Paul Levertoff, in his short book on Jewish mystical thought in the Gospel of John, Love and the Messianic Age, described the Talmud as an ocean:

I hope by means of this short study to prove that traditional Orthodox Judaism has no lack of spiritual fervor. Even “the sea of the Talmud” has its Gulf Stream of mysticism.

Levertoff’s description is befitting. One can easily get lost in a confining labyrinth of talmudic legal analysis only to turn a corner into an expansive room of spiritual teaching on anything from the nature of good and evil to the uniqueness of God’s grace. We can make similar comparisons to other esoteric thought streams that differ from the vast ocean of rabbinic thought in which they find themselves.

One such area is the question of God’s interaction with humanity. The question is profound once we realize just how different God is from us. He is infinite and omnipotent; we are finite. How could he relate to us? Or, more deeply, can he actually relate to us? The rabbis believed that God interacted with his world through the agency of his divine Word, called the Memra (meaning “the Word”). Memra theology, found in the early rabbinic translations of the Bible called the Targumim, postulated, much like John’s Logos theology, that God could fully interact with man through his divine Word.

However, as far as the Memra theology went in portraying God’s interaction with the world, the rabbis were careful not to pass the threshold into incarnational thinking. That is the belief that God could take on human form or have real human characteristics. Despite the rabbis’ general aversion to God taking on human form, several midrashic legends constitute a stream of incarnational thinking within the ocean of rabbinic theology. For example, in one midrash, God placed himself into the burning bush to literally feel his children’s pain in Egypt. [1] In yet another midrash God prays to himself to have mercy upon his people:

Rabbi Yochanan, in the name of Rabbi Yossi, said, “from where do we know that the Holy One, blessed be he, prays? As it is written, “I will bring them to my holy mountain and make them glad in the house of my prayer” (Isaiah 56:7). The verse does not say “the house of their prayer” but the “house of my prayer.” From this passage, we learn that the Holy One, blessed be he, prays. And what does he pray? Rav Zutra bar Tovia said in the name of Rav, “May it be my will, that my compassion overcome my anger and my attributes of mercy prevail over my other attributes, and may I conduct myself with my children through the attribute of mercy, and may I not judge them according to the strict letter of the law. [2]

The Talmud continues with a story about the high priest and Rabbi Yishmael Ben Elisha, who supposedly saw God in an anthropomorphic state:

Rabbi Yishmael Ben Elisha said, “One time while offering the incense on Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holiness I saw the Akatriel Ya [traditional name in rabbinic literature for God] LORD of Hosts sitting on his throne, highly exalted. And he said to me, Yishmael, my son, bless me, I said, “May it be Your will that your compassion overcomes your anger and that your attribute of mercy prevails over all others and that you judge your children beyond the strict letter of the law. God nodded his head in agreement and said Amen. (b.Brachot 7a)

As with all rabbinic legends, we should take this with a grain of salt. We cannot know what Yishmael ben Elisha saw in the holy of holies. We can know for sure that the Talmud preserves a tradition that strongly depicts God with human-like characteristics such as praying and head-nodding. Nevertheless, as much as this passage implies an incarnational tone, the Talmud does not conclude through this legend that God can take on human form. [3]. However, there is a midrash that portrays God in such an anthropomorphic way that the Geonim [4] censored it from the Talmud. The censorship was due to the Karaite apologist Ibn Sakuah’s exploitation of it in his long tirade against traditional Judaism. Sakuah attempted to prove through the depiction of God in this midrash that rabbinic Jews held irrational beliefs. The midrash is preserved in a Genizah fragment stored in the Jewish library of Leningrad:[5]

“I will walk in their midst.” To what can the matter be compared? It is like a king who went out to sojourn. The king’s servant, who was in the orchard, saw the king wandering around in the orchard. When the king saw him, the servant hid away from the king. The king said to him, “Why are you hiding from me? Look, I am like you!”

In the same way, in the future, the Holy One, blessed be he, will walk amongst the righteous in the garden of Eden. When the righteous see him, they will be shocked, and God will say to them, “What’s with you being so shocked? Don’t you know am like you? [הרי אני כיוצא בכם] Even though I said, “I am like you,” my fear will still be upon you, and I will be a God to you.

