Anthropomorphism (Arthur Marmorstein & The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God)

Reading up about God and rabbinic theology, I found this reference by Yair Lorberbaum in to the Hungarian born and forgotten Arthur Marmorstein (1882–1946), author of the two volume The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God. I: The Names and Attributes of God, (London: Oxford University Press, 1927) and The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God. II: Essays in Anthropomorphism, (London: Oxford University Press 1937). I have since noticed reference to him by Elliot Wolfson, but I’m forgetting where.

Marmorstein was that old style scholar who knew every single text in the corpus. Against the scholarly grain of the time, he argued that the main stream of Jewish thinking about God was anthropomorphic, that attempts to read these texts as allegorical-symbolic was widespread among Greek speaking Jews and were a minority point of view in the rabbinic sources.

Very much a part of the time, he opposed assimilation among German Jews, engaged in deep theological apologetics about the nature of God in Judaism, and worried about the dangerous state of western culture at the time. He identified that social danger with the sorry state of religion. Reading through both volumes of The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God is both a remarkable and even lively tour de force and a slow slog of a march.

What makes Marmorstein interesting is how he saw the old doctrine of God as immanent and close, not far off and transcendent. God is not “nameless” and the positive attributes are key to understanding God and the place of God in the world. And God is visible, at least according to some. Because God is near, this the key point. This is to say that anthropomorphism reflects the phenomenologically intentional sense of the nearness of God to the human person and, more important still, the nearness and even likeness of the human person to God. In a comment posted below on the Shiur Komah is a reference to human limbs that suggest something with the notion of a body schema.

These are all remarkable things to have said in 1927 and 1937 and explains the attraction to scholars like Lorberbaum and Wolfson.

With my own headers, I’m posting below material from both volumes that speak in particular ideas about the nearness to God and human-becoming like God. The majority of material posted below refer to the near and nearness. All italics are mine and intended to highlight that motif.

The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God. I: The Names and Attributes of God

Origins: “The teachers of Judaism may have adopted foreign ideas, they may have assimilated pagan philosophical thoughts, they may have even adapted Babylonian or Egyptian, Greek or Barbarian myths and legends, but the teaching derived from them sounds quite new and original. For one thing is perfectly certain, there is no class of men in the world to whom the idea of God was so near, whose longing for God so ardent, whose zeal to do Gods will so keen, whose ideal of piety, love, goodness, justice, purity, and holiness so supreme in all their actions and thoughts, deeds and meditations, as in the much-despised and unjustly judged Scribes” (p.10).

Names of God. “This led us to investigate the various Names applied by the Scribes to God. Here a wealthy sanctuary of the most treasured religious ideas and doctrines is opened to us, which invites entrance to all who want to come nearer to God (p.13). According to Marmorstein, the first step in “recognizing” God starts in old rabbinic thought” with the names of God (p.16).

Nature. “The God of Heavens and Earth is known to all readers of the Bible. In our period the name was used exclusively in a ritual and legal sense. The Nazirite, who relates his story to Simon the Just, offers a good example. He defeated his evil inclination by sanctifying his beautiful hair to heaven. This lad was an ordinary shepherd from the South. He did not believe in a transcendental God, who is far away removed in Heaven. He felt His presence near in the meadow, near the well, where his senses tempted him to commit a sin” (p.105).

Holiness of God.  After an exhaustive study of the names and then the positive attributes of God, Marmorstein concludes the fist volume with the holiness of God. For Marmorstein, holiness is the most important attribute of God. Holiness is no mysterium tremendum. Holiness expresses what Jews “feel” and what one could say sense or imagine when discharging religious duties like Sabbath and festivals. What matters is the nearness between human beings and God. “If religion has a purpose in life and the world, it must bring God near to man, and man must become like unto God (p.217). These are among the final words of volume one. God may not be like “man,” but “man” must be like God.

The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God. II: Essays in Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism. “The Jewish religion is classed with anthropomorphic religions. Such a designation is by no means of a degrading character and quality. The name anthropomorphic religion is free from any mark of inferiority. No system of religious thought, or form of religious life, can be separated from anthropomorphic or anthropopathic conceptions. Only by such an equipment can religion proclaim the existence of an active and living God, and only thus can it adhere to a real, personal divinity. Deprived of it nothing remains but shallow theism. As long as people will crave after a personal deity they cannot do otherwise than, some with more, some with less skill, ascribe to God certain human attributes and speak of His qualities and functions in human ways and manners. Man cannot worship or show reverence to an impersonal power, nameless and impotent, without attributes of goodness or justice, not visible by deeds and unrecognizable by passions. Higher religions cannot exercise any influence, and rule the hearts of multitudes, if they are divested or robbed of their anthropomorphic and anthropopathic wealth inherent in their sacred narratives and teachings. Anthropomorphic and anthropopathic elements in a religion are thus not to be looked upon as disadvantages. On the contrary, they endowed men with spiritual strength and opened higher ways of thought leading to religious enlightenment. At many stages of cultural development religious values and doctrines cannot be brought home to mankind unless the meaning of God’s existence and creative work is presented in forms of these two terms (p.1).

