Hai Gaon

Head of the school of Pumbedita during the Geonic Age.

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The Karaites poured scorn on the Talmud for its grossly anthropomorphic descriptions of the Deity. The Talmud even says that God prays, wears tefillin, and wraps Himself around with a prayer shawl. Hai's reply is that the meaning is that God taught Moses how to pray and how to use the tefillin in prayer. When the Talmud gives God's prayer as: "May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My attributes so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy," the meaning is not that God prays to Himself but that He taught Moses how to recite the kind of prayer that will result in the flow of the divine mercy.

Hai is not original here. This interpretation goes back, in fact, to Hai's predecessor, Saadiah. On the general question of apparently strange Talmudic statements, Hai observes that these belong to the Aggadah and it is a sound principle that one does not learn from the Aggadah. It has to be appreciated, moreover, that, in their Aggadah the Talmudic rabbis were often like poets who describe natural phenomena in anthropomorphic terms. Hai draws attention to Greek mythology in which natural phenomena are endowed with personality. This statement of Hai amounts to an acknowledgement that there is a mythological element in Rabbinic thought.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.