Anthropomorphizing God does HaShem a disservice
By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel
SAN DIEGO — Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook writes in his famous mystical and moral tract, The Lights of Penitence:
- The greatest impediment to the human spirit, upon reaching maturity, results from the fact that the conception of God is crystallized among people in a particular form, which goes back to childish habit and imagination. This is an aspect of making a “graven image” or a “likeness of God,” against which we must always beware, particularly in an epoch of greater intellectual enlightenment.
One of my favorite spiritual teachers of Judaism is Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Although he lived in the early part of the 20thcentury, his vision of Judaism is incredibly contemporary. He understood that the modern Jew finds it hard to relate to the possibility and reality of the personal God. Although more rabbis are starting to explore Jewish spirituality as a viable path for their congregations, there remains a certain reticence to acknowledge God as the “Healer of prayer,” as the Jewish prayer book repeatedly asserts. Rabbis and other Judaic scholars are often reticent to speak about their relationship with God for fear of appearing childish, naïve, and unsophisticated. For centuries, rationalistic-minded Jews forgot how to understand or appreciate the language of symbolism, myth, metaphor, and—especially—the significance of anthropomorphism.
Not only is this particular concept under-appreciated, it has become of one of the most reviled words in Jewish theology since the time of Leibnitz. Kant regarded anthropomorphism as “the source of superstition.” To some degree, Kant was correct. Maimonides already anticipated Kant and maintained that people’s conceptual distortions about God are a source of continuous suffering in the world. By freeing ourselves from our childish attitudes, only then will we develop a mature spirituality that will enable us to endure the storms of life.
Abraham Isaac Kook was correct. Sometimes people never outgrow the childish perceptions they have of God. Faith demands wrestling with our beliefs, testing them, and purifying them from their conceptual dross. The very notion of a God who is “personal” seems hopelessly naïve—only for the intellectually impaired, or so we have heard. Subsequently, contemporary Jewry is reticent to use any kind of theological language suggesting that God resembles human beings. Such God‑talk is generally associated as a Christian activity. In our efforts to distinguish ourselves from other faiths that have a more passionate and emotional relationship with God, Jews have effectively thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
Many psychological studies dealing with the pathology of religion confirm this truth. The well-known psychiatrist Ann‑Maria Rizzuto argues (as Freud and Kook later did) that the images of God tend to be patterned after the image of the parents; children who have had strongly negative experiences with their parents [such as sexual abuse] tend to develop negative concepts of God’s personality. Those children who have the lowest image of their parents reported having the lowest image of God. According to Rizzuto, by the time the child is introduced to the house of God, s/he brings an image that is very difficult to reshape. Parents and spiritual leaders bear a great responsibility for the formation of the child’s image of God. Not by word, but by deed the child learns to cultivate a positive image of God.
Misrepresentations of God are a major reason why so many people lose faith in a personal God. Anti-life images of God convey a message of faith that is devastating. Jews especially know this all too well. History is replete with diabolical images of God are a continuous source of human suffering in the world as witnessed by the rising wave of religious terrorism and fundamentalism in our time. Images of God that are anti-life encourage human beings to perform wanton acts of destructiveness and inspire violent behavior.
As the character Antonio said to Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice Act 1: Scene 3:
- The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness. Is like a villain with a smiling cheek, A goodly apple rotten at the heart . . .
Yes, I would add not just Scripture, but Halacha and Talmud as well. Not just the Hebrew Bible, but the Christian Scriptures and the Qu’ran as well.
Images of God that celebrate violence (e.g., God as “destroyer,” God as “Warrior,” and so on) also warp and destroy faith. Here is the paradox of God’s love as a life force, the most profound wellspring of compassion, is sometimes capable of transforming itself into a ferocious death force, capable of annihilating all life. Faith, the sweetest refuge and consolation, may harden, by a perverse miracle, into a sword—or morph into a club or a torch, or even a biological weapon and nuclear bomb. Human history has shown us repeatedly how religious hatreds tend to be merciless, unyielding, undying, and absolute; they are seemingly capable of spontaneous generation. Nuclear blackmail will eventually become a lucrative business as religious terrorists stack up millions of bodies upon its funeral pyres to God. As a whole, religious leaders have failed to cultivate a sense of reverence and respect toward life.
We shall elaborate on this point later on when we examine the psychological nature and primary source of Job’s suffering. Modern theologians, spiritual teachers and leaders must find a way to heal the dysfunctional and destructive images of God that inhabit all traditional religious orthodoxies today. In light of this, the war against idolatry takes on a new meaning and special significance for we must purge our understanding and faith of any image that falsifies how the Divine and the world are interrelated. Our images of God must inspire compassion, tenderness, concern and hopefulness. Our images of God must engender a love for life and an avoidance of all wanton acts, words, and thoughts of destructiveness.
Belief in God must distill in us a sense of dignity and respect to all God’s Creation, and fill us with an inner sense of peacefulness. Healthy images of God awaken our capacity to wonder and stimulate our ability to see beauty and goodness in ourselves as well as in others. For this reason, positive depictions of God contain profound implications for how the covenantal community translates faith into action. Such imagery reminds us about the gracious nature of God and how the Creator has endowed us with a capacity to wonder and experience the awe of Creation. The world is alive because God gives it breath and life.
 Ben Zion Bokser, Abraham Isaac Kook, (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 262-263.
 The term “anthropomorphism” (from the Greek anthrōpos, “man” and morphē, “form”) in theology, refers to the conception of God as possessing human form, in religion, or sharing having human characteristics. The Tanakh makes ample usage of such metaphors and this quality found in polytheistic religions. Anthropomorphic thought evolved from three primary sources: animism, legend, and the need for visual presentation of the gods.
 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, Chapter 7.
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