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Anthropomorphism

Does God have hands? Does He sit on a throne? Does He enjoy the aroma of sacrifices? Those of us asked such questions in the 21st century would most definitely answer, “No, of course not” but such was not always the case. Based on a literal reading of the Torah and other books of Tanach (the Jewish Bible), one could certainly draw the conclusion that God has a body and behaves like a human being, despite all evidence to the contrary. But these are mere metaphors. The Midrash tells us (Sifre 112) that “the Torah speaks the language of man.”

It ought not surprise us that the Torah uses metaphors. After all, we do the same thing. We say “the sun rose” and “the sun set” even though we are well aware that the “rising” and “setting” is really an illusion caused by the Earth’s rotation. One might say, “The magician sawed the lady in half” even though we all know that he did nothing of the sort. But it’s too cumbersome to describe these events in technically-accurate terms, so we describe them based on how they appear. Similarly, such events as “God descended,” “God spoke” and even “God got angry” are mere metaphors because how much more difficult would it be to express these concepts in technically-accurate terms? I daresay it would be an impossible task!

The Rambam explains [I, 26] that the Torah describes God using terms that could be understood by all. It anthropomorphizes Him because far too many people are simply incapable of conceiving of an incorporeal Being. We see things through the filter of our own experiences and we therefore relate existing to having a body. When we think of God, it’s only natural to picture Him in terms we understand, i.e., like us.