Maimonides on Angels

Maimonides uses the words “angel”, “miracle”, “God” and “providence” … but he utterly disagrees with the traditional, perhaps Orthodox, definition of those terms.

Dore Abraham and the three angels

Rabbi Simchah Roth, זצ״ל, of blessed memory, discussed this issue in his famed Mishnah Rabin Study Group. Here he gives and an introduction – and then quotes Maimonides at length. Quite stunning.

I do not think anyone will find it difficult to understand why Rambam sees every physical reference to the Deity, even the remotest, as being pure metaphor and not to be understood literally. God does not sit, God does not speak, God does not really have “a strong hand and an outstretched arm” – the list of examples could be endless.

As far as Rambam is concerned all such expressions are no less obviously metaphoric than for us, say, lines such as John Donne’s “Death, be not proud … Death, thou shalt die” or Homer’s “Gossomer-clad dawn”.

Death is not really a personal entity, and neither, of course, is the dawn, so the dawn cannot wear any clothes at all! And even the most patriotic American knows, when singing “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing”, that the home of liberty is not listening, cannot listen.

“It is all pure metaphor, simile and anthropomorphism” as Rambam so lucidly put it.

Now let us ask how this Deity, whose verity is so incomprehensible to us that we can only speak of God in metaphoric terms – how can this Deity be associated with angels? Maimonides writes:

Now you already know that it is very difficult for people to apprehend, except after strenuous training, that which is absolutely devoid of physicality… Because of the difficulty of this matter, the books of the prophets contain statements whose external sense can be understood as signifying that angels are corporeal, that they move, that they have human form, that they are given orders by God and that they carry out God’s orders…
[Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, 1:49]

All forces are angels. How great is the blindness of ignorance and how harmful! If you told a person who is one of those who deem themselves one of Israel’s sages that the Deity sends an angel, who enters the womb of a woman and forms the fetus there, he would be pleased with this assertion and would accept it and would regard it as a manifestation of greatness and power on the part of the Deity… But if you tell him that God has placed in the sperm a formative force shaping the limbs … and that this force is a “Mal’akh” … the man would shrink from this opinion…
[Ibid. 2:6]


Rick Dinitz sent me the following:

Rambam’s distinction is too subtle for me. Please explain what difference it makes to Rambam’s hypothetical sage whether God sends the angel directly into the womb, or God places the angel in the sperm and the angel arranges transportation to the womb  where it does its work.

I responded to Rick privately as follows:

Moreh Nevukhim [“Guide for the Perplexed”] was originally written in Arabic with Hebrew quotations and phrases interspersed. When the phrase “Chakhmei Yisrael” occurs in the middle of an Arabic sentence in the Guide, experience – gradually built up throughout the work – teaches us that the term here is being used in a derogatory fashion. What Rambam was saying was that most “religious” people are prepared to believe in angels but are not prepared to believe that the forces of nature are the angels – the messengers of God through which the purposes of the Deity are effected. He explains that this is why the Bible, intended for a “mass readership”, accords angels the humanoid physicality that it does. He thinks that the perceptive intellectual will perceive beyond that.

Rick Dinitz subsequently sent the following commentary, which is our shiur for today:-

Thanks for explaining the idiom. I mistakenly thought that by calling them “sages in Israel” Rambam was holding them up as paragons of intelligence. Now I understand that Rambam is actually using the phrase to deride those self-styled “sages” who can’t recognize angels for what they are. (They wouldn’t know an angel if it bit them on the nose, unless the angel were wearing fluffy white wings and a halo.)

If so, then I think Rambam would agree that the cellular machinery that unfolds DNA from a single cell into a full-blown human infant is indeed a Mal’akh [angel] – faithfully (and
mechanistically) executing God’s will in the physical world. On the one hand, our language of science speaks of cells, molecules, amino acids, codons, genes and their expressions. On the other hand, our religious language speaks of angels forming the fetus in the womb. In Rambam’s reality, both languages are correct – all the reproductive machinery of molecular biology is in fact one kind of Mal’akh, doing God’s will. Yes?  [Yes! – Simchah Roth]

(Of course science in Rambam’s time did not speak of DNA in the same way that we do, but his phrase “God has placed in the sperm a formative force shaping the limbs” reflects contemporary science as he understood it. He sees no contradiction between the languages of science and religion.)

We can also understand the “Mal’akhei ha-Sharet” [Ministering  Angels] of [the liturgical poem] “Shalom Aleikhem” as mechanisms of God’s will. As a midrash teaches us, two Mal’akhim follow us home each Erev Shabbat [Sabbath Eve] – one that promotes good for us, and one promotes evil against us. If they find the home ready for Shabbat, the “good” Mal’akh blesses us by saying “so may it be every Shabbat,” and the “evil” one answers “Amen.” If they find the home is not ready for Shabbat, or God forbid, that Shabbat is not even observed in this home, then their roles are reversed; the “evil” Mal’akh “blesses” us by saying “so may it be every Shabbat,” and the “good” Mal’akh answers “Amen.” (Could you please refer me to a source text for this midrash?)

[Gemara, Shabbat 119b – Simchah Roth]

I understand these Mal’akhim as a religious expression of human momentum and inertia. We are creatures of habit, and these Mal’akhim re-inforce our habits regarding Shabbat and our preparations for it. They do their jobs, and bless us in whichever way is appropriate based on the state of our home when Shabbat arrives.

So we can understand the song as a way to explicitly recognize our interaction with these angels, expressing our confidence and satisfaction in their work – which is, after all, both the result of our preparatory work, and also an expression of God’s will. In verse one, we greet them; that is, we recognize them for what they are, we remember that the outcome of their work is in our hands, but that our ability to influence them (for this week) is finished (though we can still influence the result in subsequent  weeks).

….The song and its midrash portray an intricate dance in which God’s will and our human free will spin in and out of one another – each one both leading and following the other. God reconfirms our free will by affirming the consequences we have earned – “This is how you want Shabbat to be, then so be it.” We have free will, but each choice restricts our future options – breaking free of a deeply entrenched mode of behavior requires great determination. How much simpler life would be, if only we could be like angels, with no choice other than to do God’s will. But that is not God’s will for us; rather, we must make our own choices, and welcome the angels that cheer us on when we make  God’s will our will.

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