Joel Cohen

Is anthropomorphism really a bad thing?

To the cynic, anthropomorphism — here, the act of attributing human traits, characteristics and qualities to God — might suggest the heretical concern that man created God, rather than the other way around.

Perhaps that’s why Maimonides, in his Guide To The Perplexed, ventured so far to say that anthropomorphism is even worse than idolatry. For him, an idolator’s worship of a plastic symbol of God to make it easier to comprehend Him is one thing. But that imagining God in corporeal terms actually internalizes one’s notion of the Divine in ways, for Maimonides, far more disturbing.

I recall being seated over many years at the synagogue of my childhood, fixated on the compelling stained glass window above the ark.  Two human hands held the Ten Commandments from above, and two similar hands below received them, obviously those of Moses.  Did I, even as a youngster (or did any of my friends), believe that God actually possessed hands like those of the human Moses, or any hands at all? Or did that corporeality of “God’s hands” help me, and even the far more mature congregants, to better appreciate – and, indeed, internalize — the exquisite moment in the history of the world that the portrayal represented? The window was hardly of the quality of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling (“The Creation of Adam”), but it nonetheless helped us perceive the existential relationship between man and God at that precise moment in time when we became who we are as a people!

I expect that a hardliner follower of Maimonidean thought might see this as apostasy. After all, Maimonides repeating his view of those who don’t believe in the Messiah, ruled that anyone who attributes corporeality to the divinity is a heretic who has no share in the world to come. Whereas a more modernist view of what was presented above the ark might have helped the masses – and, in microcosm, me — to better perceive man as truly created in God’s image. Or is it somehow in God’s likeness?

Interestingly enough, the Hebrew Bible itself tells us about God in ways we understand to have a  human dimension. God gets angry (to be sure, repeatedly) with mankind, and the Hebrew people in particular. Yet, the anti-anthropomorphist would presumably say that if we ourselves were to speak about God as “angry” with us, we would be engaging in apostasy. (Parenthetically, God never seems to experience joy. Interestingly, though, why not?).

So, if we are not “authorized” to truly consider God in terms that are humanly comprehensible — that God “descended“ on the mountaintop; that God “remembered” his promise to redeem the Hebrews from slavery; that God “observed” what he created during the week of Creation as good — even though those expressions are unambiguously presented in the Bible itself, how should we perceive Him?

Since we, even the most gifted intellectually and spiritual among us, are simply incapable of perceiving the incorporeal, what does God possibly want of us in how we relate to Him? Does He want us to perceive Him in ways in which we can’t – that He is beyond comprehension?  Does He not want us to anticipate His disappointment or even anger when we sin? Does He not want us to recognize that He is “pleased” or “satisfied” when we do the mitzvot He commands of us?

Or does He, instead, prefer our steep descent into a dark abyss whenever we try to conform our behavior to His wishes, unequipped to truly appreciate His reactions in terms that are arguably most meaningful to us?  When we totally excise the corporeal from our understanding of God, doesn’t the elusive ambiguity of what remains relegate us to a relationship with God that only He, alone, truly appreciates?

I certainly don’t propose here, instead, the type of anthropomorphism on which Christianity is based, that enables Christians to imagine God in almost totally human terms — human existences at both sides of the “I Thou” relationship.  Perhaps that’s what troubled Maimonides the most and caused him to denounce anthropomorphism so readily. And I likewise don’t propose that adults perceive God as did I and many others as children — imagining God as looking like and appearing to be one’s aged, long, white-bearded grandfather.

Rather, one wonders here about the supposed negativity in happening or even affirmatively choosing to accept God in ways to better understand and relate to Him. Certainly not as a fellow human, but in the optimally best ways  — that is, by employing language and respectfully imagining mannerisms for Him that we actually can best relate to as human beings. Indeed, the Bible itself seems to do that!

Or, perhaps, does God actually have those mannerisms?

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Petrillo, Klein & Boxer in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Petrillo, Klein & Boxer firm or its lawyers.