Friday, November 7, 2014

Malachim- What are they and can we see them? (Audio shiur for Parshat Vayera)

Link for shiur for Parshat Vayera

Our parsha contains one of the stories from the Torah where people seem to interact with physical malachim. In this shiur, we consider four different approaches to explain how such an interaction can take place, and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.

(Running time- 50 minutes)


  1. I only heard the beginning so far, so perhaps this is unfair, but I'm afraid that if I wait until the end I won't recall the complete list (presumably there will be more responses later):

    1- The trinity isn't neo-Platonic, because the son isn't an emanation of the father that then emanates the world. For a different model, see Emunos veDei'os 2:4, that our perceptions of G-d as "Living", Omniscient and Omnipotent led to the trinity. Not a progression, but (as someone in the room was suggesting as I got off the train) three appearances according to human perception.

    Which is actually closer to the 14 Middos haRachamim than to the 10 Sephiros.

    2- OTOH, the Rambam is rather Neoplatonic. See Hil' Yesodei haTorah 2:5-10 and the idea underlies the Rambam's discussion of prophecy, of Divine Providence, of angels etc.. throughout his Guide (most blatantly 3:51, but also 1:69 identifying manufacture and emanation, 2:6, ....

    The difference is mostly that what Qabbalists describe as light being refracted through its travel to ever-lower worlds the Rambam describes as a chain of intellects. But the substance (hyle) of one world is the forms (morph) of the world below. So, as the Leshem notes, both actually talk about a chain of forms and thus intellects, allowing the Leshem to draw heavily from the Moreh in building his shitah in Qabbalah.

    (I have a theory that Neoplatonism found its way into the Rambam's thought due to Ibn Rushd's translation of Metaphysics including sections of Plotinus's Enneads. This meant that anyone who studied Aristo in Arabic was exposed to neo-Platonic elements as what they thought was part of the same metaphysical system.)

    3- The Abarbanel (on the Moreh) addresses the Ramban's question. I discuss it in the first article of Mesukim miDevash on Parashas Mishpatim. They not only disagree on angels, they disagree on what prophecy is. The Ramban takes a nevu'ah to be a message from G-d, which means the things in it don't really happen. The Abarbanel understands the Rambam as saying that while mal'akhim are only seen in nevu'ah, what is seen in nevu'ah are actually occurring metaphysical "events". The Rambam denies their physicality, but doesn't reduce them to mere "dreams" detached from causality.

    (Side note: which is why the Ramban has no problem saying the Man in the Throne in Mishpatim or in the Merkavah is Hashem Himself -- because the man is just a token in a message. Whereas Rav Saadia and the Rambam describe the man as a created entity, the kavod nivra.)

  2. The Ralbag has hashgachah peratis, the question is really more whether he has nissim. And the real problem is he has a physics (Aristo's) we can't relate to. In Aristotle's physics, an intellect imparts impetus to an object, which then sets it in motion until the impetus runs out. (This underlies Maimonidian angelology -- mal'achim are the intellects by which Hashem intervenes.)

    So, the Qalam / Scholast could see two kinds of claims of miracle: 1- the laws of nature are violated, and 2- Hashem inserts intellect to do something totally atypical -- but within the rules of how the world works.

    The Ralbag denies the former. So to him, all miracles are both metaphysical intervention and operate according to physics. Not something Newton's physics had room for, although with Quantum Mechanics the door opens a crack. BUT, that means the Ralbag's "neis" is more like our concepts of hashgachah peratis than how we use the word "neis".

    Second, "the Christians said it" may make an idea undesirable, but it doesn't make it wrong. You can't invoke Jesus as proof that angels can't take on bodies. Besides, most of the argument against a God incarnate revolve around His Inifinity and Timelessness, which aren't properties we insist of angels.

    Third, dismissing an idea of Lurianic Qabbalah -- not just saying "I can't fit it in my derkeh", but actually calling an idea Xian (which you also did to the Bahir's and Zohar's versions of sefiros way before the Ari) -- sounded ill to my ear. And didn't you just a month ago sing the praises of Rav Kook's hashkafah? Well, without the Ari, there is no Chassidus, no Gra, no Nefesh haChaim, no Leshem and no Rav Kook. You're toying with the foundations of all the derakhim that thrived in Eastern Europe, as well as those that arose among Sepharadim and Edot haMizrach since the Chida brought them minhagei Tzefat. (Something R' Ovadia Yosef tried to roll back, but I already picked a different tangent for ending this comment...)

    Tangent: S&P and Touro Synagogues are actually one entity, which is why they're currently in a custody dispute over Touro syngogue's rimonim. See