Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Was Rabbi Moshe Taku A Corporealist?

Rabbi Moshe Ben Chasdai Taku (circa 1200-1250) was a younger contemporary of Rabbi Yehuda Hachassid  (1140-1217) and is considered nowadays in many circles as the central medieval proponent of a corporeal understanding of God. See for example this post by R. Nathan Slifkin where he also makes an assertion that earlier Ashkenaz Rishonim were not philosophically inclined and did not know any earlier philosophical writings. I never bought into this and could not imagine that such great and brilliant scholars would not have amongst them at least a smattering of inquisitive thinkers who would try to understand the reason for existence and other such philosophical issues.  True those were dark ages in Europe and contact with the southern part of the continent was tenuous, they still would have developed a philosophy of their own. As we will see, they did but also had more contact with the rest of Judaism then is commonly thought.

As I began learning Rav Sa’adyah Gaon’s (892-942) (henceforth Resag) thought, I started getting interested in his place in Jewish thought in a historical context and discovered that indeed he was the source of almost all medieval Jewish thought and all the divergent theologies that subsequently developed were based on Resag. I am currently reading Professor Joseph Dan’s magnum opus Toldot Torat Hasod Ha’avrit which is now up to 6 volumes with more to come. Volumes 5 and 6 deal mostly with the Chassidei Ashkenaz beginning with Rabbi Shmuel (born 1115), the father of Rabbi Yehuda through Rabbi Eliezer of Worms (1160-1238) known as the Rokeach and his generation. These Rishonim were part of the great Kalonimus family that migrated from Lucca, Italy to the German towns along the Rhine anywhere between 800 (during the reign of Charlemagne) and 973 depending on the historian. The Chassidei Ashkenaz led by Rabbi Shmuel and subsequently by Rabbi Yehuda Hachassid, the most prominent and famous leader amongst them, developed a mystical approach to Judaism which had its roots in the writings of Resag, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1174), the Kuzari (Rabbi Yehuda Halevy - 1075-1141) at times expanding on the ideas proposed by these greats and at others disagreeing and using their ideas to argue for their own insights. Amongst the well-known writings of that school is the Sefer Chassidim which was composed in part by Rabbi Shmuel with the greatest part written by R. Yehuda and probably contains additions subsequently added by some of his disciples.  The Rokeach is another important sefer that is also central as a source in Halacha. Less well known but also important is the Arugat Habossem, a commentary on the prayer book and the Piyutim written around 1234 by Rabbi Avraham ben Azriel from Bohemia.  Another famous composition of that school is Shir Hayichud; the poem that is part of the Yom Kippur night prayer liturgy which has been shown (more about this later) to be a poetic presentation of Resag’s thought found in his Pirush on Sefer Yetzira and his Emunot Vede’ot. Although some think its author was Rabbi Yehuda Hachassid, it clearly was already well known and part of the liturgy at his time as he quotes it as a proof text in one of his philosophical writings. Rabbi Yehuda Hachassid was therefore clearly acquainted with the thought of Resag as were others in his school. In fact based on quotations that we find in their writings we can even trace quotes from Emunot Vede’ot- which is written originally in Arabic – to a translation that preceded the more common and well known R. Yehuda Ibn Tibon (circa 1120-1190) translation. It is not a verbatim translation but rather a flowery paraphrase.

This brings us to an important manuscript – the Sefer Hakavod – another sefer of that era and school of thought with many excerpts quoted by Joseph Dan in his book Toldot. Although the manuscript we have at Oxford is anonymous, Rabbi Yehuda Hachassid is named as its author by R. Moshe Taku in his Ktav Tamim (more about it later) and is a basis for a mystical sefer written by R. Eliezer of Worms the great pupil of Rabbi Yehuda. The Sefer Hakavod focuses principally on the question of how revelation – Nevuah – works. The problem is that there cannot be a connection between a transcendental God and a human being who is physical. God does not talk nor does He have a form or shape or body. That being the case what did the prophet see or hear in his vision? What exactly is Shechina the word used in Chazal to depict the presence of God? Sefer Hakavod proposes three possible explanations; one based on a Rav Hai Gaon Responsa, another based on Resag and the third its own explanation. I do not want to go into the details at this time but want to point out that all three explanations are consistent with an understanding of a transcendental God.

