But the anonymous commenter made a good point. Here is what he asked:
I don't understand why the God-has-a-body midrashim must be taken figuratively, but you are unwilling to do so for virtually any other midrash. What is the source for this distinction?Indeed, it is a good question. Especially since everybody takes the Rambam about certain "impossible" midrashim, such as God having a body or a mountain or the moon talking, and extending it to anything they deem impossible, such as any miracle, or miracles which can be cast as silly, such Vashti having a tail. What basis do I have to make such a distinction, such that I subscribe to a figurative explanation for the former but not for the latter?
In fact, I do not exclusively reserve figurative interpretations to that narrow scope, and am willing to entertain it for any midrash or aggada. Indeed, in a critique of a recent post on Lazer Beams, I said that the aggada was indeed figurative. And indeed, I am willing to consider a literal interpretation for God-has-a-body midrashim.
However, in making the determination, I try (or at least I think I do) to base myself not on my own feelings as to the likelihood of the midrash being historically true (which I think is the most common stumbling block), but rather by what Chazal may or may not have held, and also by analyzing the context to get a sense of their intent and aims in stating the midrash.
This particular midrash has a very homiletic feel to it, in which explicitly the idea is that Israel's singular devotion to Hashem is matched by Hashem's singular devotion to his people. The midrash occurs on Berachot 6a, which is extremely relevant because where Rambam speaks of the idiots of his day who take certain midrashim literally, he explicitly refers to the midrashim he means, namely the ones in perek Chelek as well as the ones in gemara Berachot. Indeed, everything else aside, if I wished to merely appeal to authority, I could appeal to the Rambam in his introduction to perek Chelek and note the circumscribed domain to which he applied his statement (see inside).
But even without that, the character of the midrash has much to recommend it as homily.
The gemara reads:
א"ר אבין בר רב אדא א"ר יצחק מנין שהקב"ה מניח תפילין שנאמר (
ישעיהו סב) נשבע ה' בימינו ובזרוע עוזו בימינו זו תורה שנאמר (דברים לג) מימינו אש דת למו ובזרוע עוזו אלו תפילין שנאמר (תהילים כט) ה' עוז לעמו יתן ומנין שהתפילין עוז הם לישראל דכתי' (דברים כח) וראו כל עמי הארץ כי שם ה' נקרא עליך ויראו ממך ותניא ר' אליעזר הגדול אומר אלו תפילין שבראש א"ל רב נחמן בר יצחק לרב חייא בר אבין הני תפילין דמרי עלמא מה כתיב בהו א"ל (דברי הימים א יז) ומי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ ומי משתבח קוב"ה בשבחייהו דישראל אין דכתיב (דברים כו) את ה' האמרת היום <וכתיב> וה' האמירך היום אמר להם הקב"ה לישראל אתם עשיתוני חטיבה אחת בעולם ואני אעשה אתכם חטיבה אחת בעולם אתם עשיתוני חטיבה אחת בעולם שנאמר (דברים ו) שמע ישראל ה' אלהינו ה' אחד ואני אעשה אתכם חטיבה אחת בעולם שנאמר ומי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ אמר ליה רב אחא בריה דרבא לרב אשי תינח בחד ביתא בשאר בתי מאי א"ל (דברים ד) כי מי גוי גדול ומי גוי גדול (דברים לג) אשריך ישראל (דברים ד) או הנסה אלהים (דברים כו) ולתתך עליון אי הכי נפישי להו טובי בתי אלא כי מי גוי גדול ומי גוי גדול דדמיין להדדי בחד ביתא אשריך ישראל ומי כעמך ישראל בחד ביתא או הנסה אלהים בחד ביתא ולתתך עליון בחד ביתא וכולהו כתיבי באדרעיה:
At any rate, my response to him was more elaborate and broader than the above, and it is a shame to leave it in the comments, unseen by anyone, so I reproduce it here:
It's a good question that deserved asking. Correspondingly, my response will need to be lengthy and non-trivial. Thus, I'll get to the issue of midrash in a while. Bear with me, please.
Indeed, this is what I meant in referring to Marc Shapiro's book. Rambam is by no means the only possible position one can take on the issue of God's corporeality. It is, however, the most widely accepted in the educated Jewish world as a rough *default* position. I addressed this a bit in my post on "The Outer Limits of Orthodox Theology.".
To be as objective as possible, I would note that as to the issue of God's corporeality or lack thereof, there are a number of things to evaluate separately.
a) The objective reality - is God corporeal or not.
b) The Biblical conception of God's corporeality (assuming this is consistent across Tanach).
c) The Pharisee conception of God's corporeality.
d) The approach of various medieval Jewish commentators, kabbalists, and other rabbis as to God's corporeality or lack thereof.
