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Over and over again we read about the prohibition of idolatry in the Tenach. In the first place G-d commands us not to make any physical image of Him, or anything that represents Him. On the other hand one isn't allowed to create an image on his own and give it form and then call it to be something godlike (divine)

Looking at these prohibitions (see for example Exodus 20:1-4, Deuteronomy 4:15-19, Deuteronomy 5:6-9 etc.) I noticed the emphasis on making such images physical. But what about the images in our thoughts/mind?

We all have an image about G-d (of whom He is and what He does or can do, i.e. His attributes or characteristics), but I don't assume one is allowed to have an image of G-d. Is there any verse in the Tenach which explicitly shows images of G-d in our heads (thoughts) are prohibited?

P.s. Another question I have regards this topic is that the presence of HaShem is often pictured in the Tenach as a cloud or to dwell in a cloud (1 Kings 8:10-11, Exodus 19, 40:34-38 and other verses). I'm quite a visual thinker, so is it wrong to picture these kind of images in my head. Is it wrong in this case to imagine G-d to dwell in a cloud.

To sum things up: When does thinking about G-d or picturing G-d in the mind becomes idolatry?

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    " Is it wrong in this case to imagine G-d to dwell in a cloud." If you just imagine that inside the cloud is where GD dwells, you are not imagining an image of GD just of His dwelling place. – RibbisRabbiAndMore Jul 10 '18 at 19:01
  • The Tenac"h mentions numerous people who have seen G-d in a dream or vision. Some of these people were Gentiles such as Avimelech and Pharaoh. The prohibition against idolatry applies to Gentiles as well. Whether they have a prohibition against imagery, I'm not sure. Point is, that Tanac"h of ocurse mentions Jews dreaming about G-d. So, in their dreams, they make visions. Dreams are a thought process, no? – DanF Jul 10 '18 at 21:47
  • @DanF, the question seems to be what did they see, because they didn't see Him as HaShem himself tells us no person had seen Him. I looked upon the Kotel once and I could sense, feel and experience G-d there, I could imagine Him being right there with me. And even in prayer it's sometimes like I'm speaking face-to-face with Him. The people which looked upon the cloud could see G-d, likewise people saw Him in dreams and visions, not literally; but whatever they saw, they knew it was HaShem revealing Himself to them. – Levi Jul 12 '18 at 8:00
  • @DanF P.s. There is nothing wrong thinking about HaShem, let me be clear about that. But what I would like to know is if you think or say it's wrong/false/bad to imagine HaShem in any physical way possible? Making physical images is something that's clearly been allowed, looking at such images isn't wrong either, but HaShem clearly states that at the point they are being worshipped or at the point one thinks or feels these are G-d, godlike or other gods and starts looking at them in such a way these images are prohibited and a abhorrence in His eyes.... – Levi Jul 12 '18 at 8:19
  • @DanF ... If images on their own aren't phrobited, it must be the thoughts, believes and feelings that go with them which make them prohibited right? So that made me wonder if envisioning or imagining HaShem in any physical way would be wrong/false/bad or not. – Levi Jul 12 '18 at 8:21
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Principle III of the Rambam's 13 principles of faith. The denial of physicality in connection with God.

This is to accept that God אינו גוף is not a body, and has no shape or image or relationship to a body or parts thereof. ולא ישיגוהו משיגי הגוף And no one who's level of understanding is that of a physical body, can have any concept of what GD is. This is why the Sages of blessed memory said with regards to heaven there is no sitting, nor standing, no awakeness, nor tiredness. This is all to say that He does not partake of any physical actions or qualities. And if He were to be a body then He would be like any other body and would not be God. And all that is written in the holy books regarding descriptions of God, they are all anthropomorphic. Thus said our great Rabbis of blessed memory, “The Torah speaketh in man’s language” (i.e. using human terms to offer some understanding). And the Rabbis have already spoken at length on this issue. This is the third pillar and is attested to by the verse, “For you saw no image” meaning that you did not see an image or any form when you stood at Sinai because as we have just said, He has no body, nor power of the body.

See HERE regarding the status of believing in the Rambam's 13 principles, but I do not think that there's any disagreement that this one is a mandatory belief.

If someone imagines GD as a physical image, although he may not be considered an idol worshiper, this is against this fundamental principle of faith.

