Visions of G-d?
In this week’s parsha, VaYetzei, Jacob has a vision of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, on which angels ascend and descend. At the top of the ladder, in his dream, he “sees” G-d standing over him. Now, there are many, many prophetic visions in the Torah, and many expressions that seem to assign some type of form or even body to G-d. We always understand these as allegory and metaphor to make certain ideas more accessible to the human mind. Maimonides, in his Thirteen Principles of Faith, writes:
The Creator is not a material being or a physical force. None of the phenomena of the physical world affect Him, and the conditions of the physical world cannot be applied to Him (e.g. movement and rest). As the prophet Isaiah said, “To whom can you liken God, and what likeness can you attribute to Him?” — i.e., since He is not physical in any way, there is nothing to which He can be compared. All the statements in the Torah that contain physical descriptions of God, depicting Him as walking, standing, sitting and speaking are borrowed terms from the physical world, so that people can relate to the text. As the Sages said, “The Torah speaks in the language of man.” The verse, “For you have not seen any image” teaches us this principle, that is, you did not perceive God in any physical form, because He is neither a material being nor a force of nature.
The French author Baron de Montisquieu once said, “If triangles made a god they would give him three sides.” All idol worship involves projecting human characteristics on one’s god. It is the worship of gods made by man, in the image of men. In a sense, believing that God has physical characteristics is an act of ego worship; it suggests that one can only worship a god that can be “put into his pocket.” He can only relate to a god that is reduced to his own limited perspective. Attributing physical characteristics to God also means ascribing to Him the limitations of the physical world. Since a physical god has weaknesses and needs, the relationship between a pagan and his god is one of mutual benefit and mutual need. Judaism informs us that God is not physical, and therefore, He has no limitations, weaknesses or needs. We are the sole beneficiaries of our own good actions, and we alone suffer from our own evil — not God.