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Looking at angels

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2003-11-14

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

This time I'm off politics and into religion for a change!

What are angels? Did they exist? Do they exist? Or are they figments of our imagination? This is an issue that has divided traditional Jewish opinion for literally thousands of years. The biblical angels are called 'messengers' in Hebrew and they usually appear whenever God wants to intervene in human affairs and they are consistently confused with ordinary human beings. So much so that one major commentator actually says that angels are simply humans used as tools or agents to effect a greater plan. So in that sense every one of us could potentially be an 'angel' (hence, I guess, the nickname for those who invest in the Theatre!).

A surface reading of this week's reading from the Torah (Genesis 18) has God appearing to Abraham and then Abraham looks up and sees three men whom he invites in to take a meal ('real' angels never eat of course, perhaps they were anorexic). It transpires that these visitors were no ordinary humans but angels with messages from God about Abraham, his wife and Sodom.

Rashi's famous commentary suggests that Abraham breaks off his conversation with God to show how important hospitality is and asks God to wait while he deals with the 'men.' The needs of human beings should take priority over ritual demands. Ironically this does not fit in with the relationship normally demanded of human beings to God, as expressed in law (Mishnah Berakhot 5.1): "Should even a king greet one [while praying] one may not return the greeting. Even if a snake is curled round his heel he must not pause" - a person must not interrupt the intimate connection between himself and the Lord at a time when he is addressing Him and all the more so when God is addressing him! I should add here that this does not apply when one's life is in danger.

As an aside you might well ask why Abraham offers them a meal of meat and milk together, but let's not go into that just now.

But the majority of commentators understand that God appears to Abraham in the form of three men and Abraham's words about 'not passing on' are directed to them.

Maimonides in The Guide of the Perplexed II.42, takes verse 1 as summarizing the contents of the chapter, the revelation of God to Abraham by means of men-angels, he says 'For in a vision of prophecy or in a dream of prophecy, the prophet sometimes sees God speaking to him...and sometimes an angel speaking to him; This is quite similar to the story concerning Abraham, in which it at first informs us in a general way, And the Lord appeared unto him, and so on, and then begins to say in what way this happened.'

Maimonides developed a scale of twelve levels of understanding prophecy in its various manifestations (see Guide 2.45), the revelation of God himself in the daytime, when a person is fully awake, is the ultimate prophecy, for then rationality is in charge and the imagination is not. This level was attained only by Moses. That is why he is regarded as the greatest of prophets. On the other hand prophecy through visions of angels is low down on the scale.

Maimonides could not accept the midrashic interpretation of Rashi that "receiving guests is more important than greeting the Divine Presence" as an explanation of the plain sense, even though I have no doubt he accepted wholeheartedly its important moral message.

The second place where Maimonides relates to Genesis 18 is in his ranking of the twelve levels of prophecy we have already referred to. In a few words Maimonides presented a revolutionary way of understanding the text ( Guide 2.45): "The tenth degree consists in the prophet's seeing a man who addresses him in a vision of prophecy, as Abraham by the terebinths of Mamre ( the case we are discussing here), and as Joshua in Jericho."

Saying that the men spoke with him in a prophetic vision means that the entire story took place in Abraham's prophetic imagination and did not exist in the physical reality outside it."

Maimonides rules out the possibility that the angels drank and ate, or that Abraham actually ran to greet and feed them. There is nothing in Abraham's actions which shows that he is dealing with angels. Even when they tell him that Sarah will give birth, Abraham's behaviour towards them does not change. Compare this with the behaviour of other heroes of the Bible who tried to give food to angels, Gideon and Manoah, the father of Samson. Once it became clear to them that they were dealing with angels, they acted very differently. This is why Maimonides interpreted the actions of Abraham into a prophetic vision rather than actual events.

Ramban, with an 'n', the mystic, Nahmanides, who lived in Spain in the twelfth Century, understood the implications of this interpretation and totally rejected them in his commentary (on Gen. 18:1):

Nahmanides offers an alternative solution by developing a new being, different from the angels. The men that Abraham saw were not angels, yet neither were they normal human beings, rather, they were special, unique phenomena. And of course the Kabbalah in general and Sefer Raziel HaMalach and the Zohar are absolutely choc-a-bloc with all sorts of angelic manifestations, good and bad in its complex system of angelology.

Here we have an example of great medieval authorities totally disagreeing about the meaning of the Torah text and the nature of angels. Yet none of them has been declared a heretic or their books banned from our shelves.

Actually I'm not entirely correct, for Maimonides' 'Guide' was banned and even burnt by those rabbis who opposed his philosophical writings on principle. And virtually every Yeshiva has copies of Luzzatto's 'Messilat Yesharim' (The Paths of the Righteous) and some read it daily as part of their Mussar programme. Yet he was excommunicated in eighteenth century Italy for suspected mystical heresies. But the fact is that today they are totally rehabilitated by a world that seems to fear new ideas. Why have we gone backwards theologically to pre Medieval times when we should be thinking  (but not necessarily acting, human behaviour has changed far less that its ideas ) more creatively?

See I can't stop myself MiLud.

Shabbat Shalom