Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Angels we have heard on high

Wednesday night's course sampler included an excerpt from the course on Midrashim on Creation. We were looking at a text from Bereshit Rabbah that asked on what day the angels were created. One participant, increasingly frustrated, asked "Does anyone here actually believe in angels?" (One person raised his hand! But only one.) JGN noted that someone should have been recording the next 2 minutes, which included a rapid-fire series of responses that represented all the different modern approaches to classical texts. One person responded "What's important is that the rabbis believed in angels, so we need to keep that in mind when we're reading this text"; another said "I find it interesting because of its historical value, that lets us see what people were thinking about in that period"; another said "I don't think the rabbis believed in angels either, but this is a metaphor for understanding the human-divine relationship"; and so forth. In any case, most people just wanted to get back to the text. The original question-asker might have thought that the negative response to the question would end the discussion, but it's amazing how Jews are able to bracket these questions (of course no one believes in angels!) and just consider the other questions (what is this text really saying?)

I had a similar experience when Benj taught his workshop about the eruv. Every year, NHC volunteers surround the Franklin Pierce College campus with an invisible wall to turn it into a private domain so that everyone can carry on Shabbat, so this workshop dealt with the theory and practice of eruvin. One person expressed the concern that this didn't match his understanding of Shabbat rest. About half of the class was in the population who themselves would not carry outside an eruv. Afterwards, the other half mobbed this person and said "We agree with you! Of course this is all nonsense! But we didn't say anything before because we were interested in the specifications for the invisible walls."


  1. Religions are full of "act as if"s. We know that it's not true, but we act as if it is. Did the rabbis who invented the religion displayed in the Talmud really believe in "halakha l'moshe m'sinai?" No, it was a legal fiction, like an eruv. They only acted as if it were true, just as other religions act as if the idol is a god, even as the simultaneously know that it isn't.

    The danger is that people forget that religion isn't true, only an act, and start to believe in it as a reality. Then you get Orthodox Judaism.

  2. mis-nagid - must be a gilgul since he, "acts as if," he was in the time of the Talmud.