  • @RibbisRabbiandmoreIve actually heard secondhand of rishonim who held God could have a body. I'll try and find the source. Though personally I'm Not a fan of the 13 principles. I'm more of a 3 principle (Joseph albo). Not that I don't believe most of them more that I don't see them as integral. Anyways found it google.com/amp/s/www.myjewishlearning.com/article/… Here are some quoted. look them up yourself. – Orion Jul 10 '18 at 20:20
  • @Orion I very strongly advise that you should not quote such a thing before you know the source. It may be kfirah! – RibbisRabbiAndMore Jul 10 '18 at 20:35
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    I'm not quoting! I emphasized I haven't seen it! My Jewish learning seems like a reputable site and I know that rav yosef albo did have a different (smaller) set of principles. Anyone who automatically believes something when theyre even told by the author that he hasn't looked up the sources themsef and they should look it up on their own is a idiot! Anyways I'm going to look them up now. BTW if you or anyone else wants to check up and confirm this please do. – Orion Jul 10 '18 at 20:51
  • @Orion but be careful about writing that GD can have a body! – RibbisRabbiAndMore Jul 10 '18 at 21:01
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    Did I say God has a body or did I say that I have heard secondhand that some say he might have a body? By the way weirdly I keep seeing the rabad mentioned in multiple articles and yet none of them leave citations. Very annoying. I might have to just wait to ask my rebbi tomorrow. – Orion Jul 10 '18 at 21:13
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With respect to the cloud, it seems there are three possibilities:

  • The cloud is God.
  • The cloud represents God.
  • The cloud obscures God.

The first two attribute supernatural powers to the cloud, so it's difficult to consider them as anything other than idolatry.

The third simply illustrates your inability to see God in his true form.

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Good question. Is it permissible to imagine G-d in our minds while praying, and what about the pillars of cloud and fire? Did G-d reside in these pillars during the Exodus?

Exodus 13:21-22 states:

The L-rd led before them during the day with a pillar of cloud, to lead them along the way, and during the night with a pillar of fire, to give light to them to travel during the day and during the night. The pillar of cloud during the day and also the pillar of cloud by night did not depart from the people.

How should we understand this passage? Does God have a human form?

Regarding the cloud, there are three possibilities. We will show how none of them are correct, offering a fourth approach.

  • G-d is not the cloud since G-d has no body and is one.
  • The cloud cannot represent G-d as this would imply that the cloud is a separate entity.
  • G-d cannot be obscured in one place since G-d is everywhere.

Anthropomorphisms and Anthropopathisms

French Jewish Bible commentator Rashi (Rabbi Solomon Yitzchaqi) disagreed. He felt that G-d was corporeal. For example, some have claimed that G-d needed to descend to investigate a matter, quoting scripture:

G-d came down to see the city and the tower that the people built [the Tower of Babel].

Onkelos (chapter 18,) rejects the anthropomorphic “I will go down," substituting a paraphrase: “I will reveal Myself.”

The translator felt that G-d was not traveling down, instead, He was “revealing,” letting it be known that He knows the evil that has been committed. In his Guide of the Perplexed 1:10, Maimonides also explains that “go down” and “go up” is a metaphor for divine communication taking place (down) and ceasing (up).

In his Commentary on the Mishnah, he writes,

“They do this simply due to their ignorance [boorishness] in philosophy, and distance from the sciences. They lack sufficient [intellectual] perfection to awaken themselves...this miserable group, mercy upon their ignorance... destroy the grandeur of the Torah.... Many [rabbis] preach publically matters they do not understand themselves. If only they would keep quiet.”[1]

An image of G-d in the mind

Rambam writes that we are incapable of knowing anything about G-d except for what G-d is not. Rabbi Ishmael felt that the Torah, “speaks in the language people use,”) which is to say, that G-d does not really speak, get angry, regret, have emotions, or walks. G-d's anger in the Bible should not be understood literally, for G-d does not react emotionally to situations, as humans do. These depictions are figurative. Similarly, we should not picture G-d talking, walking, or listening to our prayers in our minds as that is akin to idolatry. People should act intelligently and philosophically, as shown in the Bible.

Genesis 1:26 states,

“Let us make man in our demut." Verse 1:27 relates that “G-d made man in His tzelem, in the tzelem of G-d, He made him.”

It appears that people are made in the image of G-d. Does this verse imply that G-d is a human, only bigger? Actually, it cannot mean “likeness" since G-d has no body and is one. Onkelos renders 2:7's “a living being,” to ruach m’mal’la, “one with the power of speech,” a characteristic of man's intelligence. Maimonides equates intelligence as tzelem, people should act intelligently because that is like G-d.

