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Sunday, 15 January 2017

110) ANGELS IN RABBINIC LITERATURE:

DO ANGELS EXIST?

Rambam's Moreh Nevuchim which states that angels 'only exist in the mind'.


INTRODUCTION:

In this essay we are going to explore some prime rabbinic sources which deliberate upon whether or not angels exist; and if they do, what form they take.

TANACH:

As is evidently clear to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of biblical narratives, there are multiple references to angels throughout the Chumash.[1]

On the other hand, for some reason the books of the Prophets have relatively few references to angels.[2]
It is only in the Book of Daniel where, for the first time, angels are referred to by names (Gabriel and Michael), and also where they are first ranked and classified into hierarchies. This supports the Talmudic view that the names of angels were brought from Babylon by the returning exiles, as Daniel was exiled at Babylon.[3]

TALMUDIC PERIOD:

There are no (or very few)[4] overt references to angels in the Mishna. Some suggest this may have been because the Mishna period (0-200 CE) commenced at about the same time as Christianity was beginning to emerge, and there was the need to distance the Jewish concept of angels from the early Christian view.

This scarcity is made up for during the Gemara period (200-500 CE) with numerous and frequent references to angels.

For example: The Gemara said that new angels were created every day, and after praising G-d, they would sink into the ‘river of dinur (fire)’, leaving only two only permanent angels, Gabriel and Michael.[5]

There is, however, a fundamental difference in approach between the Talmud Yerushalmi (which stresses that there is no need for Jews to pray through intercession of the angels) and the Talmud Bavli (which intimates that one of the primary functions of angels is to carry the prayers to G-d.)

RAMBAM THE RATIONALIST (1135-1204):

The common perception of angels alternating sometimes between an ethereal, and other times a very physical form, seems to have been the predominant view right up until it was radically challenged by Rambam. 

He did not accept that angels were actual beings. 

Instead he maintained that every scriptural encounter with angels took place in a dream or dream-like state.

Rambam wrote: 

We have already shown that the appearance or speech of an angel mentioned in the Torah took place in a dream or vision.”[6]

According to Rambam no meeting with an angel ever took place in physical reality, but only in a trance-like state. He supports his position by pointing out that many of the Torah narratives concerning angels are preceded by G-d first appearing to the individual before the angel is actually encountered.[7]
But Rambam went even further in his definition of the word ‘angel’: It was not the manifestation of a spiritual being as most others understood it to be, but rather what he referred to as ‘separate intelligences’ (sechalim nivdalim). By ‘separate intelligences’ he included all natural forces and energies such as the power of growth in a flower or embryo, the pull of gravity and even the attraction between one individual and another. These all fell into his category of ‘separate intelligences’ or ‘angelic forces’.
Rambam wrote: 

This is the view we meet in all parts of Scripture, every act of G-d is described as being performed by angels. But angel means messenger[8], hence every one that is entrusted with a certain mission is an angel. Even the movements of...creation...- for natural forces and angels are identical.”

He must have been so frustrated with the common perception of literal angelic beings that he concluded: 

How bad and injurious is the blindness of ignorance.”

Rambam was so against the popular conception of angels, that he wanted to remove all references to them from the prayer book. One example is his removal of the Brich Shemei prayer, which makes reference to ‘bar Elahin’ (angels or literally, sons of G-d).

This is significant because firstly, Brich Shemei is not just an Aramaic prayer but a direct extraction of a passage from the Zohar. [Bear in mind that Rambam passed away in 1204 and the Zohar was first published in 1290.]

Secondly, even the rather innocuous words - ‘not in the angels do I put my trust’ - were objectionable to Rambam because not trusting in angels still acknowledges their existence.

To this day the Dor Deah Yemenites, who loyally follow the Rambam’s teachings, omit this prayer for the same reasons.

RAMBAN THE MYSTIC (1194-1270):
All the above was too much for Rambam’s antagonist, Ramban, about 60 years his junior. These Maimonidean ideas were an anathema to the more mystical Nachmanides. Ramban believed that angels certainly could and indeed did take on human, and sometimes even some other physical form.
For example, Ramban explained that when the Torah spoke about giving the goat to Azazel (who was also known as Samael, the angel of Esau) this was meant as a ‘bribe’ so that he does not speak badly about the Jews to G-d on the Day of Atonement when their judgement is sealed.[9]

Ramban wrote of angels in general:

“According to the view of the rabbis, when the Torah speaks of angels (appearing to man),  the angels donned a ‘garment’ (malbush), as is known to the mystics (yode’im), and they became perceptible to righteous people.”

Ramban clearly challenges Rambam’s view that angels cannot physically ‘appear’. He claims what he calls the unanimous full support of ‘the rabbis’ (of the Talmud) who all believe angels can and do physically ‘appear’. He also brings extra support from the mystics who refer to the process of physical manifestation as ‘donning a garment’ to make them more ‘visible’.  

Then he refers to Rambam in the strongest of terms calling him a rogue and a dissenter:

 “According to Rambam, Sarah didn’t bake cake nor did she laugh, and Avraham didn’t slaughter the calf. It was just a vision! - So why, then, did the Torah bother to record all those details?...And (regarding the story of Jacob wrestling the angel) if it was just a vision, I don’t understand why he was limping when he woke up...And (regarding the story of Lot and Sodom) did the angels not accompany him and his wife and two daughters when they ran for their lives from Sodom as it was being destroyed. Did Lot then remain in Sodom if the whole episode were just a vision?

