Friday, September 08, 2006

Of angels and prophets.

The word Mal’ach is common in the Torah and traditionally it is translated angel. Popular imagination sees an angel as a semi transparent benevolent entity usually white (as opposed to the evil Black Angel) with wings that appears at crucial moments to save the hero. Paintings by medieval artists have reinforced that impression and it takes an intellectual effort to realize the misconception. Of course the basis of the misconception is Tanach itself especially the two depictions of God and His Hosts in Yeshayahu and Yechezkel. Both ends of the spectrum, the Literalists and the Biblical Critics, will argue that those verses are to be seen literally either because it is the truth or because that was the understanding of the thinkers at the time those verses were written.

Rambam in MN 2:5-6-7 dispels that notion. The word Mal’ach means intermediary, anything that brings about existence. It is much closer to a concept than an entity per se. A person sent on a mission is a Mal’ach as in Breishis 32:4

ד וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו, אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר, שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם. 4 And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the field of Edom.

Therefore anything that is a medium for accomplishing a goal is a Mal’ach. The Rabbis took this concept seriously and use it for anything that is the cause for an action. For example the imaginative faculty of man, which plays a role in prophecy, is a Mal’ach.

In Midrash-Kohelet (on Eccles. x. 7) the following passage occurs:" When man sleeps, his soul speaks to the angel, the angel to the cherub." The intelligent reader will find here a clear statement that man's imaginative faculty is also called" angel," and that" cherub" is used for man's intellectual faculty. How beautiful must this appear to him who understands it; how absurd to the ignorant!” (MN 2:6)

In an earlier post http://yediah.blogspot.com/2006/07/form-and-substance-matter.html I discussed the concept of Form and Matter. Angels are the Forms of the Universe. A very inexact but humanly conceivable description would be that they represent God’s will or ideas. When a person acquires knowledge, he taps that font of information that is out there and it becomes part of him. Medieval philosophers saw reciprocity here. Just as the acquired knowledge fuses with the human brain so does the human brain, or better its thought, merge with that eternal knowledge. It is the closest that humans can get to God, merging with Chochma or Knowledge that emanates from Him the source of everything.

What I am trying to get at is the idea that a prophet, in the process he uses in acquiring knowledge, deals with abstract concepts that he translates in his mind into humanly comprehensible ideas. That process from the intellectual to the intuitive and imaginative, all those processes are what is referred to as angels.

שינוי שמות המלאכים, על שם מעלותם היא; ולפיכך נקראים חיות הקודש והם למעלה מן הכול, אופנים, ואראלים, וחשמלים, ושרפים, ומלאכים, ואלוהים, ובני אלוהים, וכרובים, ואישים.

ט כל אלו עשרה השמות שנקראו בהם המלאכים, על שם עשר מעלות שלהם הם. ומעלה שאין למעלה ממנה אלא מעלת האל ברוך הוא, היא מעלת הצורות שנקראת חיות; לפיכך נאמר בנבואה, שהן תחת הכיסא. ומעלה עשירית, היא מעלת הצורה שנקראת אישים, והם המלאכים שמדברים עם הנביאים ונראים להם במראה הנבואה; לפיכך נקראו אישים, שמעלתם קרובה ממעלת דעת האדם.
(Yesodei Hatorah 2:7)


Each level of angel has a different name. The highest level consists of the Holy Chayot, next are the Ophanim, the Er’elim, the Chashmalim, the Seraphim, the Mal'achim, the Elohim, the Cheruvim and the Ishim. The highest level is that of the Holy Chayot and there is none other above it, except that of God. Therefore, in the Prophecies, it is said that they are underneath God's throne. The tenth level consists of the Ishim, who is the angel who speaks with the Prophets and appear to them in prophetic visions. They are therefore called Ishim - `men' - for the reason that their level is closest to that of the intellect of Man. (translation courtesy of Jonathan Baker with slight edits).

