From the Academy: Benjamin Sommer

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In this installment of “From the Academy,� Dr. Benjamin Sommer, Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, tells us about his current research and academic work.
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I just finished a book, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, which will be published next year by Cambridge University Press.In it I describe an ancient Near Eastern perception of divinity that shows up in certain parts of the Bible, according to which a god (or, in its biblical version, God) differs from a human because a god can have more than one body, each one located at some specific place on earth or in heaven.

As a result, a god (or God) has a fluid self that is quite unlike the self of a human. The dominant strains of biblical religion rejected this understanding of divinity, which I call “the fluidity tradition,” but it is still found in some biblical texts, especially in Genesis, Exodus, Hosea, Isaiah, and some psalms.

Later Jewish and Christian thinkers inherited this ancient way of thinking, so that it shows up in the doctrines of sefirot in Kabbalah and the trinity in Christianity.

I spent eight years working on this book, and they were wonderful, eye-opening and stimulating. The topic appeals to me because it allows me to address several types of religious questions.

Modern biblical scholars often claim that the religion of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh is quite removed from what we know as Judaism. Some biblical critics, both Christian and Jewish, take what I think is an immature delight in trying to show that the Tanakh really belongs to the cultures of the ancient Near East and not to Judaism.

In this book, however, I show that it is precisely when we recover a lost ancient Near Eastern way of perceiving divinity that we recognize a deep continuity between the Tanakh and later Jewish thought. We also notice the deep roots of some kabbalistic ideas in earlier Judaism, not only in rabbinic literature but also in the Tanakh itself.

(In this regard, my project is a footnote to and extension of the lifework of Moshe Idel, who has done so much to demonstrate the ancient rabbinic origins of basic ideas found in medieval Jewish mysticism.)

Further, the topic of this book forces me (and, I hope, my readers) to examine something that many modern Jews don’t really want to talk about: God.

I point to a bizarre, perhaps primitive conception of God which is likely to make many Jews feel uncomfortable — even those Jews who feel okay admitting that there is a God and that Judaism is really all about God.

The book requires me to ask basic questions about the nature of biblical and Jewish monotheism, since the belief that eyn lo demut haguf v’eino guf, that God has no body, has become almost synonymous with monotheism for us Jews.

For Maimonides and other medieval Jewish philosophers, the denial of God’s corporeality was a crucial aspect of monotheism; a God with a body was a God who could be divided into parts, and not a God who can be called “one.�

For these thinkers, the internal Jewish polytheism implied by the belief in a physical God was even more objectionable than the belief in many gods. But what I show in this book is that the biblical authors who believe that God has many bodies in fact are monotheists: they believe that Yhwh/Hashem is the only being with unalterable power in the universe.

For these ancient Israelite authors the multiplicity and fluidity of God’s bodies allow us to realize how different Yhwh is from all other beings in the universe, whether humans or angels or ants. Oddly enough, then, the aggressive anthropomorphism of these biblical authors leads them to their very thorough-going monotheism.

Finally, I loved writing this book because I have a dual view of myself as a scholar. I aspire to be an academic historian of ideas and also a theologian; I hope to speak both as a professor and (please note — “and,â€? not “but alsoâ€?) as a Jew. This book allows me to express both sides of myself, because the ancient texts I examine prompt me to ponder some explicitly theological questions:

What does the way of thinking I uncover in parts of the Bible have to say to modern Jews who accept as their scripture texts that contain some really weird ideas? What aspects of God does the fluidity model help modern Jews to see that they would otherwise miss?

What Jewish ideas does it force Jews to recognize that they might prefer not to think about? As I address these questions in the last chapter, I begin to speak both as a historian of religion and as a committed Jew who hopes to contribute something to the ongoing development of Torah.

My bedrock assumption as a biblical theologian is that every passage found in Jewish scripture is there to teach us something. We have the right to react to what is in scripture; we have the right to disagree with it; but we have no right to ignore it.

What once was Torah in some way always remains Torah; supersessionism is not a Jewishly valid option. Consequently, a Jewish understanding of God that does not reflect the fluidity tradition is a defective one. Without necessarily accepting the fluidity tradition in its entirety, modern Jews ought to see what this tradition has to contribute to our own attempts to know God.

These contributions include an emphasis on the idea of sacred space (since some places on earth are metaphysically different from others, having once housed God). They also include a critique of the idea of sacred space (since a God with many bodies has been in many places, so that no one space, not even Jerusalem, in uniquely holy).

Both ideas are crucial for modern Jews.

The centrality of sacred space is important for many Jews on the left, who fail to acknowledge the holiness of the Land of Israel as a crucial aspect of Jewish belief. The relativizing of sacred space, on the other hand, is important for certain Jews on the right, who need to hear this critique lest they continue to promote their idolatry of the Land of Israel.

Another implication of the fluidity tradition has to do with our closeness to and distance from God. A God with a body is very clearly a person and not a philosophical abstraction.

This is a God whom we can love and be angry with and speak with, a God with whom we can have a relationship, because a being with a body is a being like us. An embodied being can be wounded and can change. In short, the embodied God is the personal God of our father Abraham (and of Abraham Joshua Heschel).

The God with many bodies is all this, but that God is also radically different from us. A being with one body, like you or me, is by definition limited. But the one Being with many bodies has no limits. The God described in the biblical texts I examine, this God with many bodies, can rise above God’s own physicality. This God remains woundable and alterable, but also omnipotent.

The perception of divinity I explore in this book points towards God’s freedom, even as it expresses Yhwh’s grace — more specifically, Yhwh’s desire to become accessible to humanity. This conception renders God an unfathomable being, but nevertheless one with whom we can enter into dialogue. This understanding of God matters to a modern Jewish theology, as do the ancient texts that disclose it.

Posted on October 24, 2008

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