We don’t know, for certain, how the ancient Jews perceived God. It could be some viewed Him as a physical entity and others as a spiritual one. We just don’t know for sure. To Maimonides it was clear that there is nothing physical about God and his proofs were all based on Aristotelian philosophy. To people of the Middle Ages such philosophy was held in the same esteem as science today. Maimonides considered anybody who believed God to be physical, in any form, to be a heretic. To Sephardic (Spanish) Jews, steeped in philosophy, this posed little problem. However Aristotelian philosophy had not made significant inroads in other parts of Europe. In fact Maimonides even wrote “the rabbis of a certain land say that God is a body, but a body bigger and more glorious than ours”. I believe, with good reason, that the land he was referring to was France. Even though Rashi seemed to have agreed with Maimonides, the Tosaphists give indications that they did, in fact, consider God to be a body. Many of you will say “how dare you accuse the holy Tosaphists of being heretics?!” To you I ask, Maimonides wrote that the rabbis of a certain land believed in a physical god – which land would you have that be? If it were the land of North Africa, for example, would it then be okay? In any case, though they were contemporary, we don’t find Maimonides mentioning the Tosaphists nor vise versa. There is one possible reference, by the Tosaphists, to Maimonides and it is not flattering. I say that they each considered the other to be heretics. Ugly but all indications are that it is true. The Tosaphists gave no credence to Aristotelian philosophy and considered it “Greek wisdom” and probably forbidden. To Maimonides, and his disciples, it was simply science/logic not to be denied.
In the 12th century, it would seem that some parts of the Arab world (including Spain) held the upper hand culturally. Therefore it is no wonder that Maimonides, and his disciples, prevailed over the Northerners. They prevailed to such an extent that the belief in the physicality of god was driven underground. It was not, however, extinguished. One cannot so easily stamp out religious beliefs. Believers in a physical god found refuge in the Kabbala – mainly in the Ashkenazic version. We find, in the book “the Two Tablets of the Law (“Shlah“)” a description of the “Higher Man” with his 248 limbs and 365 sinews – corresponding to the positive and negative commandments. He clearly states that God has no will, since a will implies change and God does not change. Therefore prayer to Him is futile. His Will is given its own identity – as a sephira.
The author of the Shlah lived in the 16th century. So we see that by that time, God’s body took on a more spiritual meaning. The belief was toned down, disguised and hidden in the writings of the Kabbalists. Any other society would have gradually forgotten such beliefs but not European Jews. Most people had great reverence for their rabbis, past and present. This is all well and good but this reverence often bordered on deification. If you find somebody believing that a certain rabbi is above error, that is deification.
What was to be done with these embarrassing statements that seemed to be heretical? Ashkenazic rabbis decried that only those over age 40 could read the Kabbalistic writings (were they to outright say such writings were false they would lose all respect in the eyes of the masses). That already excluded the majority of people as many didn’t even live that long. Of course women were also excluded. It was hoped that anybody over 40 would be mature enough, and wise enough, to recognize falsehood and heresy when they saw it.
There actually were some outstanding Ashkenazic rabbis who truly rejected the Kabbala though they couldn’t reveal that outright. Instead they gave hints here and there to those who could understand. The famous Ya’akov Emden and the Noda’ beyuhuda were such individuals. A disciple of the former, Rav Eliezer Plekles, even came right out and debunked the Zohar in his responsa – that was recently published in Israel and caused much consternation in the Orthodox community.
Today it is totally unacceptable, in the Orthodox world, to declare God to be a physical entity. Still the sentiment exists in the Kabbalistic writings and has a great influence on the Hassidic and Sephardic prayers and on the thoughts of worshippers among the Kabbalists.