A lecture delivered by Prof. Michael Fishbane on 10th March 2013.
Prof. Fishbane starts with a distinction, first suggested by Franz Rosenzweig, between material and formal images of the divine: the former make statements about God’s body, faculties, or actions; while the latter relate to God on a symbolic level. He then lists a number of material images of God present in the Bible, and discusses the ways in which the Sages negotiated such images in a formalistic fashion in midrashic literature. He shows that although late Antiquity Jews felt bound by the commandment against idols to interpret divine imagery figuratively, they nontheless avoided depicting the deity as absolutely transcendent. They did not hesitate to read the biblical text against the grain, in accordance with their theological orientation, in order to maintain their belief in a personal God. In their view, divine images were linguistic devices designed to educate the individual about God’s nature and actions.
The speaker then moves on to medieval Jewish authors, including Maimonides, the Ravad (Abraham b. David of Posquières), and the author of the Zohar, and their respective, conflicting approaches to the subject of anthropomorphisms and divine imagery. He concludes, finally, with Rosenzweig’s insights, turning the question on its head to discuss the modern Jew’s experience of the divine.