Thursday, 6 September 2012

A Breakdown Structure of Angels

The other day my eldest child asked what an angel was. The word “angel” had appeared ever so briefly in conversation and whilst my wife was reluctant to answer the question to one so one, my response was “it's a servant of the Divine”.

However, as soon as I said that sentence I became rather conflicted. Fortunately my conflict was masked by an animated discussion on farm animals and how best to lay them out on the playmat. But in my mind there was a raging debate whether I should follow Maimonides' explanation of what angels are, or follow those Rabbis at the other end of the who hold quite different views.

Whilst in Jewish law there are numerous opinions and the minority opinion is recorded, we rule according to the majority (and even then there is some difference of interpretation). Not so with regards to metaphysics and ideas about for example angels. There is a spectrum of opinions and it's not the case that we follow the majority opinion.

Here are a few quotes from Rabbi G. Dennis' “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism”:

pp.14 column 2

“...There also emerges a fundamental disagreement about the nature of angels. Some consider angels to be God's “embodied decrees,” while others regard them to be elementals made of fire, like an Islamic ifrit, or from an impossible combination of fire and water (Sefer Yetzirah 1.7; S of S R. 10; J. R.H. 58; Gedulat Moshe). Others regard them as immaterial, disembodied intellects. Likewise, there seems to be an ongoing controversy about what, or whether, angels eat (Judg. 13; Gen. R. 48:14; B.M. 86B; Zohar I: 102b)...”

As you can see there is quite a variety of opinion and the debate carries on today as it has for the past millenia and will continue for the next millenia. The dillema for me though is, whose opinion do I quote when I get asked: “but what is an angel made from?”, “can I see one?”, “do they drink milk?”, “why do they follow us back from payers on a Friday night?”.

Rabbi Dennis continues, p14. Column 2 (lower down)

“...Unlike the biblical writers, the Sages allow themselves to speculate on the origins of angels. They teach, for example, that angels did not pre-exist Creation, but were formed as part of the heavens on the second day (Gen R. 1:3, 3). Another Rabbi posits that they came into existence on the fifth day, along with all “winged” and “gliding” (bird and fish) creations. Later traditions reconcile the different positions by asserting different kinds of angels came into being at different stages of Creation (Chag. 14B; PdRe 4)... Gradually a distinction emerges between names angels, which are enduring, and anonymous ephemeral angels, which are constantly coming in and going out of existence (Chag. 14A; Gen R. 78:1)...

Maimonides does not believe that angels ever take corporeal form and that they are either human impulses or Aristotelian “intelligences”. Nachmanides on the other hand believes that they do take on corporeal form and can pass as human. More modern thinkers such as the Chassidic Rabbis take a psychological view of angels.
“...Good deeds created good angels, destructive behaviour created destructive behaviour...” (pp.15 collumn 2).

Having thought about whether to go with Maimonides or Nachmanides, I've decided to go with both and neither. To embrace the differences of opinion as both being right and emphasize that differences of opinion make us stronger. The one thing that I will emphasize though to my child is that angels are not cuddly, nice or have much in common with humans. They are creations like us that serve a purpose and experience has shown that they don't always approve of having us call their attention.