Thursday, January 17, 2008

Class: Angels

I expect to teach the first of a two-week class on "Judaism's view of Angels" on Sunday morning, Jan. 20th, at 10 AM, at Brith Sholom in Bethlehem.
My thesis is that angels are actually "our-worldly" rather than "otherworldly." They represent the closest that the material universe can come to fulfilling Divine desire. I base my view on various biblical sources, as well as the writings of the Rambam.
I also believe that, in this sense, the existence of Angels presents a challenge to us, in terms of how we use our own Free Will.

Here is the outline/source sheet I plan to distribute:

Angels - Week I – Angels: “A Challenge to Priorities and Settled Ways”

For our purposes: Angel = Malach
Time Magazine weighs in (Dec. 1993)

Key Questions
Why do Jews and Christians disagree in characterizing angels?
Where do angels come from?
What can we learn from angels?

The narrowest definition of a Malach: Gd’s task-oriented agent
The earliest biblical angels
Simple etymology

But we find angels in other roles: An expression of Gd’s desire for this world
Acting in Heaven
Acting independently
The common denominator
An expression of an interventionist Gd’s desire for this world
The “Guardian Angel” concept

The holes in this definition
People becoming angels?
Angels becoming corrupted?!
What exactly does “Divine desire” mean, anyway?!?

A Jewish definition: An expression of this world’s desire to draw closer to Gd
Angels: Our representatives in Heaven
Physical beings of suspended Free Will

Maimonidean support

The charge to us: Are we supposed to become angels?

Source Sheet

1. Time Magazine, 12-27-93, Angels Among Us, Nancy Gibbs
This rising fascination is more popular than theological, a grass-roots revolution of the spirit in which all sorts of people are finding all sorts of reasons to seek answers about angels for the first time in their lives. Just what is their nature? Why do they appear to some people and not to others? Do people turn into angels when they die? What role do they play in heaven and on earth? While the questions have the press of novelty, they are as old as civilization, for the idea of angels has hovered about us for ages.
Glancing around the gift shops, one might imagine that their role is purely decorative. Holiday angels are luscious creatures, plump and dimpled, all ruffled and improvised. In their tame placidity they bear no relation to the fearsome creatures in the Bible and the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and Wallace Stevens.
Biblical angels are powerful creatures; in Genesis they guard the east gates of Eden with flashing swords; in Ezekiel they overpower the prophet with awesome visions, four-headed, multiwinged and many eyed; in Revelation they do battle with a dragon. Milton describes the "flaming Seraph, fearless, though alone, encompassed round with foes." And Rilke wrote, "If the archangel now, perilous, from behind the stars took even one step down toward us, our own heart, beating higher and higher, would beat us to death." Every angel, he declared, "is terrifying."
In their modern incarnation, these mighty messengers and fearless soldiers have been reduced to bite-size beings, easily digested. The terrifying cherubim have become Kewpie-doll cherubs. For those who choke too easily on Gd and his rules, theologians observe, angels are the handy compromise, all fluff and meringue, kind, nonjudgmental. And they are available to everyone, like aspirin. "Each of us has a guardian angel," declares Eileen Freeman, who publishes a bimonthly newsletter called AngelWatch from her home in Mountainside, New Jersey. "They're nonthreatening, wise and loving beings. They offer help whether we ask for it or not. But mostly we ignore them."
Only in the New Age would it be possible to invent an angel so mellow that it can be ignored. According to the rest of history, anyone who invites an encounter with an angel should be prepared to be changed by it. By scriptural tradition, angels pull back the curtain, however briefly, on the realm of the spirit. In offering a glimpse of a larger universe, they issue a challenge to priorities and settled ways…

2. R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra’s Introduction to Chumash
Regarding any word for which you seek the explanation, in the explanation of its first appearance you will find it.

3. Genesis 3:24
And He exiled Man, and He placed before the Garden of Eden the cherubs…

4. Genesis 6:2
And the bnei haElo--him saw the daughters of Man…

5. Genesis 16:7
And a malach of Gd found her…

6. מלאך = מלאכה

7. Isaiah 6:3
And one called to another and said, ‘Holy, holy, holy…’

8. Talmud, Shabbat 89a
Moses asked: What else is written in the Torah? “Do not kill,” “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not steal.” Do you have any jealousy? Do you have any desire to commit sin?

9. Genesis 5:24
And Chanoch walked with Gd, and then he was gone, for Gd had taken him.

10. Otzar haMidrashim pg. 285
Chanoch is Metatron.

11. Ezekiel 1:4-14 (mostly JPS translation)
And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire flashing up, so that a brightness was round about it; and out of the midst thereof as the colour of electrum, out of the midst of the fire.
And out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one of them had four wings. And their feet were a straight foot; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf's foot; and they sparkled like the color of burnished brass.
And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and as for the faces and wings of them four, their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward.
As for the likeness of their faces, they had the face of a man; and they four had the face of a lion on the right side; and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four had also the face of an eagle.
Thus were their faces; and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies. And they went every one straight forward; whither the spirit was to go, they went; they turned not when they went.
As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like coals of fire, burning like the appearance of torches; it flashed up and down among the living creatures; and there was brightness to the fire, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.

12. Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed Volume 2 Chapter 6
Should you tell one of those people who consider themselves Sages that Gd sends an angel into a woman’s womb, and that this angel creates the form of a fetus and its functions, he would accept this and think that this is part of the glory of Gd. He would believe, at the same time, that the angel has a body of burning flame, and that this angel has a body which is as large as one-third of this whole planet.
However, should you tell him that Gd put the power of creation into a tiny drop of fluid, the power to create the form of a fetus’ limbs, and that this fluid is the angel, he would say that this is impossible, and he would not believe!
Our Sages have already explained that each of the body’s functions is considered an angel, for such is the case with all of the forces in the universe.

13. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Fundamentals of Torah 2:3
Everything Gd created in His world fits into three units.
Some are combined from substance and structure, and they are created and destroyed continually, like the bodies of people and animals and plants and metals.
Some are combined from substance and structure, but do not change from one body to another or one structure to another as the first do. Rather, their structure is eternally fixed in their substance and they never change as these do. These are the spheres and stars…
Some are just structure, without any substance; these are angels, for angels have neither body nor physicality, only structures that are separate from each other.

14. Talmud, Yoma 30a
The Torah was not given to the ministering angels.

15. Pirkei Avot 2:4
Nullify your desire in the face of His.


  1. At class today, 1/27/08, you mentioned - (9. Talmud Shabbat 12b. Rabbi Yochanan said: One who prays in Aramaic will not be helped by ministering angels, for the ministering angels do not know Aramaic.) - But did not have the time to explain this cryptic statement. Could you explain it, now?

    Bernie Berlow

  2. Hi Bernie,

    Thanks for your post/email.

    You might take a look at this page, which provides a digest of a few answers under #2. Let me know (email or post) if you would like more information.

    Be well,