Angels as Agents of Creation

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The first part of the second sha’ar of Akedat Yitzchak denies an idea at length, only to then adopt it. As we watch R. Arama go back and forth, why he did so will be a question to ponder.

The idea came from his consistent antagonists, the philosophers, who were sure the perpetual motion of the stars and planets must be guided by angels. Natural motion always has a destination, and ends once it arrives there. The ageless revolutions of the planets must be guided by metaphysical forces, the angels.

[Incidentally, his comment reminds us of how people thought before Newton articulated the law of inertia; while “we now know” items in motion tend to stay in motion, in R. Arama’s time, they equally “knew” natural motion was limited to reaching its destination].

R. Arama accepts many functions for angels, but is unconvinced by their claims for this one. We’ll review his arguments only briefly, since he will change his mind. Along the way, I think the conversation asks us where we might be open to recognizing areas where the physical cannot explain all we see in the world around us, where we might be open to accepting the intrusion of a higher intelligence into nature (not where we say a miracle is occurring, just where we say the workings of the ordinary world are in fact not solely guided by purely physical laws).  

You Have No Reason to Think So

The philosophers of R. Arama’s acquaintance had an elaborate system of angels to explain the motions of the planets and stars, since some of those appear to move backwards at certain points. They had decided a different angel took care of each direction of motion we see.

[He does not explain why one angle could not take care of all of it; I think he means something like the cycles and epicycles which characterized cosmology before Kepler, Brahe, and Galileo. Each cycle or epicycle might have been characterized as a galgal, a sphere, in Rambam’s terminology, so each change of direction was the planet or star moving from one galgal to another. But that’s not our topic right now].

Rambam agreed with the philosophers, but R. Arama thought such a central fact about how the world works should have been mentioned by the Torah. When the first verse says Hashem created heavens and earth, if the motions of all the bodies of the heavens depend on angels, the verse should have said so.

In addition, he does not think unexplained motion should force us to reach for angels. He points to magnets, which move towards or away from each other, and point north, for no obvious reason [it’s not clear to me why no one said magnets, too, were overseen by an angel; it might be they were too much a part of this world for the people of R. Arama’s time to feel comfortable saying there was such direct angelic involvement]. If Hashem included one such exceptional motion, the planets could be another.

In other words—and I find this a very modern way of thinking– once the door is opened to forces we cannot perceive which are yet part of nature, we can be more comfortable assuming we will one day find the natural explanation for other actions or motions we do not yet understand. The magnetic (eventually, electromagnetic) force readies us to wait for the discovery of the gravitational force, even if we cannot yet name or describe it).

He cites traditional sources he thinks support his view, then does an about-face.

Digging In, Then Giving In

He has no doubt angels exist, since he knows of other functions they fulfill. Sometimes, they are the conduit for Providence. Three of many examples: Avraham sends Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzchak with the assurance Hashem’s malach, angel, will help find the right woman (Bereshit 24;7); Hashem promises to send an angel to accompany the Jews in the desert (Shemot 23;20); and the angel speaking with Daniel tells him Michael is the Jewish people’s sar, their representative in Heaven (Daniel 10;21).

Angels also interact with and train prophets. For two examples, an angel stops Avraham before he sacrifices Yitzchak, Bereshit22;11, and another appears to Gidon to empower him to lead the people to victory (Shofetim 6;12).

After laying out his view at such length, carving out a way to believe in angels and still disagree about what moves the planets, R. Arama then concedes Chazal agreed with the philosophers. They, too, said angels guide the motions of the planets and stars. From now, he will say angels move the heavens.  (He still throws in a reference t0 R. Yitzchak ibn Latif, who agreed with his original view; he’s bowing to Chazal, but is making clear he’s being dragged every step).

[The spiritual heroism of a learned and thoughtful man submitting to Chazal purely because of their stature—not because they convinced him with their superior arguments—deserves mention in our times, when it is uncommon. Once he was going to submit, though, why spend so much time on his original view? I think the less likely option is that he was too attached to the idea to leave it undefended. He wanted us to know it was a good, workable view, would have been the one to follow, but for Chazal.

I don’t want to read those kinds of personal issues into his writings without more evidence. Perhaps building off  that a bit, I think it more likely he was making a point to his audience. They  accepted the idea of angels guiding the planets because the philosophers said it; he wanted them to know that logic—the tool of the philosophers—did not force the conclusion. He wanted them to know he only accepted the idea because Chazal did.  They, too, he wanted them to know should be looking to Chazal for how to think about such issues, not the philosophers (If I’m right, it becomes another of his ideas easily relevant today).

