This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Assault on the Angels*

High Holy Days worshippers might be forgiven if they cursorily mumble through a certain unobtrusive text that is embedded in the Selihot penitential prayers.

The Hebrew poem titled Makhnisei Rahamim, recited before Rosh Hashanah and during the Ten Days of Repentance, is addressed to those who bring our mercy before the All-Merciful One. In emotionally powerful language, the prayer implores the angels to ensure that our heartfelt supplications, cries and tears are delivered intact to the supreme judge who will decide our fates during this solemn season.

The Makhnisei Rahamim has a venerable history. It appears in the earliest post-Talmudic liturgical collections by Amram Ga'on (ninth century) and Sa'adiah (tenth century).

In spite of its poignant beauty and pedigree, this prayer has provoked immense antagonism among some influential Jewish thinkers.

In thirteenth-century Spain, Rabbi Moses Nahmanides observed that addressing prayers to angels constitutes a violation of a basic Jewish belief that--unlike other peoples who approach God through intermediaries and patrons--Jews have direct access to the sovereign of the universe. In this connection, Nahmanides cited a passage from the Jerusalem Talmud where the Almighty is said to instruct us: If you find yourself in distress, do not cry out to Michael or Gabriel, but rather cry out to me and I shall personally answer you.

For this reason, Nahmanides determined that the Makhnisei Rahamim, along with other prayers that are directed to angelic intercessors, are inappropriate to Jewish worship, and border perilously on idolatry.

The tenth-century Karaite scholar Jacob Qirqisani singled out this prayer for ridicule, as proof that the superstitious Rabbinites were resorting to angels to bring their pleas before the divine throne.

The debate over Makhnisei Rahamim would flare up from time to time in various Jewish communities, and several of those communities actually removed it from their liturgies. By the end of the medieval era, its recitation came to be regarded as distinctive to Ashkenazic Jewry, which had a reputation for tenacious loyalty to ancestral custom, as well as for uncritical receptiveness to superstitious practices.

A particularly intense eruption of the controversy took place in Trieste during the early eighteenth century. This cosmopolitan city was at the crossroads of the Italian, Balkan and Austro-Hungarian territories; and the Italian Jewish community was a complex blend of Ashkenazic, Sepharadic and native Italian Jews. It should therefore not come as a surprise that Italy often served as a battleground for conflicting Jewish ideologies and customs.

Evidently, this particular disagreement was ignited when a new rabbi proposed to eradicate Makhnisei Rahamim from the community's Selihot service. This led to a prolonged exchange of correspondence between the advocates and opponents of the controversial prayer. Underlying the Trieste dispute were fundamental conceptual differences about how people approached their Judaism.

Defenders of the prayer generally placed a very high value on fidelity to ancestral custom. For them, Judaism was less a philosophy than a deeply personal encounter with the Creator.

The opponents of Makhnisei Rahamim invoked the rationalist theologies of the prominent Jewish philosophers, who had insisted that any appeal to beings other than God compromises the doctrine of absolute divine unity.

The defenders of Makhnisei Rahamim often went so far as to call into question the legitimacy of the entire Jewish rationalist tradition, which they dismissed as an alien perversion of authentic Judaism. Several of these authors cited a popular legend to the effect that even the great Maimonides had ultimately repented of his philosophical heresies and was converted to Kabbalah.

Other supporters of the prayer pointed out that it was, after all, making use of a well-established poetic convention of depicting God as a supreme monarch whose royal court is modeled metaphorically after its human equivalent. The literary imagery thus demanded that the grandeur of the celestial court be expressed in terms of the proliferation of courtiers who shielded their sovereign from frivolous access by commoners.

Accordingly, it would not enter anyone's mind that these intermediaries exercise any independent authority. They are nothing more than palace functionaries who act on behalf of their ruler; and their metaphoric mention in prayers serves to enhance the exaltedness of the Almighty.

A peculiar feature of the correspondence generated by the Italian controversy was the authors' intimate familiarity with the practices and writings of their gentile surroundings. For example, one of the correspondents claims support for his views from the Latin work Theologia Judaica by the Christian Hebraist Joannes a Lent. He also includes a learned discourse about the role of intermediary divinities in ancient Greek mythology, and is able to quote in Latin the text of a Christian prayer Omnes sancti Angeli et Arcangeli orate pro nobis (Pray for us, all you holy angels and archangels) that bears an alarming resemblance to our Hebrew poem.

Alongside the extreme positions of support and opposition, there were rabbis who occupied middle ground and tried to mitigate the objectionable features of the prayer, whether through creative interpretation, or by proposing subtle emendations to the text.

In the former category, we may mention the suggestion of Rabbi Judah ben Yakar (France, twelfth century) that the poem is not addressed to angels at all, but is referring to the saintly individuals whose prayers on behalf of the congregation carry special weight before the heavenly tribunal.

Into the latter category falls the proposal by the Maharal of Prague that the problematic verb be emended from a command addressed directly to the angels, to a third-person future, which expresses nothing more than a pious hope that our prayers be granted admission before the supreme judge.

Amid the continual barrage of arguments over doctrine, tradition, faith and devotion, we can only hope that the beleaguered angels (whether literal or metaphoric) will somehow fulfill their sacred task of conveying the prayers to their proper address.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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