We now come to Rabbi Moshe Taku. Abraham Berliner (1833-1915) wrote an article about the Shir Hayichud which was translated from the German and published by Mossad Harav Kook (1969) in the two volume Selected Writings (Hebrew) pages 147-180. Berliner did not have access to the Oxford manuscript of Sefer Hakavod thus not knowing of its reference to Shir Hayichud. He therefore claims that the first mention of the poem is in R. Moshe Taku’s (RMT henceforth) Ktav Tamim (KT henceforth). He then proceeds to give a short appraisal of KT and its author. Here are some excerpts that I hope will give a flavor about this interesting Rishon.

RMT was born in Tachau   (Tachov nowadays and part of the Czech Republic). He lived in Regensburg  and died in Neustadt next to Vienna. R. Yehuda Hachassid also lived in Regensburg at approximately the same time thus it is probable that both he and RMT had access to the same sources and writings. We know that RMT sent a Responsa to Magdeburg around 1225-1230 which indicates that he flourished somewhere between 1225 and 1250 giving us an approximate date for his publishing KT. The manuscript of KT that we have is only a small part of a much more extensive sefer. The fragment that remained is complemented by a long quote in Arugat Habossem. In KT,  RMT attacks the philosophical/theological theories that were circulating during his time, quoting from Sefer Hakavod, Yessod Mora vesod Torah of Ibn Ezra, Sefer Hamada of Rambam, Shir Hayichud and Emunot Vede’ot in its paraphrased translation (see above). He accuses them all of inventing theories, all building on Resag’s writings, which according to RMT distort what Chazal really believed.

There is a poem called Shir Hayichud, I heard that it was authored by R. Bezalel using the Sefer Ha’emunot as a basis. He did not author it completely because from the stanza beginning with Shadai, R. Shmuel (the father of R. Yehuda Hachassid) authored it.”   

Abraham Berliner comments that R. Bezalel is unknown from anywhere else but this reference to him here is probably the source for a later claim that the author of Shir Hayichud is the Christian priest Michael Basilios (the name Basilios and Bezalel having a similar sound). The Vilna Gaon indeed forbade the saying of it in his shul and tried to find the name Michael Basilios in the acrostic at the end of day 3.

Abraham Berliner argues that contrary the popular belief, RMT was no corporealist at all. Corporealism was anathema to all Jewish scholars. The issue was how to deal with verses in Tanach and sayings of the Rabbis that contradicted this basic belief. Resag followed by other medieval philosophers developed a sophisticated approach, interpreting all these difficult utterances allegorically or as a metaphor. RMT objected to that approach and felt that it is better to accept these corporealist statements as they are, admitting that we do not know how to interpret them. The interpretations lead to distorted and wrong opinions that inadvertently support one form or other of Corporealism.  

Berliner argues that RMT had a highly developed critical sense and questioned everything. In a discussion of the limits of human apprehension RMT quotes a Sifre that Moshe at the time of his death was able to apprehend so much that what he had apprehended during his life seemed obscure (Aspekaleria She’eina Me’ira)[1]. He follows this by a quote from the controversial Sefer Shiur Komah that refers to the Sefer Aleph Beit Derabbi Akivah, which belongs to the Heichalot literature. He prefaces it by questioning “if it is reliable being it is not found in our Babylonian Talmud, or in the Yerushalmi, or in the well-known Midrashim. For there are books that were forged by the Christians to fool the world, like Perek Shira where it says at the end of it[2] that whoever reads it constantly so and so vouch for him… So too in Sefer Ha’evarim (?) it is written that His right hand is called such and such and His left such and such. At the end he writes that “Rabbi Ishmael says that whoever knows this secret I and Akivah vouch for him”. One cannot trust this as they write this to reinforce their words.”  In other words these reinforcing comments in themselves create a doubt about the authenticity of these books. He then comments, “Every person that is disturbed by these external writings should ignore them and by doing this will not lose his love of God”.

