicit in their descriptions of a God in human form that they required more extensive justification.

One of these problematic texts was a passage in the Babylonian Talmud that described how God humiliated Sennacherib, the wicked Assyrian monarch who destroyed the northern Israelite kingdom and who tried unsuccessfully to besiege Jerusalem. Expounding the words of Isaiah “In the same day shall the Lord shave with a razor that is hired... by the king of Assyria, the head, and the hair of the feet: and it shall also consume the beard,” Rabbi Abbahu of Caesarea crafted an elaborate tale of how the nefarious king—terrified at the prospect of facing the parents of soldiers who had perished in the failed siege of Jerusalem—was advised to shave his head in order to avoid recognition. In the end (after he was reduced to performing menial labour in order to rent the razor, and after his hair and beard were singed off), Sennacherib’s own sons did not recognize their father and put him to death.

In some respects, this is a typical rabbinic homily in which an arch-villain suffers deserved punishment, and an obscure prophetic text is applied to a specific historical event. Some of the traditional commentators were uneasy that the Almighty appeared to be acting in a petty and vindictive spirit by inflicting excessive indignities on the Assyrian emperor; though similar narrative patterns are applied to figures like Pharaoh and Haman.

However, what seems most extraordinary about this passage is the way Sennacherib is initially led to seek out the disastrous razor. “The Holy One, blessed be he, came and took the form of an old man” who provoked the king’s dread at facing his grieving allies, and advised him about borrowing the razor.

Rabbi Abbahu was alert to the boldness of the image of a God in human guise, and he introduced it with the disclaimer “Had this verse not been written in Scripture, it would have been impossible to utter it.” In spite of the Talmud’s reliance on biblical proof-texts and the creative interpretations given by the commentators, the notion of God disguising himself as an elderly man was too much for some interpreters to swallow. Indeed, the folios of the Talmud contain many legends in which supernatural beings masquerade as mortals in order to entrap evildoers or to rescue the righteous from danger, but the impersonators in those stories were usually figures like the angel Gabriel or the deathless prophet Elijah. To have God himself assume this role was rare and uniquely discomfiting to accepted orthodox theology.

Rabbi Abbahu seems to have had a special interest in scriptural passages that ascribe audaciously human characteristics to the Almighty. Interestingly, he is also the author of the statement “If a person should tell you ‘I am God,' he is a liar.”

We find surprisingly little discussion of the story of Sennacherib’s razor among the earliest commentators. Rashi glibly notes that the reason why “it would have been impossible to utter it” was because of God’s personal involvement in the story—a premise that Rashi does not question. Rabbi Meir Abulafia of Toledo, Spain, paraphrased the tale so that God merely arranged for Sennacherib to meet the elderly gentleman, or perhaps a supernatural figure who had taken on that role.

As we come closer to modern times, we find that increasing numbers of scholars are expressing their shock at the Talmud’s depiction of God taking on a human appearance. Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes characterized the passage as one in which, God forbid, the surface meaning represents the Almighty in physical terms, and is therefore blasphemous and sacrilegious. We must therefore assume that our sages were using those images in order to express exalted spiritual secrets that can be appreciated only by the select few who have been initiated into the mysteries.

Rabbi Moses Isserles of sixteenth-century Cracow offered the most thorough attempt to confront the problems engendered by the talmudic story about Sennacherib and the razor, about which he lamented “it is as hard for me as a rock.” From the outset he declared that the literal sense of the passage is obviously “as far from the truth as the distance of east from west.” Moreover, he found the story to be packed with theological heresies and with inappropriate representations of God’s conduct. “'The heavens are the Lord’s, but the earth he has given to the children of men,' so the transcendent deity cannot, God forbid, don a physical body and descend to the earth.”

Rabbi Isserles therefore proposed five alternative explanations that would obviate the need to accept the text’s literal meaning: (1) The whole episode might have been revealed to Sennacherib in a quasi-prophetic dream (a favourite tactic of Maimonides). (2) It was only the heathen Sennacherib who crudely ascribed divine status to a wise human elder. (3) The verse should be read in the sense of “the Holy One [caused an angel or Elijah] to appear to him as an old man. (4) The story was not about the historical figure of Sennacherib, but about the celestial representative of Assyria whose downfall was being decreed by the heavenly tribunal, in keeping with a well-known rabbinic motif. (5) The story is a philosophical allegory in which the old man represents the “acquired intellect” through which (according to Aristotelian metaphysics) the properly trained human intelligence can connect with eternal truth; accordingly, the defeat of Sennacherib’s armies brought the monarch to a realization of God’s absolute power, so he now was setting out on a systematic study of religious truth.

As fascinating as all these theological dialectics might be, I personally am uncomfortable when mortals claim the right to decide which appearances God is or is not allowed to assume.

And I would definitely think twice if a strange old man advised me to shave my head with a razor.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Chronicles and Commentaries
Chronicles and Commentaries

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary,November 9, 2012, p. 12.
  • For further reading:
    • Ben-Sason, Yonah. The Philosophical System of R. Moses Isserles. Texts and Studies in the History of Jewish Thought. Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1984.
    • Epstein-Halevi, Elimelech. ʻOlamah Shel ha-Agadah. Tel-Aviv: Dvir, 1972.
    • Goshen-Gottstein, Alon. “The Body as Image of God in Rabbinic Literature.” Harvard Theological Review 87, no. 2 (April 1, 1994): 171–195.
    • Shapiro, Marc B. The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised. The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. Oxford and Portland, OR: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004.