Do Jews Believe in Angels

Fri, February 17, 2012

Adult Education Sermon for A Year of Asking Jewish Questions: What’s Yours?
February 17, 2012  – Mishpatim, Exodus 23:20f.

In this week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim we read a very confusing passage.  Mishpatim means “laws,” and the portion begins with almost three chapters of them, from prohibitions of stealing oxen, to seducing virgins, to Exodus 23:19, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” which is the reason given for why kosher Jews cannot have cheeseburgers, or chicken parmesan, or all those cheese on meat sandwiches at Quizno’s.  But, then in verse 20, the portion completely changes focus as it continues:

20] I am sending an angel (malach – ltkn)  before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have made ready.  21] Pay heed to him and obey him. Do not defy him, for he will not pardon your offenses, since My Name is in him; 22] but if you obey him and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes.

23]When My angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I annihilate them.  24] you shall not bow down to their gods in worship or follow their practices, but shall rear them down and smash their pillars to bits.  25] you shall serve the Eternal you God,  who will bless your bread and your water. An I will remove all sickness from your midst. No woman in your land shall miscarry or be barren.  I will let you enjoy the full count of your days.

So, before I answer tonight’s question, “Do Jews Believe in Angels?” we see from our Torah portion the answer to the question that might precede it, “Are there angels in Judaism?” The answer from this week’s Torah portion must be, unequivocally, YES.  And then we get into the most complex part of this exploration: “What kind of angels do we find in Torah and Jewish texts and prayers?

It is imperative that we precede an answer to tonight’s question with these questions, as we would if you asked me the question, “Do Jews believe in God?”  First, I would have to ask you which God of the 5772 years of Jewish historical writing and belief you were referring to.  For, I am not sure that any of us believe in the God described in our portion this Shabbat who goes to battle with us and makes promises that clearly can’t be kept.

The last time I tackled this topic was October 1997.  At that time, I asked a series of questions to answer the adult ed question I was asked, “Do Jews have angels?” which is a bit different than asking whether you and I believe in angels… perhaps a tougher question.  I answered the question with a series of questions I would like to revisit tonight.

Let’s begin with questions:

Do Jews have angels? Yes, absolutely.

Are there angels in the Torah? Again, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Cherubic angels guard the entrance to the Garden of Eden.
Angels foretell of the birth of Isaac.
An angel stops Abraham from killing Isaac.
Angels ascend and descend Jacob’s ladder.
Cherub angels in Exodus 25:22, in next week’s portion, are fabricated from gold to serve as guardian angels for our most sacred ark.

Are there angels in the rest of Jewish literature?  Yes, in every period.  From Biblical to the Apocrypha and Pseudopigrapha (explain those), to the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Talmud, Mystical Judaism, Medieval Rationalists and Mystics, to Modern Chasidic Judaism, to current Reform Jewish liturgy, angels have been, and continue to be, a part of Jewish belief and writing.

Have mainstream rabbis and thinkers acknowledged the existence of angels in Judaism? Oh, my, yes.

Although the Sadducees, the priests of the first century, opposed the existence of angels, even though the Torah is filled with them, angels prevail in Jewish writing and belief as witnessed by the Maccabees invoking an angel to help them fight Sennacherib’s army.

Sometimes it is hard to see where the scholarship ends and the folklore begins.  Rabbinic literature reworks the whole book of Esther we will read in a few weeks.  It has the angel Gabriel preventing Vashti from going to the king.  Three angels go to Ahasuerus’s palace with Esther. One of them moves the king’s scepter to let her into his chamber, another points her finger at Haman, because she was set to place the blame for the decree on Ahasuerus, and the angels throw Haman on Esther’s couch. They are the orchestrators of God’s story and add the divine to a book void of the mention of God.  (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah)

As rationalistic as he was, even Maimonides described ten ranks of angels, although he was extremely vocal that angels are never intermediaries in our communication with God.  Throughout Jewish history great thinkers have discussed and speculated on angels, to the present day work of the scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz whose work on angels, both the good and the bad, from the Kabbalistic perspective in our world, is well known.

What do angels look like?  Men, children, you and me.
Genesis 1:26 “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’”
In the book of Daniel we read in 10:5, 6:
“I lifted my eyes, and looked, and behold a man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with fine gold.  His body also was like beryl and his face as the appearance of lightening, and his eyes as torches of fire, and his arms and his feet like in color to burnished brass, and the sound of his speech was like the voice of a multitude.”

What do angels do?  Rabbi Gunther Plaut, of blessed memory, says in the Torah Commentary that they are “superior beings with special powers.” Open your TaNakH, your Jewish Bible. Angels speak, sit, stand, walk, climb ladders, fly, ride horses, use weapons, escort people to heaven or hell, bring prophecy, dialogue with God, act as God’s cabinet – as a sounding board and in advisory roles, worship God and sing in God’s heavenly choir (Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh), do God’s bidding, record our deeds in the Book of Life, carry divine messages (malach means messenger), act as heavenly janitors and security guards, lift peoples spirits and help people in time of need (remember the angel who was with Hagar when Abraham cast her out?), and serve as God’s escort service to heavenly realms and even to Sheol, our Jewish equivalent of a dark place after death.

