There is a debate among medieval Jewish philosophers about the permissibility of conceiving of God in physical form. Maimonides, heavily influenced by Aristotelian philosophy, lists the non-corporeality of God as one of the thirteen core principles of faith, and writes in his legal code that anyone who says that God has a body is a heretic with no position in the World to Come. To consign God to a body is to issue limitations on an infinite being, thought Maimonides. Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquieres responded to Maimonides exclaiming that there are many men far greater and more virtuous than Maimonides who have held that God does in fact have a body. After all, the Bible itself is full of divine anthropomorphism. Maimonides’ metaphorical interpretations will not be fully convincing to those disposed to taking the Bible a bit more literally.
While normative Judaism seems to have sided with Maimonides, as a five-year-old I had already unwittingly committed to the minority position of Rabbi Abraham. God was Jeremy. This isn’t to say that Jeremy, a family friend, was God. I may have been slightly contrarian but I was not crazy. Jeremy was about thirty years old and God was at least a thousand. God did all sorts of things, and while Jeremy was a nice guy he had a pretty normal job and was a dad. (God most certainly wasn’t a dad; that I knew.) No, Jeremy simply provided the visage for my own pictorial conception of God. When I pictured what God looked like what I imagined was Jeremy, with his slightly olive skin, sharp nose, stubble, and short black curls.
I’m not sure what caused me to associate God’s face with Jeremy’s. It’s not as if I had some list of features I knew I was looking for that came together in Jeremy’s face. Such a list may exist in esoteric kabbalistic texts, but I’m not familiar with them now and I certainly was not in kindergarten. More likely, the association began with his voice. Given what I had been told about God—mainly that he is a big deal, commanding of respect and the object of worship—I reasoned that God would have a deep, booming voice. Jeremy had a voice like that. The voice emerges from the mouth, which is located on the face. So if Jeremy’s voice resembled that of the Divine, it followed—insofar as my five-year-old logic can be said to “follow”—that his face did too.
I sometimes wonder why this image has stayed with me. We think lots of thoughts as children. Why has this one remained? It is not its prophetic correctness that has kept it alive. I’ve thought about things a fair amount since I was five. My views have changed. I no longer really think it would be possible to conceive of what God would look like. I also recognize that even if it were possible, the statistical likelihood that I would have encountered a person that so closely resembles God is low. Nor did I spend an awful lot of time thinking about Jeremy-God. I had better things to do than contemplate metaphysics and theology, like taking my pre-school teacher on a date to see “Indian in the Cupboard” and playing “Around the World in 80 Days” like a boss on my neighbor’s PC.
I think what might account for some of memory’s staying power is the emotional valence of such a concrete conception of what would eventually become an abstraction. Throughout my education in modern Orthodox Jewish schools, “God talk” never really played a large role. Notions of God’s infinitude were introduced at some point, but it was rare to delve any further into discussion of God’s essence. We learned the Bible and Talmud, texts which largely assume a God deeply involved in the human history. Little time was expended working out a theory of how all this was supposed to work, what the author of these divine interventions looked like (so to speak) and how it was that such a being interacted with the physical world. (This emphasis is not surprising given the makeup of the Jewish literary tradition, which is far more robust when it comes to legal writings than philosophical/theological ones.)
In contrast to how I thought about God at age five, my impression is that most sophisticated people don’t actually think of God as a white-bearded man sitting on a luxurious throne hovering above the clouds. It (a gendered pronoun seems relevantly misleading) is supposedly omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient, perfect and unpicturable. The notion of omni-anything is fairly abstract—infinity is a concept we can’t grasp with our minds or hands. As a kindergartner it was unlikely that I could have understood the idea of such an entity. On the other hand, I could conceive of a God that looked just like a person. I could develop a relationship with it. I could picture its satisfaction and its disappointment, its patience and its frustration. In a community united (at least nominally) by religious faith and praxis, the development of such a relationship was important and to be encouraged. Religious instruction regarding God at a young age was essentially exhausted by near endless repetition of the jingle stating that God is “up, up, down, down, right, left, and all around.” While this makes clear that God is not simply a solitary individual like you or me, it leaves the spectrum of possibility quite wide. Is God just a lot of people in a lot of places? Some sort of ethereal dust, maybe? I imagine that had I confided in any of the major adult figures in my life at the time regarding my own theological musings—I didn’t—they would have chuckled to themselves but would not have disabused me of my view, even as similarly wrongheaded thinking in other domains would have been corrected. We were not discouraged from developing benignly physical conceptions of God, because that’s what would enjoin us to the spiritual community.
As I matured past kindergarten, it became clear that the idea of a God that looked like Jeremy was untenable. It’s just not the case that God looks like this guy I knew. (I don’t think that needs further argumentation.) As my conception of God became more abstract my (perceived) emotional bond with God became increasingly loose. The God I now imagined was removed from the world. The form of love available to it was not one I could recognize. It did not grin when I made a make a precociously snarky comment to my father. It was a formal object of worship, a black box, not the subject of a bilateral relationship.
It is this type of reaction that caused many thinkers to oppose the philosophical perspective of Maimonides. The response of emotional distancing follows from the Maimonidean view itself, which precludes the possibility of “encounters with the Divine.” On this view, God is fundamentally Other, separate and indescribable, not immanent. Religious leaders, though, tend to want their subjects to feel close to God. This closeness is a good thing in itself, and it’s also a good predictor of dedication. In leaving behind the possibility of a Jeremy-like view of God it is clear that something is lost.
But utility is not a good approximation of truth. Most people understand that. The fact that the anti-Maimonidean view facilitates greater religious devotion carries little epistemic weight. I think that the quiet avoidance of discussion about God is thus not unintentional, at least on the part of the collective unconscious of modern Orthodox educators. By not focusing on God and declining to offer hard and fast details of Its essence, Judaism can reap the benefits of ambiguity. For one thing, doing so helps avoid critical philosophical assessment. Contemporary philosophers generally operate under the assumption that most facts about metaphysics—what really exists—are really only approachable through epistemology. (Okay, Gideon Rosen said this once and I take his word for it.) In other words, we often don’t have the intellectual tools necessary to assert directly whether something non-physical exists or not: we can really only discuss whether it is reasonable to believe in it. If the concept of God is allowed to remain vague, then it is difficult to properly hone in on it as an object of such investigation. With a few evasive, potentially conflicting answers such questions can be dismissed, the appropriate boxes checked. A highly abstract conception of God can be rolled out when needed without having to unpack the deflating theological conclusions that follow from it. Few people will be sufficiently invested to notice or call out this ontological sleight of hand.
While, in the past, this recognition has given me some trouble, this reading of the state of discussion about God may be uncharitable. Rather than see this as an exercise in poor, obfuscatory pedagogy, perhaps the avoidance of theology is a sort of humility. Returning to this memory of Jeremy-God that has persisted for over a decade and a half, it seems to me that it is more than just a curious fossil of a belief long ago discarded. Its supposed primativism combined with its full-bodiedness is a reminder of the tension that can arise between the search for mind-independent truths and the pursuit of a Good life. Navigating this tension is not easy, and I don’t know what the right approach is. But I can at least acknowledge that the tepid embrace of a multiplicity of possibly conflicting perspectives is a way of prioritzing issues of more immediate, less celestial concern. Perhaps it pays to put the philosophy hat away for some time and take little offense at the numinous ponderings of a kindergartner. I’ll need to think about it a bit more.