Berliner points out that we clearly see that RMT holds that God is beyond our comprehension and only objects to explanations of contrary texts that are possibly wrong. He objects to speculative metaphysics and prefers to remain silent in awe of the unknown. His greatest criticism is directed at Resag, who he sees as the inventor of this approach and all others including the Chassidei Ashkenaz led by R. Yehuda Hachassid as his followers. “My complaint is on the Sefer Ha’emunot for he accepts foreign knowledge and sinned greatly by distancing many people from perfect fear of Heaven to speculate about matters to the point that they no longer know where they stand. He supports the star gazers (astronomers?) who have a grudge on the words [disagree] of our Rabbis and their perfect Torah, preferring their nonsensical prattle. Have we not suffered enough from the sayings of the Christians, pupils of jesus, who interpret the Mitzvot of the torah allegorically or from our compatriots the Karaites who deny the oral law, led by their wicked leaders Anan, Shaul and Abusseri[3] and the rest of their unholy friends?”  

He also objects to the approach that tries to synthesize theology with scientific theory of the day. He says that we have to accept the statements in the Torah and Chazal at face value and not worry about their practical aspect. It is better to live with the questions then to come up with erroneous opinions that the original author never meant.

This opinion of Berliner about RMT that he is not a Corporealist is supported by Joseph Dan[4]. Coming back to the start of this post, RMT saw the Chassidei Ashkenaz as philosophers and he objected to that.  Clearly philosophy was not alien to their school but in fact they were innovators in the field. It is ridiculous to accuse them of being ignorant of the intellectual ferment that was ongoing during the Middle-Ages because they developed theories based on demonology and other superstitions. That was the science of their culture, time and location and was the accepted wisdom which at the same time did not negate their philosophical speculation. Demons and angels were part of the physical world while God and His relationship with man is a metaphysical issue.

 It is important to note that R. Yehuda Hachassid was of the Kalonimus family and the elder R. Kalonimus is quoted by Rashi many times in his commentary on Shas referring to Girsa’ot he brought with him from Rome (Italy). Rashi learned in the Yeshivot in Ashkenaz which were all part of that school of thought. It is inconceivable that Rashi was not aware of all this thinking that was ongoing there and had no inkling of philosophy. I think that “Corporealism” is a label that is used indiscriminately and much more has to be defined about what incorporeality means before we can append that label to an intelligent and brilliant Rishon.  I hope to address this further in this forum and elsewhere.

[1] The editor of KT does not find this Sifre which is not uncommon with Midrashim quoted by Rishonim which are no longer extant in current editions. I wonder if that is the basis for Rambam’s description of the death of Moshe, Aharon and Miriam in MN 3:51.
[2] I am not sure if he refers to Aleph Beit or Perek Shira.
[3] I have no idea who Shaul and Abusseri are. I would appreciate if a reader helps.
[4]RMT is quoted with great respect by Ramban in commentary on the first Perek in Gittin, who was his contemporary and refers to him as alive as do many others of his contemporaries and subsequent generations of scholars.   


  1. Here's how I would put it. KT and the Rambam both agree that one can't reason about G-d. To the Rambam, this means that one can only assert what Hashem isn't. To the KT, this means that one must accept what the pasuq says, and not be swayed by rational arguments that make it seem impossible.

    Including "Yad Hashem", etc... I think Berliner (as you present him) is being overly optimistic in describing RMT as fitting a general non-corporealist trend. Also, given the Raavad's comments, we do know that there were believers in corporealism of a caliber that the Raavad can favorably compare them to the Rambam. Even if we might not agree with that comparison, doesn't that imply that there were people of "rishon" caliber who believed in corporealism -- undermining Berliner's assumption that incorporealism is a universally accepted given?