Now that it is clear that G-d does not have a form, nor can we imagine G-d in our minds since this would be improper, we can attempt to explain the pillar(s) of clouds.

The pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire

There are many miracles associated with the Exodus story, one of which being the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire.

Exodus 14:24 states, "the L-rd looked upon the camp of the Egyptians from the pillar of fire and the cloud,” preventing the Egyptians from entering the Sea of Reeds, and attacking the Israelite camp, waiting to cross. Again Onkelos translates Exodus 16:10 as “the glory of the Lord appeared (Onkelos: was revealed) in the cloud.”

In Deuteronomy 1:31-33, Moses recalls the pillar of cloud and fire, saying,

And in the wilderness, where you saw how the L-rd your G-d carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way you traveled until you came to this place. Yet in this thing you have no trustin the memra (word or wisdom) of the L-rd your G-d, who goes before you on the way, to prepare for you a place, a lodging to rest, with a pillar of fire by night to see the way you are to follow and a pillar of cloud by day.

Exodus 40:34-38, records:

Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the L-rd filled the Tabernacle. Moses was unable to enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the L-rd filled the Tabernacle. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on their various journeys. But if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until it did lift. For the cloud of the L-rd (Onkelos: the cloud of glory of the L-rd) was upon the Tabernacle by day, “v’aish tihyeh lailah bo,”(literally) and there was fire therein by night (Onkelos: and the appearance of fire would be upon it by night), before the eyes of the entire house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.

The targumist inserts “an appearance of,” (borrowed from Numbers 9:16,) as to avoid a real fire that might burn or ignite the Tabernacle. We see this again in verse 24:17, “Then the glory of the L-rd appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the Mountain.”

The targumist softens the anthropomorphic depictions of G-d. The traveling “by the mouth of G-d” is changed to memra (word or wisdom) which represents the pillar by day and by night. According to Onkelos, G-d is not manifested [hiddin or obsercured] within the cloud, instead, it is “the glory of G-d revealed.” Targum Onkelos also demonstrates that during the night the pillar of fire was only an “appearance," not a real fire burning on the Tabernacle, G-d forbid. However, this explanation leaves us with several questions.

Is it problematical to suggest that G-d created a miraculous fire that would not ignite the flammable curtains? Since G-d created the laws of nature, is it unreasonable to say that He can suspend them if He so desires? Why couldn't our targumist simply say it was a miracle? Or, is it possible that the biblical pillars of cloud and fire that led the Israelites through the wilderness are a metaphor for G-d's guidance. There are some who think the pillar of cloud and fire is probably a metaphor saying the Israelites knew where they were heading. Is it possible to recognize G-d’s pillars (metaphorically,) leading us today or does the business of the modern world prevents us from doing that?

[1] Commentary to Sanhedrin 10:1

  • If you want to argue that there wasn't a literal cloud and fire, you have to explain how all the details given about them fit in the context of a metaphor. It's easy to assert metaphors everywhere, but not so easy to actually justify them. – Heshy Jan 3 at 1:09
  • They are some who say the pillar of cloud was probably a metaphor saying the Israelites knew where they were heading. If this is so, why are there so many details describing the cloud? Does that imply that it was real? Possibly. But the “Garden of Eden” story was a metaphor, as well as the six days’ creation account. G-d did not create the world in six days, He could have done so instantaneously, and that is what He did (Rambam). – Jonathan Jan 3 at 1:25
  • Furthermore, if G-d did not create the world instantly, why did it take an all-powerful G-d six days? And yet the Bible describes each day. Similarly, the “Tower of Babel” story is a parable to teach people about proper behavior. – Jonathan Jan 3 at 1:25
  • Fine. But there's a reason for every one of those details WITHIN THE METAPHOR. Without explaining those details, asserting that it's a metaphor had limited value. – Heshy Jan 3 at 11:06
  • It is possible that the biblical pillars of cloud and fire (Deuteronomy 1:31-33-) are a metaphor of G-d’s guidance in life. For example, Onkelos softens the anthropomorphic wording when the Israelites traveled “by the mouth of G-d," to memra (word or wisdom) directing the cloud. Could this be saying that Moses led them wisely through the desert through G-d's guidance (the Israelites knew where they were heading)? In any event, it is the memra (G-d's word or wisdom) that is directing the pillars and Israelites. – Jonathan Jan 3 at 18:08

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