Perhaps a=b=c=d, or perhaps there is some gap.
As to (a), I must profess ignorance. I can try to get a handle on (a) by drawing conclusions about (b), (c), and (d). In terms of Biblical conception of God's corporeality or lack thereof, we have evidence such as a possible careful reading Vayera that goes against the traditional midrashic (and thus Pharisee) interpretation which would have God in human form accompanied by *two* angels visit Avraham. We have things like Yeshaya's prophecy, which might be taken literally. We have the fact that Adam was created betzelem Elokim. This *might,* or might not, show that God either *always* has human form or can assume human form at will.
On the other hand, while that may or may not be peshat in those instances, there are other references to Divine anatomy that, even or especially on a peshat level, are to be taken allegorically. Knowing to take something allegorically is a hard thing to prove - it involves developing a sense of the text and a sense of Biblical style. Thus, it is an art as much as a science. But when I see the Egyptian magicians say that something that they cannot perform is "the Divine finger," and see that the writing on the Ten Commandments was also written with "the Divine finger," I can make an assessment that this is an idiom connoting wondrousness and something outside of typical human experience, and can assess that it does not mean that God literally engraved in the luchot with His Mighty Pinky.
Similarly, when Biblical *poetry* praises Hashem for mighty deed by calling Him an Ish Milchama, I don't take this as evidence of corporeality but rather correctly understand it as poetic allegory.
The same for Yad Hashem, where the connotation is mightiness.
This has nothing to do with whether other instances may or may not intend to ascribe corporeality to God. It is about getting a feel for the theme of the text and what role the specific phrase plays. And in this, I find Rambam fairly convincing on the level of peshat about many of the descriptions of God.
This, of course, does not necessarily mean that early Chazal held the same conception that I do (whatever conception I may have) or even one that is equal to the Biblical perspective.
Once again, in order to determine what Chazal meant, we need to examine the context of their statements and decide whether corporeality was intended.
My criticism of the student on the bus, of his friend, and of the school was not based on the particular conclusion he came to about God's corporeality or about the meaning of that midrash. Rather, in order to come up with this "proof" of God's corporeality, and be so utterly convinced so as to respond earnestly to the Christian bus driver about this as the Jewish position, you must be utterly aware of the position of the Rambam on this statement. You must be unaware that the Rambam would take issue with such a literal interpretation of this midrash, and would provide an allegorical one. Rather, you would hear a midrash in the gemara, not wrestle with any theological issues whatsoever, not consider any cues within the midrash itself that it is allegorical (I'll get to that in a moment), but simply take it at its utmost face value.
That reflects a tragic level of ignorance of ikkarei emuna.
Now, to determine what Pharisee Chazal held about God's corporeality, we have to assess various sources. Perhaps they were unanimous in their assessment of this issue, or perhaps not.
If they were unanimous, we can perhaps take certain statements of Pharisaic Chazal that seem to decry statements of God's corporeality/visibility as heretical. Thus, see my post on parshablog here about the tragic death of the prophet Isaiah. He was killed by King Menashe on the assumption that his statements contradicted the Torah, for he claimed to see Hashem. Of course, one can take this many ways. We would need to go through all various statements and see whether there is unambiguous rejection of corporeality anywhere.
However, we could or should take each midrash independently as well, and see from content and context if we can assess whether it was intended literally or figuratively.
In the context of this particular midrash, there are certain poetic elements inherent in God matching Israel's devotion to Him and Him alone by wearing parallel tefillin that describe His devotion to them and them alone as a nation, that strongly suggests that an allegorical interpretation is due here.
This is not due to my own conceptions about God's corporeality or lack thereof, but an assessment based on features of the midrash itself. It calls out to me "darsheni!"
Also, while I often argue against midrashim being taken figuratively, as I tried to stress, this is not to say that I would not often find allegorical interpretations the most compelling.
However, the criteria for deciding a midrash's literalness or figurativeness must be (or so I posit) internal factors, rather than external factors such as what one (in modern times) would like to believe.
Recently, I wrote a post about whether Rav Nachman predicted Erez Lavanon's murder. In the course of that post, I noted that a cryptic statement in the gemara had features that would lead one to take it allegorically. See there for what I mean. But this must be done carefully, on a case by case basis.
And when one proffers an allegorical explanation, one should first take care to understand the midrash in context, see what features/themes of the text are being picked up on, and offer an explanation in line with that, rather than just making one up off the cuff.