There is a rather interesting comment in Prof Marc Shapiros “The Limits of Orthodox Theology” on page 68 regarding the concept of incorporeality in Judaism. The comment is rather tongue in cheek in my opinion, but in essence raises a very important question regarding tradition, interpretation of texts and the process of education. It brings to mind Hillels dictum in Pirkei Avot (2:3) ‘Do not make a statement that cannot be easily understood on the ground that it will be understood eventually’. I look forward to your comments. [Bold Text is Mine]
One who believes that God is corporeal by definition denies God’s unity and is even worse than some types of idolater. It is irrelevant whether or not this mistaken belief is unintentional.
Having said this, Maimonides must explain why the Torah used corporeal expressions to refer to God. His answer is striking. Since the masses needed to be instructed in God’s existence but could not conceive of the existence of an incorporeal God, it was necessary for them to be led to this belief in a progressive fashion. First they were taught of the existence of one corporeal God, which was an improvement to believing in many corporeal gods or having no belief. Only following this were they taught about God’s incorporeality. (Maimonides does not tell us if this process was accomplished quickly or took a number of generations). As Howard Kreisel has noted: ‘It follows from Maimonides’ remarks that the Torah deliberately misleads the people in the matter of the corporeality of God… The Torah no choice but to compromise with reality in order to educate the people effectively’
Here we are not dealing with the a population that understood the Bible in a corporeal sense rather than turning to the wise men for guidance. Rather, and this what is so significant, it was the Torah which originally intended the masses to accept God’s corporeality. In other words, it is not merely that the Torah ‘misleeds the people’, but rather the Torah that taught them a heretical doctrine. Of course, it must be emphasized that for an ancient Israelite to believe in God’s corporeality was actually an improvement over his earlier state when he had no belief in God. Only when the ancients advanced beyond this state would they be able to understand that the anthropomorphic expressions in the Torah are to be understood figuratively. If one of the ancients died without having rejected a corporeal conception of God, he would suffer the consequences of his heresy, namely, denial of a share in the world to come. Once again, it must be noted that the spiritual consequences of heresy are not to be viewed as a punishment but rather as a necessary outcome of the world’s metaphysical structure. An incorporeal conception of God is a basic necessity for intellectual perfection at all times and places.
R’David Guttmann wrote a very thoughtful comment in response to the above post. I have therefore included it in its entirety below. Not sure about the last line though “Shabbat Shalom and I hope you have a tylenol at hand to treat the headache.” [Care to explain R'David...?]
Rambam in MN 1:35 reads as follows: That God is incorporeal, that He cannot be compared with His creatures, that He is not subject to external influence; these are things which must be explained to every one according to his capacity, and they must be taught by way of tradition to children and women, to the stupid and ignorant, as they are taught that God is One, that He is eternal, and that He alone is to be worshipped. …When persons have received this doctrine, and have been trained in this belief, and are in consequence at a loss to reconcile it with the writings of the Prophets, the meaning of the latter must be made clear and explained to them by pointing out the homonymity and the figurative application of certain terms discussed in this part of the work. Their belief in the unity of God and in the words of the Prophets will then be a true and perfect belief.
Torah is not teaching falsehoods God forbid. It is by contrasting what one has to believe with what is written one realizes that the written word must be interpreted. That is because:
"The Torah speaks according to the language of man," that is to say, expressions, which can easily be comprehended and understood by all, are applied to the Creator. Hence the description of God by attributes implying corporeality, in order to express His existence: because the multitude of people do not easily conceive existence unless in connection with a body, and that which is not a body nor connected with a body has for them no existence. (MN 1:26).
However when we talk about concepts:
There may thus be a man who after having earnestly devoted many years to the pursuit of one science, and to the true understanding of its principles, till he is fully convinced of its truths, has obtained as the sole result of this study the conviction that a certain quality must be negatived in reference to God, and the capacity of demonstrating that it is impossible to apply it to Him. (1:59)
In other words the process is to first learn that God is incorporeal and when confronted with the written text that says otherwise, one realizes that it is so that existence can be instilled. Being the word of God cannot lie he discovers