Angels get different jobs because they are task oriented.  Two angels will go home with you tonight to help you through Shabbat and bring you peace.

And that Angel of Death is also on God’s payroll..Samael, Satan, is part of God’s cabinet and you can keep him away by giving tzedakah and studying Torah…surprise, surprise.

Angels can be powerful, dreadful, endowed with wisdom – 1000 angels will sit at our Judgment Day and we need only one to vote for us to avoid punishment, but they must all be unanimous to convict.

Angels are holy, but fallible. They can fight each other, and they can make mistakes.  Angels can fall.   Two or three angels are said to accompany us to escort us from life to death in Jewish thought.

Do Jews become angels when we die?  This is our first “no.”  With the mulititude of sources about angels, nowhere does it describe anyone becoming an angel at death with the perhaps the exception of Elijah, who is never buried and roams the earth. But, I would prefer to say that he is not an angel, but a prophet who remains with us.   For Judaism, angels are beings that exist separate from humans and separate from our afterlife, should you choose to believe in one as constructed by our Jewish forefathers.  Angels are part of God’s court, recording our deeds, singing as heavenly hosts, and serving a variety of jobs as God sees fit.

So, now we finally can ask, “Do most modern Jews believe in angels?”  There I would answer “no.”  If asked, most modern Jews don’t even realize that Jewish angelology even exists.  Most modern Jews are influenced by the past 150 years of rationalism and anti-mysticism.  In fact, I can’t recall any serious discussion of angels or belief in their existence the entire time I was in rabbinical school, except for trying to explain away why our Biblical ancestors needed such a metaphor in the Torah.  We were always taught to look for times when Jews borrowed from other cultures.   For example, angelology became very popular in 13th century Germany.  Rabbi Eliezer of Worms wrote, The Book of Angels at a time when Jews needed to compete with the preponderance of angels among their Christian neighbors.

I believe that there is more discussion of belief in angels today as the ultra-Orthodox hold on to and expand upon the belief.  We are also living in a Jewish age more friendly to mystical Jewish texts, like the Zohar, and the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah.

We have never worshipped angels the way some worship saints or other intermediaries. Angels work for God, even as there was always a fear that a belief in them would rival God. God chooses when the angels act and appear in Jewish texts.

There was, over time, a ceding of angels to Christianity through the amazing art and development of the Christian view of angels.  Interesting that in Colossians 2:18, the New Testament accuses Jews of angel worship, or at the very least that belief in such things disqualified one from the true Christianity.

You might ask…
How many angels are there?  An infinite number, which is why the angels told God that humans weren’t needed.  Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, an early respected rabbi, said there were 12 constellations (mazzalot), each with 30 armies, thousands upon thousands of them.

Do Jews have guardian angels? Well, surprisingly, yes.  Medieval rabbinic literature has angels assigned to every human being.  (Pesikta Rabbati 44:8)

So we see that there has been an abundance of writing about angels in Judaism and for millennia Jews truly believed they existed.  Although, we may just see angels as metaphor, our prayerbook is filled with them:

We welcome the angels of Shabbat with Shalom Aleichem.
Boachem l’shalom, malachei hashalom.
Tzeitchem l’shalom….

We continue to teach that the Baruch shem kivod line of the Shema, which is not part of Deuteronomy 6:4f. was the angelic response to hearing Israel recite the Shema.

And from the Book of Daniel 9:21 and 10:21,  we know that angels have names:  Gabriel and Michael, although in the book they are referred to as a man and a prince in some translations.  Jewish lore has established that there are four angels who attend God’s throne:  Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, Penuel… the “el” part of each name means “God” and shows that a part of God dwells within each one…and the Shechinah hovers over them all.

The jury is out. It is up to you to believe what you wish. All Jewish tradition asks is that you believe something from within Jewish sources. Just recognize that Jewish angels are everywhere.

So we are going to sing and read about these four named angels tonight, and read a meditation about angels in our new prayerbook that was inspired by David Kleinman.

You ask what I believe.  In 1997, with Morris Margolies’s book, A Gathering of Jewish Angels and the Encyclopedia Judaica as my primary resources for study, the discussion of angels was purely academic for me.  Up until recently, I would have continued to say that angels are metaphors for all that we seek to explain in our world. But, recently, I have begun to think that maybe they are more real than that:

When Ryan Cernohorsky went to Afghanistan, I wrote a prayer for him, which contained the following

“May the angels of God protect you:
Michael – the messenger of God
Gabriel – the strength of God
Raphael – the healing power of God
Uriel – the light of God

We pray that you are surrounded while you are at war on all four sides: a messenger, strength, healing and the light of God, that you will return to us whole and safe.”

When Ryan returned home from war, whole and alive, his first words to me were,
“I felt the angels, Rabbi. They kept me safe.”

I guess I believe more, now.
I suppose wanting to believe is what really matters.

Shabbat Shalom

(as I researched this sermon in 1997, I regret that some of the references I would have liked to include here are missing. Some day, with more time, I will find all of them and update this piece