Angels in Judaica
Jews’ interest in angels dates back millennia—as the Israel Museum’s ‘Divine Messengers’ exhibit attests
Today, Jewish indifference or resistance to angels is probably as much a reaction to contemporary cultural predilections as adherence to age-old proscriptions; the angels that populate our American cultural scene are overwhelmingly Christian in both image (think: Raphael) and theme (think: guardian, as opposed to the more universal messenger, angels). What Americans who embrace angels tend to be talking about, Schorsch told me, is “a kind of divine force that cares about them personally.” This concept fits more easily into Christian theology, which is “structured around a person who intervenes, a person who is part God,” said Schorsch. Although the guardian concept exists in Jewish angelology, the angel as, literally, angelos, Greek for messenger, is far more prevalent.
Angels in popular culture tend to be variations on a single character who has descended from on high, assuming human form (and sometimes the wardrobes and vocabulary of those he or she has been sent or has elected to help), to act as protector, defender, comforter, champion, pal, even love interest of hapless and otherwise needy mortals—as in NBC’s 1980s TV series Highway to Heaven, in which Michael Landon, with a head full of cherubic waves, plays an angel who goes around troubleshooting with the help of an ex-cop. Or Touched by an Angel, which ran from 1994 to 2003, and starred Della Reese as a sort of angel-social worker whose preferred means of transportation was a red vintage Cadillac.
Interestingly, some of the most popular angel characters have come from the imaginations of Jewish writers. There is the glorious, apocalyptic heavenly visitor, terrifying but ultimately healing, of Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning 1993 play. And the smoking, womanizing, sugar-addicted (“He’s an angel, not a saint”) charmer portrayed by John Travolta, sporting Landon-like locks, in Nora Ephron’s 1996 film Michael. And, of course, Clarence Oddbody, the klutzy but deeply wise angel of the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, which became as indispensable to Christmas as Irving Berlin’s ballad, and was based on “The Greatest Gift,” a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern, son of a Bavarian Jewish peddler who settled in Pennsylvania. In an afterword to a 1996 reissue of the original story, Stern’s daughter, Marguerite Stern Robinson, recalled her father explaining to her that “although the story takes place at Christmas time, it was a universal story for all kinds of people in all times.”
That same spirit seized Ken Goldman, a Memphis-born artist who lives on a kibbutz in Bet She’an, when he discovered an amulet from the Book of Raziel (an archangel in the kabbalistic hierarchy) showing three weird but endearing creatures who could be ninth-century ancestors of Big Bird. These were Sansoni, Sanoi, and Samanglif, the angels charged with watching over newborn babies. Goldman, determined to get what he immediately embraced as “these protective little angels” into the homes of parents everywhere, designed cuddly stuffed versions of them, which FAO Schwarz snapped up (this was in 2007, during Madonna’s kabbalah period) and sold as ”Kabbalah dolls.” They are no longer available, but Goldman is looking to reissue them in a smaller size, “to hang on carriages and cribs.”
Meanwhile, the archangel Raziel has himself developed a fan base. A Google search yields copies not only of the original Book of Raziel, but of Raziel-themed fantasy novels, video games, action figures, incense, and the “Archangel Raziel Tourmaline Glass Vial Pendant on a Silver Coloured Chain.”
So, are Jewish angels trending in America? Will we be witnessing hosts of our very own angels surfacing in the mainstream? Probably not anytime soon. But then we have a long way to go before the next millennium.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
I’ve taught my children to love Israel. This summer, I tried to start a more complicated conversation.