    KT lists the theological catastrophes that have watered down Yahadus (IHO, of course) as: Notzrut, Qaraut, and RSG's rationalism. That's pretty harsh.

    I was happy when I recently learned that R' David Sedley has a similar opinion of RMT -- that his non-rationalism included saying there was no reason to take the pesuqim non-literally. See this essay from Reshimu vol III.


  2. Interesting post. Rather than rely on assessments of Dan and Berliner, why don't you quote the relevant passages, analyze them and let the readers decide which approach is more compelling. For example see here:


    We see that for R. Moshe Taku G-d definitely has a chair and definitely dons clothing, and is a goshem (from his protest of Resag saying he is not a goshem). Can you explain how this does not refer to G-d having a body?

  3. Eric,
    You are correct but for that I would need to basically copy very lengthy pieces and translate them. For example the place you point me to, whoever wrote that skips most of the argument and therefore it is read out of context. I translated above the beginning starting with "my complaint is ..." RMT then continues "our Rabbis have warned us not even to discuss the name of HKBH even when it is meant as praise and to His glory... so too Ma'sseh Merkavah .... " and after quoting some Chazal he continues "there are more easier and harder matters that a person made from a stinking drop may not stick a lance down his throat and a two edged sword in his heart and speculate about the existences of HKBH whether He has a body or not"... and only much later in the paragraph and discussion does he say the quoted piece in the article you refer to. In that context it has another meaning. It criticizes the idea of interpreting and prefers to leave the text to be understood as is without ANY interpretation - Just to acknowledge that we do not know.

    I have linked to a digital copy of the Ktav Tamim to allow for readers to see for themselves.

  4. R. Micha,

    Your comparison of RMT with Rambam is superficially correct. Rambam holds it is a Mitzvah to speculate but at the same time remain silent in awe because whatever we think we undretstand is nothing compared to Truth. "Dom" in Rambam parlance is "stay with you thought in silence". (see Hil Avel, MN et al)RMT holds that it means "refrain from speculating and accept in silence".

    Re your reference to Ra'avad, it seems he held that some did, Rambam in Igrot Teiman claims to have encountered such a person. It is irrelevant especially if it was individuals only. Ra'avad disagrees with the categorizing as Min someone who believes that, not with the basic concept. But I think there is more to it. The defining of what is "corporealism" is important. I believe different thinkers had different concepts of what that means.

  5. David,
    Sorry, I disagree. In the passage I linked to, he brings two *interpretations* - that R. E. Hakallir describes G-d as sitting, and in our davening established by Anshei Knesset Hagedola G-d is sitting. Why doesn't he take them to task for interpreting unfathomable G-d as something we can understand?

    In my opinion, it is because he reads Torah and Chazal literally and therefore G-d has a body that he can sit with (surely not flesh and blood but somehow material), and those Rabbinic passages (according to a literal understanding) understand G-d in the same way, in opposition to Resag/Ibn Ezra/Rambam who did not.

    It is clear he is not making a philosophical argument for G-d having a body, because he holds that philosophical arguments have no place in religion as you correctly cited above. Thus, his argument is that we have only what a simple (read: nonphilosophical/allegorical) reading of the text provides - that G-d does have body. I believe this is what is meant by corporealism - I don't think we are talking about a being composed of the same biological materials as we are, but there is a form and the form is as described in a literal reading of Tanach and Chazal and shares some humanoid features.

    My understanding is that this was a (relatively) prevalent view of G-d in the times of the Rambam and that is why he opens Moreh Nevuchim (1:1) with what he thinks is meant by Tzelem Elokim, because in many ways, this is the primary misconception of G-d that he is trying to avoid.