What makes this midrash so remarkable is the usage of the grammatical construct הרי אני כיוצא בכם to convey God’s relationship with the righteous. In rabbinic literature this construct conveys a more literal comprehension between items, people, or phenomena than a figurative one. In other words, the righteous are shocked because God literally looks like them, not that he is “like them” in an allegorical sense. If God’s statement was a mere allegory, then the shocked reaction of the righteous to his presence in the garden is unwarranted and bizarre from a literary standpoint. Saadiah Gaon (882-942 CE) rebuffed Ibn Sakuah’s usage of this midrash as proof that traditional Jews believed God could take on human form in a response that can only be described as highly creative:

The best way to understand the phrase “Behold I am like you” is to say that the Holy One, blessed be he, showed the righteous a powerful light in the shape of fire. And when they became fearful of it, God would speak from the fire and say to them, “I am speaking, and the truth is that I made every angel and form of fire, and I made them for my glory, as it says, “he makes his messengers winds, his ministers a flaming fire” (Psalm 104:4). Therefore, any time it says, “I saw God,” it should be understood unmistakably to mean, “I saw God’s glory.” And if some idiot comes and says that the prophets saw God, we enlighten him that these passages are not to be understood literally.

Saadiah Gaon concludes his reaction to this midrash by raising the possibility that it is a mere Karaite fiction:

We have no way of actually knowing if Rabbi Yishmael [the supposed originator of this midrash] said this or not. Perhaps a different person came and attributed it to him, as is frequently found in the Karaite’s books that [regularly] attribute false sayings and legends to great sages in order to make a great name for their books. (Ozar HaGaonim, b.Brachot 6b).

Saadiah Gaon’s attempt at brushing off this midrash as a mere fiction is unattainable in light of an extremely similar midrash found in the early rabbinic commentary on Leviticus called, Sifri or Torat HaChohanim.[6] Additionally, its presence in numerous self-censored rabbinic texts renders his argument even more implausible. [7]

Despite Saadiah Gaon’s attempt at reinterpreting this midrash as an allegory for God’s glory or labeling it as a fiction, the late renaissance sage Rabbi Yehuda Leow, known as “The Maharal” (1520-1609 CE), viewed this midrash as a teaching on the perfect unity between God and the righteous in the World to Come. However, the Maharal was careful to stress that even when this perfect unity is enjoyed, God will remain distinct in his glory. The Maharal’s full explanation is complex, but it can be boiled down to this equation: Equality does not equal sameness.[8]

Does this midrash or the Maharal’s explanation prove that the rabbis secretly believed God could incarnate in a man? I don’t think so. Instead, what it demonstrates is that in some lesser-known corners of rabbinic theology, the question of the relationship between an infinite God and finite humans wasn’t as clear-cut as the hyper-rationalistic beliefs of later medieval rationalists like Saadiah Gaon desired. For our purposes, as disciples of Jesus, we can appreciate the similarity between this midrash and the Maharal’s explanation to some of Jesus’ sayings regarding his relationship with the Father, which were at times difficult for his audience:

My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. (John 10:29-31)

Or with Paul’s description of Jesus’ unique nature:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. (Philippians 2:6-7 NIV)

  1. Mechilta D’Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai 1.
  2. All quotations of Jewish sources are my translations.
  3. The Talmud concludes that this legend merely comes to teach that one should not disregard the prayer of an average person.
  4. The Geonim were the generation after the finalization of the Talmud. They flourished from the seventh to tenth centuries CE.
  5. For a full copy of the Genizah fragment and analysis see, Simcha Asaf, Polemics of an Early Karaite against Rabbinism (Hebrew). Tarbiz, Vol.4, 35-53.
  6. The question of the transference of Palestine rabbinic traditions to Babylon, such as the Sifri, is complex. We have evidence that an enormous number of the rabbinic traditions from Palestine reached Babylon. However, there is also evidence that suggests that a handful of traditions never made it. It could be that Saadiah HaGaon was unaware of this tradition in the Sifri.
  7. See more on this in Shaul Liberman’s short compendium of Censored Jewish Legends in, Shaul Liberman, Shikeen (Hebrew) (Jerusalem, Israel: Bamburg Press, 1970), 14-15.
  8. See Shlomo Toledano, The Continuum Theory in the Thought of the Maharal (Hebrew), Hagut: Studies in Jewish Educational Thought, Vol. 10, 145-162.