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Flipside of Hindu Symbolism

Anthropomorphism: attributing human form or human characteristics to something that is not human.

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.

When we anthropomorphize God, we attribute to Him things that would be considered aspects of perfection in a human, even though doing so is not quite accurate. People see and hear, they come and go, and an inability to do so would be considered a defect. Obviously, God doesn’t move. (He’s everywhere! Where would He go?) But if a person couldn’t move, it would be considered an imperfection. Therefore, we attribute motion to God. But the Bible never anthropomorphizes God using anything that would be considered a weakness or a flaw in a person. Accordingly, God is never described as eating, sleeping or being ill.

Onkelos was a convert who translated the Torah into Aramaic based on the way it was taught by Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. His explanation is considered so indispensable that the Sages of the Talmud instituted that it should be reviewed weekly by every Jew, alongside that week’s Torah portion (Brachos 8a). One of the main features of Onkelos’ translation is that he eschews anthropomorphisms. [I, 27] Where the text of the Torah suggests corporeality on the part of God, Onkelos translates in such a way that would remove the possibility of misunderstanding. So when the Torah says “God came down” (Exodus 16:20), Onkelos renders it “God manifested Himself.” When the Torah says “And God heard,” Onkelos translates it as “It was heard before God.” The Rambam praises Onkelos for this.