Inferring the Lessons of Midrash

Once we agree angels act regularly within the natural world, R. Arama wonders whether they were part of Creation (a metaphysical part of the world itself), or were put in place beforehand (separate from the world created in Bereshit).

Bereshit Rabbah rules angels were created before anything else, he says.

More surprising, the Midrash did not rule explicitly, R. Arama inferred one based on the Talmudic principle of machloket ve-achar kach setam, when the Mishnah presents a debate and later records one of the views with no argument, halachah follows the view presented setam, with no debate.

[A few times in this discussion, he uses halachic rules to interpret a Midrashic text, which is not a necessary possibility. We could have seen Midrash as fuzzier, less prone to absolute decisions, than halachah. In a different life, I wrote a PhD dissertation entitledWriting Midrash Avot, where I argued fifteenth century Spain was in fact the place where rabbis began to treat non-halachic texts with many of the same assumptions as halachic ones, with many ramifications].

Angels Guide Creation, Too

In my continuing attempts at brevity, I’m skipping his reading of the Midrash itself, although it’s also surprising, since he insists a Midrashic reference to light actually meant angels.

Technicalities of his readings of texts aside, once the angels were in place, he says Hashem receded, as it were, providing only the continuing shefa, life force or energy, for the world to exist, but left the angels to shape the emerging world (again a daring view, since the verse speaks of Hashem doing everything).

Part of why he is committed to this perspective, he tells us, is the variety we see in the world, which he thinks could not come directly from Hashem (Who is One). Limiting Hashem’s direct involvement also explains a Midrash which Rambam tells us he struggled with greatly, in Guide II;26.

R. Eliezer Ha-Gadol says the heavens were created from the light of Hashem’s garments. For R. Arama, this Midrash (and others) make his basic point: Hashem put angels (the garments) into the world, who took care of the rest, fortified by Hashem’s continuing shefa [I assume human beings will be an exception, but we’ll see].

A phrase of his opens the door to a more modern idiom. He says, “zarak ha-metziut, u-misham yipared le-kol ba’alei ha-pirud, He threw out existence, and from there it separated to all the separate beings.” [Today, scientists speak of physics operating differently for the first tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, after which Nature operated largely as we know it (in their view). R. Arama’s picture of a first creation directly by Hashem (of light or its equivalent, the angels), followed by the unfolding of creation over time, fits their view.]

Hashem Stays in the Picture

The Midrash he cited to support his idea (which I have skipped because it would take us too far afield) portrayed this idea, Hashem’s only directly performing the first part of Creation, as conveyed in a whisper from scholar to scholar. R. Arama says this is an example of esotericism, rabbis purposely hiding certain truths, keeping them from wide circulation. Chazal wanted people to read the first chapter of the Torah literally, he thinks, because they could not have understood a more accurate picture.  

In our example, to say angels shaped much of how the cosmos developed ran the risk of misleading people into exaggerating their powers. Hearing that, people might think Hashem did not in fact completely control the nature of Creation. They therefore operated on two planes, passing along the truth to the qualified, leaving the masses to read the Torah more simply and safely.

[The idea of esotericism, which Rambam and Ramban certainly accepted, each in his own way, contrasts with today, when people assume everyone should have access to all knowledge. R. Arama is pointing out Jewish tradition’s contrasting view, which thought many people were unready for certain truths, and should be shielded from the consequences of learning about them too soon.

He does not explain why he feels comfortable now sharing these truths; my guess is he thought this the better of his alternatives, since philosophy had already damaged their faith.]

Putting the Verses in Order

Once he’s reading the light of the first day as the angels, he can explain the first verse of the Torah in a way which does not contradict what’s written later. When the verse says Hashem created “heavens and earth” first, we need to read the word shamayim, heavens, more broadly; in R. Arama’s view, “heavens” includes the entire spiritual (non-physical) world.

For support, he notes phrases such as le-shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, or mora shamayim, fear of Heaven, where Heaven clearly means Hashem. When the verse tells us Hashem called the firmament shamayim, Ramban said the peshat, the literal reading of the text, referred to something other than what we call the sky or the heavens. Ramban related it to Yechezkel’s Vision of the Chariot, which has no direct counterpart in the visible universe.

Ramban went further than R. Arama himself was going, in other words, since he intended only to read shamayim to include angels and other underlying forces of the world. The first verse thus no longer means to designate the first item created, it means to speak in generalities, Hashem started the process of creating everything, with the details to come.

R, Arama’s first steps in understanding the world: we build our understanding by listening to Chazal, not philosophers. Chazal tell us the world was started with the creation of angels, who then enacted the creation of the rest of the world as Hashem wanted (supported by Hashem’s unceasing input of shefa, life force or energy), and guide the motions of the planets throughout history.

About Gidon Rothstein

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