Early Jewish Conceptions of God

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jewish godGod as portrayed in rabbinic literature (the Talmud and midrash) is very similar to the God of the Bible. The Rabbis do not try to define God, and they continue to describe God in multiple, human terms. However, some differences do emerge. In rabbinic literature, God is a bit more removed from humankind. God no longer communicates with humans through prophets and is no longer considered an active religious legislator (the rabbinic sages occupy this role). In a famous talmudic dispute, a group of rabbis rule in favor of a majority opinion that directly contradicts a heavenly voice. The passage concludes that, "the Torah is not in heaven." God, it seems, is not the final arbiter of religious law.

The conception of God in the heikhalot literature (a genre of mystical literature contemporaneous with the classical texts of rabbinic literature) is also worth noting. The mystics who wrote and studied heikhalot literature tried to achieve visions of the divine throne similar to the one described in the first chapter of the biblical book of Ezekiel. The representation of the physicality of God is striking in this form of mysticism. In the Shiur Komah, the most radically anthropomorphic mystical text, God's physical proportions are described in detail. For example, God is said to have a neck 130.8 million miles in length and fingers each 150.3 million miles long.

Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE-50 CE), a contemporary of the early tannaim (the authors of early midrashic works and of the Mishnah) was the first Jewish philosopher. He deviated from the norms of early Jewish discourse about God, integrating Greek thought with Jewish tradition and explaining God in an abstract philosophical way, quite similar to the methods eventually employed by the medieval Jewish philosophers.

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