In other words metaphysical concepts are translated into human language and are called angels. In the process of Creation, the transition from an “idea” of a transcendental God to physical reality, we humans see sequences and categories of steps. We give them names. We visualize them. When the prophet takes these ideas into himself, lives with them and become almost obsessed with trying to conceptualize them corralling all his mental capabilities in doing so, he merges with “Ishim”, the Mal’ach or Angel he sees in prophecy.

ב אדם שהוא ממולא בכל המידות האלו, שלם בגופו, כשייכנס לפרדס ויימשך באותן העניינות הגדולים הרחוקים, ותהיה לו דעת נכונה להבין ולהשיג, והוא מתקדש והולך פורש מדרכי כלל העם ההולכים במחשכי הזמן, והולך מזרז עצמו ומלמד נפשו שלא תהיה לו מחשבה כלל באחד מדברים בטילים, ולא מהבלי הזמן ותחבולותיו, אלא דעתו תמיד פנויה למעלה, קשורה תחת הכיסא, להבין באותן הצורות הקדושות הטהורות, ומסתכל בחכמתו של הקדוש ברוך הוא כולה מצורה ראשונה עד טבור הארץ, ויודע מהם גודלו--מיד רוח הקודש שורה עליו.

ג ובעת שתנוח עליו הרוח--תתערב נפשו במעלת המלאכים הנקראים אישים, וייהפך לאיש אחר, ויבין בדעתו שאינו כמות שהיה, אלא שנתעלה על מעלת שאר בני אדם החכמים: כמו שנאמר בשאול, "והתנבית עימם; ונהפכת, לאיש אחר" (שמואל א י,ו).
(Yesodei Hatorah 7:2-3)

“A person who fulfils these criteria, and is of perfect health, will, when studying metaphysics and is attracted by those elevated issues and is of an appropriate temperament to understand and comprehend them , and sanctifies himself by moving away from anybody who concerns himself with ephemeral matters, and encourages himself not to have any thoughts about useless matters and its contrivances, have his thoughts permanently attuned to above, from under God's Throne, to understand the pure and holy forms, and looks upon the wisdom of God [in Creation] in its entirety, from the first form [i.e. the Holy Chayot] till the centre of the Earth, and sees in them God's greatness, prophecy will immediately come to him. At the time when prophecy comes to him, his soul will be on the same level as that of the Ishim angels, and he will become a different man, and he will realize that he is not [any more] as he was, but will rise above the level of other wise men, as it is written, "...and you shall prophesy with him, and shall be turned into another man".”

This is another step in understanding Rambam’s idea of prophecy.

11 comments:

  1. >Rambam in MN 2:5-6-7 dispels that notion. The word Mal’ach means intermediary, anything that brings about existence. It is much closer to a concept than an entity per se. A person sent on a mission is a Mal’ach as in Breishis 32:4

    um, this doesn't really dispense with the notion. Just because the word malach might translate into messenger doesn't mean that they didn't understand that God does send Ghost-like messengers that take on the form of men. Rambam is a rationalist who wants to remove this idea, but it certainly doesn't mean that the Rambam's idea was the original intent.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Bs,in which camp do you belong - the bible critics or the literalists? :-)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I don't like to refer to myself as a "bible critic", because that term sometimes is associated with people who are trying to bash religion in general and Judaism in particular.

    I'm just trying to create a rational type of Judaism/religion like most people here.

    I just don't think it's necessary to insist that the ancients had superior metaphysical or natural knowledge. It could be that they understood things intuitively, but also had an incomplete understanding of these things.

    We can also appreciate Tanach for its ethical ideas and poetic expression despite, perhaps, its incomplete metaphysical/physical understanding.

    And I would also add that it is likely that there were some prophets who had a better understanding of natural ideas than others. Not all the prophets were equal in understanding.

    Using this approach, we can see our job as to further refine and complete what others in the past have attempted without insisting that those in the past understood it all.

    Finally, I would say that there is more than one approach to Judaism, and we shouldn't insist everyone follows our lead.

