Angels in Judaica
Jews’ interest in angels dates back millennia—as the Israel Museum’s ‘Divine Messengers’ exhibit attests
My brief career in the 1990s running the Judaica shop at the New Haven JCC happened to coincide with the pre-millennial rise of pop angelology in America. Angels were all over the zeitgeist: on mugs, T-shirts, greeting cards, key chains, and of course, television. The CBS series Touched by an Angel premiered in September 1994, the same month ABC’s primetime special Angels: The Mysterious Messengers aired, hosted by Patty Duke. Bookstores were adding special angel sections to accommodate the proliferation of books on the subject, starting with Sophy Burnham’s best-selling The Book of Angels: Reflections on Angels Past and Present, and True Stories of How They Touch Our Lives. Even Hillary Clinton liked to wear an angel’s wings pin “on days she needs help,” according to a December 1993 Time cover story titled “Angels Among Us.”
Jews, though, were largely immune to the trend: At the Judaica shop, when I proudly displayed a tin Oaxacan angel hanukkiah, obtained from the Jewish Museum’s wholesale division, JCC shoppers shrank from it as if it were radioactive. As it turns out, the tradition of angels has never been as widely accepted among Jews (or Muslims, for that matter) as it has among Christians, even though Jews were the creative forces behind such works as Broadway’s Angels in America and the angel-themed movie Michael. So, even as 75 percent of Americans say they believe in angels, according to a 2007 Gallup poll, many American Jews believe that their religious tradition doesn’t have room for such winged imagery.
But despite the fact that we often associate angels exclusively with Christian iconography, angels have long been a part of Jewish culture, as well, as can be seen in “Divine Messengers,” an exhibition currently on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. On the blue walls of a downstairs gallery, several of Gustave Doré’s matinee idol angels, two winged dandies from Peru (one armed with an arquebus), and a coterie of baroque cherubs—decidedly Christian images—are joined not only by Islamic and Hindu angels, but by angel-embellished ketubot from Italy and Morocco, contemporary Israeli paintings of angels, and Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus,” which Walter Benjamin owned, cherished, and transformed in his writing into a paradigmatic symbol of existential despair in the face of the Holocaust.
Beginning two millennia ago, during the Talmudic period, many rabbis tended to discourage belief in angels, fearing that they would become objects of worship, competing with God. And the figural representation of angels has been controversial for Jews because of the Second Commandment injunction against graven images. But at the same time, throughout Jewish history, even during the Talmudic period, there were always rabbis, scholars, craftspeople, and artists who ignored such prohibitions. So, a tradition of making both references to and images of angels did develop in Judaism. “A desire for the consolations of the spiritual life transcends institutional, historical, and dogmatic structures,” Harold Bloom wrote in Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection, “and belongs to human nature itself.” So, therefore, do notions of celestial beings to serve as intermediaries between human beings and their deities, or deity.
The literary tradition of angels, according to Bloom, migrated from ancient Persia to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and beyond. A quick glance through two of the definitive sources on Jewish angelology—the Encyclopedia Judaica entry on the subject, and A Gathering of Angels: Angels in Jewish Life and Literature by Morris B. Margolies, reveals that angels, good and evil, are not only all over the Hebrew Bible, but in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigripha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Talmud, Kabbalistic texts such as the Zohar and the Book of Raziel, in midrash, folktales, legends, prayers, and songs (notably “Shalom Aleichem,” a kabbalistic poem from 17th-century Tzfat that has become a standard at American Friday-night services), and in the works of a host of modern Jewish writers from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Bernard Malamud to Steve Stern.
Tellingly, neither the Encyclopedia nor Margolies touches on angels in Jewish art history, but they seem to have been—and still are—everywhere: in the third-century frescoes of the Jewish catacombs in Rome and the synagogue of Dura Europos; on Torah valances and ark curtains; illuminating Haggadahs, mahzors, and megillahs; on ketubot, mizrahs, Hanukkah menorahs, Pidyon ha-Ben trays, mezuzahs, kiddush cups, Seder plates, dreidels, challah covers, kabbalistic amulets, certificates of membership in fraternal organizations, Rosh Hashanah cards, trade cards advertising businesses … and on tombstones. (My favorite presides over the Jewish cemetery in Pitigliano, Italy, although Jacob Epstein’s angel on Oscar Wilde’s tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is a close second.)
Angels also have been a consistent theme for 19th- and 20th-century Jewish artists such as Moritz Oppenheim, Marc Chagall, Jules Pascin, Jacques Lipchitz, Leonard Baskin, Ben Shahn, Samuel Bak, Arie Aroch, Grisha Bruskin, and Mark Podwal. Jewish depictions include what might be called the halakhically correct school, in which angels are faceless or symbolized by birds, often eagles, or wings (sometimes a single wing). But figural representations are surprisingly frequent. Each instance is, of course, a story in itself, but throughout history, the basic storyline has been this: A Jewish artist depicts angels in human form, either out of personal conviction or under the influence of local societal norms. Often, rabbis object to this sort of thing. In some places—Ethiopia, for instance—artists eventually win and human-looking angels become a Jewish norm. Today, rabbinic objections tend to be more on rational than halakhic grounds.
According to Shlomit Steinberg, the Hans Dichand Curator of European Art at the Israel Museum and the curator of “Divine Messengers,” stylistic preferences are not determined by whether the angels are Ashkenazic or Sephardic, but again by “local traditions.” She told me, “The Italian Jews, who put angels on everything, saw them all over the place. While the Moroccan Jews saw less of them—hence, the quality of depiction is more naïf.”
Then, too, as Jonathan Schorsch—an associate professor of religion at Columbia University who is writing a book on angels in modern art and society—pointed out, artists tend to transcend community dictates. Mark Podwal, for instance, grew up in Queens, not exactly a hotbed of Jewish angel enthusiasts, but he’s created countless works featuring angels, sometimes literal, sometimes symbolic, sometimes only by implication. “In the 1970s, when midrash and kabbalah became sources for my art, angels flew into my works,” Podwal told me. Two recent examples of his angelic visions can be found in his “illuminations” for Bloom’s Fallen Angels and on his Hanukkah card for the Metropolitan Opera shop.
In the Israel Museum show, a haunting, blood-red acrylic painting of a supremely downcast angel by Israeli artist Uri Radovan exemplifies the strong tendency among Jewish artists to use angel imagery as a means of political and social commentary. In Ben Shahn’s 1944 Cherubs and Children, stone angel figures on tombs watch over homeless war orphans asleep in the cemetery. Grisha Bruskin, who immigrated to New York from Moscow in 1989, has frequently combined political symbols representing the demise of the Soviet Union with Jewish mythological and mystical texts and figures, some angelic—and demonic.
When I asked Bloom what role angels play in life, and therefore in art, today, he told me that “angels are metaphors. They’re substitutions for our sense of impatience. With life. With history. With impending death.” In many mass-market manifestations, angels are simply divine painkillers. As such, they started to become ubiquitous in American popular culture during the decade leading up to the millennium. In fact, according to Bloom, their proliferation was driven by its approach.
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.