Ramban's commentary challenging Rambam - from the 1545 Venice publication of Ramban's Pirush al haTorah.


In the end, Ramban could contain himself no longer and concluded: 

His (Rambam's) words contradict the Torah. It is forbidden even to listen to then, never mind believing them!”[10]

RAMBAM DEFENDS HIS VIEW:

Rambam could retort that the Torah style is often to record, as he puts it; “...a general idea”. In other words, the Torah is sometimes more general and less literal. And the general idea; “has a great many points which have no reference whatever to that idea...”[11]

Evidently, the literal tenor of the words of the Torah can and does create, occasionally, some difficulty for Rambam, especially when talking about angels. He then has to resort to a broader interpretation of the verses, explaining the detailed minutiae away as part of the overall force of the vision. The details then assume a more allegorical role (or, according to some interpretations, remain a simple record of incidental facts which were part of the vision but remain superfluous).


DON YITZCHAK ABRAVANEL (1437-1508) DEFENDS RAMBAM:

In his commentary on Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim, Abravanel[12] wrote:

Sarah did not bake nor laugh and Avraham did not prepare the calf... Ramban thinks that that which occurs in a vision is imaginary whereas that which occurs in physical reality is more dignified. But the opposite it the truth: Reality depicted in a vision has more dignity. It is astonishing that Ramban should state that it is forbidden to listen to Rambam!

Again, the details in a vision take on a more meaningful role when interpreted allegorically instead of literally.

In his commentary on Genesis, Abravanel posed some very challenging questions to the mystics who took angels literally:

“(If angels manifested physically, then) where did these bodies come from? Were they born and if so to whom? Were the bodies created (as new born or) as adults, like Adam? What happened to these bodies after the angels’ appearance? If the angels’ spirit left the bodies, the remains should be like those of every other body after its soul departs. If they appeared in some body that only looked real, why did some see them and others not?” 

For these reasons, Abravanel concludes in support of Rambam:

Rather, the angels must have appeared in visions and not in physical forms.

ANALYSIS:

It’s fascinating to see that a widespread and popular concept like angels - which de facto appears to have been taken for granted as being part and parcel of the very fabric of Judaism - is in actual fact subject to such a fierce and fundamental debate.

It’s no small matter when Rambam refers to those who believe in angels as pursuing a ‘blindness of ignorance’.

Neither is it when Ramban forbids us from believing in, or even listening to what Rambam had to say because it is ‘against the Torah’.

If ever there was a major clash in theological ideology between the giants of the Rishonim, this must be it.

Notwithstanding the common mainstream adoption of the mystical approach towards angels - technically, within classical Torah thought - the question of their very existence remains an open one.







[1] The exception is Deuteronomy with no references to angels.
[2] Exceptions are Zechariah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Daniel.
[3] Talmud Yerushalmi Rosh Hashana 1:2;  "The names of the angels were brought by the Jews from Babylonia."
[4] Although I came across the notion that there are no references to angels in the Mishna, this appears to be a contentious issue. The Mishna in Avot 4:11 states: “R. Eliezer ben Yaakov says; He who fulfils one mitzvah acquires for himself one advocate (peraklit), and he who commits one transgression acquires against himself one accuser (kateigor).” (Tehilat Hashem, translation by R. Nissen Mangel).  Others translate peraklit and kateigor as ‘angels’. As a general observation, the other non -Mishnaic writings of that period, while referencing angels, for some reason do not often refer to them by name.
[5] Chagiga 14a
[6] Guide for the Perplexed II, ch. 41
[7] Ibid. 2:42. See also Mishna Torah, Hilchot Yesodei haTorah 2:3-4
[8] The Hebrew word malach (angel), comes from the word melacha (work), implying that the meaning of ‘angel’ is to act as an agent to accomplish some ‘task’. It is interesting to note that a similar notion is expressed in English, where ‘angel’ comes from the Greek ‘angelos’ which means ‘agent’.
[9] Ramban bases this interpretation on Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 46.
[10] Hebrew: “ve’eleh hadevarim soterim hakatuv. Asur le’shomam, af ki leha’amin bahem!
[11] See Introduction to the Guide for the Perplexed.
[12] Sometimes pronounced Abarbanel.

2 comments:

  1. Just as language changed with the tower of bavel and the age of prophecy ended so perhaps the perception of malachim also changed over time due to our lower spiritual connection. Rambam may feel that there is no way of genuinely explaining to us or understanding such phenomenon in the present generations. Also there may be no benefit in relating angels manifestation in more detail especially as these concepts have been adopted by other religions.

    Ramban isn't worried about delving deeper as he would prefer us all attain a higher perception.

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    1. @Mendy Rosin, I would add that according to Rambam, as the rabbi made clear in the essay, angels are the natural forces. Angels do not exist in the sense that they take on human form. If one wants to think of the existence of angels, think of the natural forces such as rain, snow, the laws of gravity, etc.

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