Outlook: “A Gathering of Angels: Angels in Jewish Life and Literature”

June 30, 1994

June 30, 1994
Jason Aronson, 1994
By Morris B. Margolies
Women’s League Outlook, Vol. 64, Iss. 4, p. 1

Be forewarned: The celestial forces in Morris B. Margolies’ A Gathering of Angels do not guide sleepy drivers safely home and then gently nudge them awake so they can turn off their ignitions. Nor will they whiz alongside imperiled skiers to save them from certain disaster on alpine slopes. They will, however, take readers on a panoramic guided tour, stopping wherever their kind are in evidence, from the Garden of Eden to Jacob’s ladder, from Auschwitz to the netherreaches of the imagination of Franz Kafka or Isaac Bashevis Singer. Demons, it turns out, are angels, too. So ubiquitous is the presence of angels in Jewish writing that the occasion of assembling an angel compendium also becomes a highly accessible short-course in Jewish history, theology and lore. Given that the author is a professor of Jewish History at the University of Kansas and a retired congregational rabbi, this assuredly is no accident. Engaging the excitement of even the least willing high school student in the labyrinth of Jewish learning is a skill Rabbi Margolies has honed over a number of years. This reviewer confesses to having learned this firsthand, as a member of his Confirmation Class of 1965.

Margolies draws on the Hebrew Bible, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Talmud, the Zohar, the Kabbalah, the Sefer Hasidim and late twentieth-century Jewish literature to examine the subject of angels from a Jewish rationalist’s perspective. That is, he does not view them literally as mystical forces which take human form and appear on earth to stage wrestling matches on ladders or to stay the hand of a father about to slay his son. Rather, Margolies sees incorporeal metaphors for the most basic of human drives and emotions. Through this device, the impulses to love, hate, envy, lust, malice, greed, generosity, acts of charity, sadism, delusion, vision, despair, fear, and hope can be brought to consciousness.

Angels, then, are simply symbols of the forces that operate within every person. In Margolies’ view, such an interpretation reconciles the existence of these wondrous, not-always-winged creatures of Jewish literature who help narrow the gap between humanity and God, with the teachings of a monotheistic faith. It makes evident why they must never become objects of adoration, worship or prayer. Even when taken literally, the author explains, angels never represent an independent force; they are simply God’s agents, not even His sworn deputies. This holds true, too, for Satan, the fallen angel, who is as dependent on God’s will as are his better-natured counterparts. Margolies describes the figure of Satan as God’s loyal opposition, “the celestial prosecuting attorney” who investigates charges of earthly aberrations and misdeeds on assignment from his “divine employer.”

The book touches on every aspect of the genre, from the distinctions between cherubim and seraphim to the long queue of divine messengers whose purpose it was to enlighten, guide, tempt, or confront. The author revisits all the familiar parables and many of the more obscure. We meet the angels of Joshua, Gideon and Manoah’s wife, as well as those of Sarah, Samson, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. We learn about the proliferation of angels of personal salvation in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the angelic elite of the first book of Enoch. Later, come the efforts of the rabbis of the Talmud to downplay the role of angels as they attempted to distance Judaism from the trinitarian concepts of Christianity.

Rabbi Margolies also introduces the legions of dybbuks and demons and explores the repeated appearance of the Angel of Death. He takes discussion of Lilith from her intensely evil description in the Talmud and third-century Testament of Solomon to the most feminist of modern-day interpretations.

In the book, we also meet the archangels: Michael, the angel commander-in chief; Gabriel, not just a trumpeter, but a master of courage; Raphael, the little-known angel of healing; Uriel, the angel of light; and finally, Elijah, the angel-cum-prophet-cum-zealot-cum-legend, God’s instrument for humanity’s redemption.

Margolies grounds his work in scripture, rabbinic interpretation and literary scholarship, taking pains to distinguish the Jewish concept from the currently popular revival of interest in angels as instruments of individualistic salvation. In a recent issue of Time magazine, for example, a survey showed that 69 percent of those polled believed in the existence of angels, which, most agreed, could be described as “higher spiritual beings created by God with special powers to act as His agents on earth.” Only 18 percent considered angels to be an important, but merely symbolic, religious idea — a viewpoint closer to the one espoused in Margolies’ very readable work.

A book about angels would not be complete without personal testament. Rabbi Margolies makes his point with poignant retelling of three personal angelic encounters: first, fleeing gunfire in Kiryat Moshe in 1929; then, on an airplane, accompanying his mother’s casket to Jerusalem; and yet again as an Army chaplain in the Korean War. The stories recall super-but-natural moments, all.

— Brooke Kroeger

Article copyright Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.