Greek-speaking Jews: “To Greek philosophers it meant much more than to Jewish Bible-readers. The Greeks could see their Gods in statues and images, which conveyed to the onlookers the idea not only of a personal, but of a physical god appearing in a form made by man from earthly material. However great the art employed and the beauty conveyed may have been the limbs and the features of the gods presented by art and genius manifested an obstacle to the spiritual conception and identity of the divine being. Such an anthropomorphic menace was held far away from Jewish religion ; yet it was a danger in Greek religion, which ultimately aroused the unbounded antagonism of philosophy against the religion of the Greeks, and finally brought about the downfall of the whole shaken fabric of Greek and Roman civilization, resting as it did on such an unstable basis” (p.2).

The Jews of the Diaspora, in the same manner as the German-speaking Jews, were most anxious to gain the good opinion of their neighbours and most zealous to adjust their religion to the standard of the general culture of their surroundings. The Jews of Alexandria dreamt of full emancipation and strove for full equality. In order to gain these they were prepared to go very far in sacrificing much of the religion of their ancestors, and losing some precious legacies of their religious and national inheritance” (p.3).

Shiur Komah: “These mystics, who were far removed in their religious life and thought from any rationalism, were so near to and one with their Maker that they could think of Him as invested with human figure and limbs. The very fact that such a piece of literature survived for centuries in Hebrew is strong evidence for the immense influence that this non-rational theology exercised in the course of Jewish history. …It satisfied the craving of man after nearness to and oneness with God, which rationalism and pure wisdom cannot supply and offer [52]

Visuality of God. Marmorstein called the visuality of God “a very strange teaching” before going on to show its ubiquity in the literature (p.94).

“The term שכינה  פני קבלת consequently, covered a wide range of nearness to and intimacy with God. Yet those who were estranged from Him by moral defaults and shortcomings, could not come near Him. To see God, to receive the countenance of the Shekinah meant, therefore, to the ancient teachers nothing less than to be near to God, to dwell in His vicinity, to be protected by His hand, and to tarry in His sight” (p.100).

“Properly understood, all these terms conveyed the idea that the righteous—but also wicked people who have charitable works to their credit, or Gentiles of a similar disposition—will see God, or be received by Him. In other words, this seeing of God means that certain merits enable man to attain a nearness to God, which to most of these theologians was equivalent to seeing God. Yet there were some, as was shown in the course of this chapter, who were so steeped in their mysticism that they spoke of and believed in a real visibility of God. This sight of God, in one form or another, meant to some teachers of Judaism a manifestation of God’s immense love to His creatures generally, and to His near ones particularly. This subject, which can here be merely touched upon, belongs to another chapter of the Rabbinic doctrine of God, namely the relation of God the Creator of man to His creatures, which will find its place in the treatise on Rabbinic anthropology (p.106)

Yair Lorberbaum, In God’s Image: Myth, Theology, and Law in Classical Judaism, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015)

 “To the best of my knowledge, Arthur Marmorstein, whose studies I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, was the only scholar who conducted a comprehensive and detailed study of the issue of anthropomorphism in rabbinic literature. He was tireless in his quest for relevant materials, and his contribution to our understanding of the topic is of great importance, even if deficient in conceptual analysis and even if some of his suggestions are inadequately substantiated. The immense range of anthropomorphic expressions in rabbinic literature and the consistency with which they are employed ledMarmorstein to suggest that they be read more literally. Consequently, his conclusions regarding the rabbinic conception of God differed considerably from the conclusions that prevailed in Jewish scholarship preceding him. However, Marmorstein’s studies left no impression on the scholarly world, which generally tended to ignore them. Along with reservations regarding his tendency toward an overly literal reading of the sources, scholarly criticism was directed at his proposal to distinguish between the schools of R. Akiva and of R. Ishmael. Marmorstein characterized R. Akiva’s school as espousing an anthropomorphic conception of God, and R. Ishmael’s school as endorsing an abstract conception of divinity and an allegorical reading of anthropomorphic passages in the Bible. I am not aware of any studies that have seriously responded to the challenge posited by Marmorstein’s study of a vast array of anthropomorphic expressions (published in 1927!), which defy many of the basic assumptions underlying the studies described above” (p.40).

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Anthropomorphism (Arthur Marmorstein & The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God)

  1. Brad Sabin Hill says:

    The following is no doubt too bibliographic for the intellectual historians interested in Marmorstein’s work, but I take the opportunity anyway to share it:

  2. See the catalogue of the Marmorstein Collection at the University of Manchester, UK, written by Brad Sabin Hill:

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