    בגלל העניין הזה, דהיינו, בגלל השׂכל האלוהי הדבק בו, נאמר על האדם שהוא בצלם אלהים ובדמותו, לא שהאל יתעלה הוא גוף, כך שיהיה בעל תבנית.

    "In this respect, namely, in respect to the divine intellect that clings to him, can it be said about man that he is in the image of G-d and in His likeness, not that Exalted G-d is a body, such that he should have a form" (my translation)

    By the way, are you trying to say in note 4 that Ramban would not have quoted RMT in Gittin if he were a corporealist? The Ramban showed impeccable respect (compare to the Raavad who uses harsh language even if he didn't really mean it) to even his fiercest opponents, I don't think we can deduce RMT's stance on divine corporealism from Ramban quoting him.

    That is leaving aside some views that the Ramban himself describes G-d as having some physically describable form-like properties not like the Rambam, as usual.

  6. Eric,

    The quote that refers to the Kalir is at the end of a long piece where RMT objects to Resag's explanation of what prophets saw was a Davar Nivra - a created entity. He vehemently disagrees with the interpretation and shows that Resag got it from a Karaite source. He then argues that we cannot make up explanations from our own imagination - as he puts our own Keres (stomach) - He then says that the Rabbis had no problem depicting God as sitting on a throne and did not try to explain it away as a created entity that represents God nor did the kalir do that. That is a far cry from caliming that God has a body. He is just saying that it is beyond our comprehesion and we have to accept the pessukim and chazal at face value without trying to explain them just as the kalir did. Again taking pieces here and there and not reading in context does not do him justice.

    In note 4 I thought people would interpret it the way you did but left it as is. I had originally gone off on a tangent proving that he was recognized as an important Halachik authority. I then realized that I was off subject but I did not want to lose the gem of Ramban quoting him respectfully so I left it in a note out of context.

    Re Ramban now that I have seen the sefer hakavod I realize that Ramban has absorbed the Chassidei Ashkenaz thinking and reworked it his way. I will write about it when i do some more homework.

  7. Eric,

    One more thing. rambam was an extreme non- corporealist. Anyone that did not accept his Yediah Shlilit was suspect. He also felt that for the simple they should just accept that eino guf even if they cannot grasp the idea of Yediah Shlilit. many Rishonim including scholars who followed rambam up to Maimonidean scholars of our time have a difficult time with that concept some coming to the erroneous conclusion that Rambam did not believe in a personal God or even in one at all! Does that make anyone who does not accept his Chidush, and a chidush it is and he knew it, a corporealist? Of course not and one has to understand that this is all speculative and there is a lot of leeway for different understandings.

    RMT had a problem with all these theories and he argues that each has its problems so why even embark on this derech. Just accept everything at face value and work from that perspective to become an oved hashem. Live with the unknown of what God is without denying what prophets and ba'alei ruach hakodesh say - even if you don't understand what exactly it means.

  8. David,
    In parashat Devarim we read that Og's bed was 9 cubits long in "אמת איש". Rambam makes a simple calculation that Og was 6 cubit's high (about 2.7m - high but reasonable). Rashi, says it's in Ogs units and according to שפתי חכמים it's because there is a Gemara which says Og was a giant who hurled mountains. This interpretation of the Midrash places Rashi into the "first group" in Rambam's introduction to Perek Chelek.
    It would seem that some of Rishonim of Ashkenaz preferred the face value understanding of scriptures, and had less appreciation of science and philosophical reasoning. If you apply this approach to "problematic" passages that describe Hashem, then Corporealism is not beyond question.

  9. Eliyahu, Sifsei Chachachim does not make rashi a corporealist nor a literalist. Rashi was trying to understand Be'amat Ish and suggested that it refers to Og's amot for if not why would it be needed. It does not say anything about he would interpret the gemara about Og picking up a mountain and hurling it.

    My point in this post was to argue that RMT preferred to leave the text as is rather than use our own imagination to explain it. That does not necessarily mean that he read it literally. he just stayed with the problem without offering an answer.