Angels Exist — But Not in the Way You Think
Abraham Lincoln once said, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Steven Pinker, not known for his religious faith, wrote a well-received book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. But I wonder, what did they or do we mean when we talk about angels? Do they or did they ever exist?
When Jacob wrestled with an angel, described in the Bible as a man, what was it? The Torah says, “And a man wrestled with him until dawn.” And then whomever or whatever it was that he wrestled with goes on to say that Jacob will henceforth be called Yisrael, because “he struggled … and survived.”
There is no word for angels in the Torah. It simply talks about messengers, using the word malachim. The great rationalist Maimonides thought that what we call angels were simply manifestations in human terms of the will of God. And in his Guide to the Perplexed, he said that Jacob’s encounter was a dream. In the popular description of the universe in his code of Jewish Law, the Mishna Torah, he gave 10 different levels of angels as being the 10 emanations or manifestations of God. But they had absolutely no human form or identity.
What this amounts to is that each one of us could be an angel — in the sense that we might be playing a role in the unfolding of human destiny or the Divine Will. And many other commentators regarded angelic communication as no more than an imaginary encounter that could have just been in the mind’s eye. A form of prophecy.
Yet, for a thousand years, European, Christian art depicted angels as white-cloaked, fair-headed angelic beings, with magnificent feathered wings and halos — or as chubby little puttees, baby faced naked babies with mini-wings.
The portrayal of human and animal forms with wings goes back long, long before Christianity. In the Ancient Middle East, winged humans and animals stood guard outside temples and palaces. They were symbols of power rising above and controlling human affairs — or bestowing supernatural powers. Wings typically were ways of conveying something up there: in space, the heavens, beyond the reach of humankind.
Moses’ Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple had golden cherubs. They too were symbols of a higher power without giving it a specific human form. The Prophets used words such as Chayot, Serafim, Cherubim, and Ofanim in their dream visions of God’s court to conjure up different intensities of the Divine. Angels with specific names — Gabriel, Raphael, Michael, and Uriel don’t appear until Biblical books written in Babylon or later.
By the time we get to the Talmud, not only are angels given personas with specific tasks, but they seem to be everywhere — sometimes protecting us and sometimes causing havoc and destruction. God controlled everything in the world, but seemed to use used different agents to act. In a way, it was very pagan. Different gods for different things.
This preoccupation with spirits increased during the Medieval period. All kinds of things we now know are part of our normal life, like diseases, gravity, static electricity, tides, things that humans could not explain then, were all attributed to spirits. And the Kabbalah, because so much of it was rooted in magic, gave such theories greater significance. Angelology together with astrology played a very powerful part in daily life. Books such The Book of Raziel the Angel offered complex permutations and categories of different angels and spirits. Just carrying one in your pocket was said to ward off evil spirits.
If we expected psychology, science, and modernity to dispense with irrationality, we see that, on the contrary, people nowadays seem even more inclined to hang on to such primitive, neo-pagan forces to explain the ups and downs of their lives. Rationality always caused an irrational backlash. The challenge of trying to cope with the unknown is probably wired into our brains.
But if you ask your average religious Jew nowadays, he or she or they will certainly tell you there are angels. So what do they mean? Some literalists still cling to the idea that there are actual angels, just as they cling to the idea of evil spirits, evil eyes, and magic spells. One cannot prevent people from finding solace in whatever way their minds feel satisfied. And yet it does seem strange in this enlightened world to think of angels as substantial. And I am prepared to admit that some people might say the same thing about God, although I would argue that one is anti-rational while the other is non-rational.
To Steven Pinker and Abraham Lincoln, the term “better angels” referred to the fact that even if we humans have the capacity to be selfish, evil, and dangerous, we can also try to do better and be kinder. Progress rarely advances in a straight line. There are constant setbacks.
But it is the struggle to fight with our own nature that brings out the best in ourselves. Jacob was frightened of Esau. What the Torah describes is a psychological battle that was playing out in his own mind. He wanted to run away. He wanted to stand and fight. His subconscious fought with him. He was pulled in both directions by good and bad. And sometimes this struggle can actually affect our physical bodies too. That is the struggle of human nature. But we can overcome the negative and focus on the positive. We can run. Or we can stand and fight.
The rabbis always emphasized that whether it was through saying Shema Yisrael or just through prayer, we can all have a direct hotline to God, if we only learn how to make use of it. We can pour out our hearts directly, without angels, spirits, or any hocus pocus or magic, to establish a connection and a Divine Support Line.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.