In parshat Terumah, the Torah presents us a difficult spiritual and intellectual challenge: the anthropomorphism related to God. This is neither the first nor the last time we find this difficulty in the text. We read of God’s “image and likeness”, He “appears” many times to our forefathers, the seventy elders saw like a pavement made of sapphire under God’s “feet”, and so on.
But at the beginning of parshat Terumah there is the commandment of building a sanctuary and He will dwell [“shokhen“, in Hebrew] among us. “They shall make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell [v’shakhanti] among them” (Exod. 25:8). It is as if He will live, He will be placed among the children of Israel like a human being dwelling with them.
This were not so difficult, we wouldn’t find in the Torah the negation of all anthropomorphism and embodiment of God. “You heard the sound of words but saw no shape… just a sound.” (Deut. 4:12), “you did not see any shape on the day God spoke to you in Horev from the fire” (idem, 15).
This negation of anthropomorphism continues in the words of King Solomon and of Isaiah. In his prayer at the dedication of the Temple he built, Solomon declares: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). Isaiah asks in a sarcastic or surprised tone: “The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: which is the house that you build me? Which is the place of my rest?” (Isaiah 66:1).
Many Jewish interpreters and thinkers tried to explain the words “I will dwell among them” in ways that move away any thought of embodiment or anthropomorphism. Rabbi Moshe Alshich opens his exegesis to this verse stating: “Preserve my ears from hearing such a strange thing! How will the light of His presence dwell in this earth, in a sanctuary made by humans?” Rabbenu Bahaye and the Baal haTurim prefer to read the word “v’shakhanti” [I will dwell] in a different form. It does not speak of God, but of the Temple: “They shall build a sanctuary that will remain TI (410 in gematriyah), i.e. 410 years [v’shakhan – ti]”
Maimonides explains the verb “to dwell”, when related to God, as a metaphor: “It is known that the sense of this word is to remain in a place (…) and it is used figuratively regarding things that are not living creatures, but that are stable and remaining. (…) in this sense it is used figuratively regarding God, denoting the perseverance of His protection” (Guide for the Perplexed, Sec. I Ch. 25).
Why all this sophistication? If we are to understand from the Torah that God has no from, no image, no body parts, that He does neither dwell nor rest… why are there so many examples of anthropomorphism?
On the other hand, if God is depicted with human attributes (He has a hand, a finger, feet, He gets angry, He loves, He is jealous, He is merciful, He is seen and He speaks), why should we believe He is abstract?
The Torah not only speaks the language of humans, but also speaks in feelings, in doubts and in introspections of humans. God is abstract, but we cannot grasp Him like that. We need the translation into the concrete and the corporeal so as to understand Him in our minds and feelings.
However we must not fall in the temptation of transforming Him in a Human Being, in something physic, in a body. We must not get confused between our need to translate His essence into human categories and His real essence. The latter is beyond any human feeling and intellectual comprehension.
That is why the Torah expresses these two levels together: the abstract God together with the translation into a tangible state.
In this way, the Torah makes us face our spiritual tension produced by our will and our need to grasp God, to apprehend Him in a tangible way and His demand of us not to be tempted to believe that He is indeed physical. It is the tension between “I will dwell among them” and “which is the house that you build me”, because “you did not see a shape of any kind on the day God spoke to you”.