    ReplyDelete
  4. IrvineChasid9/08/2006 5:13 PM

    >um, this doesn't really dispense with the notion. Just because the word malach might translate into messenger doesn't mean that they didn't understand that God does send Ghost-like messengers that take on the form of men. Rambam is a rationalist who wants to remove this idea, but it certainly doesn't mean that the Rambam's idea was the original intent.

    UGG!!!

    I don't know source that indicates that a malach is a spectre, or some 'non real' human.

    I can be someone's Malach. That doesn't make me not a person anymore. It just means that I do things for reasons I may not know or understand that ends up helping another person.

    It hurts to think that any thinking person really believes these depictions to be "literal" and not "iconic"

    ReplyDelete
  5. irvinerChasid9/08/2006 5:15 PM

    I am reminded of a story about the Kotzker rebbe, who was on a carrage, and there were some russions throwing stones at the jews who went by.

    The rider said, quickly rabbi get into the carrage.

    The Kotzker rebbe quickly responded, "Why? I have nothing to worry about, those are just demons. Real people don't throw stones"

    It was a statement about faith in Hashem, not a statement about if those people were figments of the imagination, for people were in reality getting hit by stones and being hurt.

    ReplyDelete
  6. >I don't like to refer to myself as a "bible critic",

    I did not mean to attack you just a little humor. I agree with you but with a little different slant. I believe that there is a selection of which prophecy was written by the editors. The criteria was that only prophecies that impacted the future generations were published while others who did not were ignored. I understand that to mean that the editors realized that understanding changes with time. Only those things that are universal and can be reinterpreted to fit in an aevolutionary process were written. that is why I find those who insist on understanding based on the time of writing are off mark and miss the whole point. It is important to know the context of the times more out of curiosity and also for correct interpretation - ein mikra Yotze myedey peshuto - but is is irrelevant to the contemporary religious Jew.

    ReplyDelete
  7. >I did not mean to attack you just a little humor.

    I understand. No offense taken.

    >It is important to know the context of the times more out of curiosity and also for correct interpretation - ein mikra Yotze myedey peshuto - but is is irrelevant to the contemporary religious Jew.

    I agree that the theological and moral issues are far more important. That's why I don't understand why there is such a need by some to insist that the prophets had superior knowledge regarding scientific knowledge.

    ReplyDelete
  8. >to insist that the prophets had superior knowledge regarding scientific knowledge.

    The Rishonim, except for one or two (R. Moshe Taku and another I cannot remebmber offhand), did not think so. They thought that prophets were reliable in the metaphysical realm not in the physical.

    The reaction nowadays is more the result of ingrained fear that the Haskallah movement brought about in the yeshivish community. It is not believed by the more intelligent even if they profess it publicly.

    ReplyDelete
  9. >They thought that prophets were reliable in the metaphysical realm not in the physical

    I did not express myself well. Not in the physical I meant the way things function, the scientific realm.

    ReplyDelete
  10. but you wrote in the post before:

    "If someone professes prophecy, he must first prove that he is not misled himself. He proves that by showing that he understands nature and its laws, enough to predict a natural occurrence."

    it sounds to me like you also believe that the true prophets had above average understanding of how nature works.

    ReplyDelete
  11. >that the true prophets had above average understanding of how nature works.

    That is true but that does not mean he knows more about nature than the scientists of his time.A prophet nowadays may be able to predict more accurately more complex events than earlier ones based on their knowledge. There is also intuition which a navi needs to have developed which allows him to reach conclusions ahead of science. I will be writing about it and Rambam sees it as a mainstay in prophecy. He may not be able tyo explain thge conclusion rationally but he will arrive at it intuitively. The other aspect that comes into play is his macro understanding on how the world works and where it is heading. I just touched the bare essentials and the tip of what prophecy is about. I will be posting so much more about it. It is one of the most fascinating subjects and the shows incredible capacity of the human mind - the Tselem Elokim.

    ReplyDelete