Throughout history, some Jewish philosophers never took the idea of angels literally. The Rambam, for example, argued that any textual reference to an angel had to be understood as a prophetic vision and not as an actual real-world occurrence. Even further, the talking snake in the Garden of Eden should be considered an allegory, and Balaam's experience with a talking donkey should be considered a dream (Guide, 2:42). In Maimonidean angelology, contrary to the pop-culture flying winged angel in white, angels have form but no matter.
On the other hand, however, many Jewish thinkers have understood angels literally and even considered them to be protectors of the righteous. Other sources describe mitzvot (such as tzitzit), in itself, as being angels that protect. Consider this Midrash (Tanhuma Mishpatim 19):
A person who does one mitzvah, is given one angel. One who does two mitzvot, is given two angels. One who does all the mitzvot, is given many angels-as it says, "He will assign His angels to you," (Psalms 91:11). Who are these angels? They are the ones who guard the person against harm.
Other spiritual leaders teach that angels actually follow human behavior and are vicariously affected by our own leadership and worship. The rabbis teach that what we do in this world is of upmost importance. The Chassidic master Rav Dovber of Mezritch taught, "Know that all that is above-is dependent on you" (Magid Devarev le'yaakov, likutei Amarim198). Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, taught, "In the upper worlds, the preciousness of this world is well appreciated. The ministering angels... would forego everything for one "amen, yehei shemeih raba" said by a Jew with full concentration!" (cited in "Hayom yom", 17 Adar 1).
It has generally been taught that angels do not have free will and that they are merely the servants of G-d. One debate that emerged was whether or not one can pray to an angel and if such prayer is acceptable. The kabbalists argued that one can and must pray (not to but through angels) to reach the highest throne. Some rationalists argued that one must not, as one may only pray to G-d. The kabbalists generally won this argument, as evidenced by our traditional prayer liturgy, which is replete with prayers to angels. Consider, for example, the opening Friday night dinner song, when we pray to the angels for a blessing.
Still, rabbis, philosophers, and textual sources differ regarding the nature of angels and depth of human characteristics and experiences that angels may share with us. In one source, the angel is considered a virtuous messenger of G-d to be contrasted with a demon.
Raba pointed out a contradiction. It is written, "I do speak with him in a dream," and it is written, "the dreams speak falsely." There is no contradiction; in the one case it is through an angel, in the other through a demon (Berakhot 55b).
Then again other sources suggest that an angel can be evil.
It was taught, R. Jose son of R. Judah said: Two ministering angels accompany man on the eve of the Sabbath from the synagogue to his home, one a good [angel] and one an evil [one]. And when he arrives home and finds the lamp burning, the table laid and the couch [bed] covered with a spread, the good angel exclaims, "May it be even thus on another Sabbath [too]," and the evil angel unwillingly responds "amen." But if not, the evil angel exclaims, "May it be even thus on another Sabbath [too]," and the good angel unwillingly responds, "amen" (Shabbat 119b).
Furthermore, generally angels are considered to be outside of human experience and not subject to human temptation, and thus of a completely different nature. One Talmudic passage explores angelic "jealousy" of humans who can serve G-d through the Torah in a way that they cannot.
When Moshe ascended to the heavenly realms, the angels who served there in the Divine Presence (protested) saying, "Lord of the universe, what is a human being doing among us?" "He has come to receive the Torah," answered G-d. They responded: "How can You be giving to creatures of flesh and blood this beloved treasure, which You kept to Yourself for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the creation of the world?" G-d said to Moshe: "You answer them." Moshe replied: "I am afraid that they will burn me with the fire of their mouths." He told him: "Hold on to My throne of glory and give them an answer." Moshe said to G-d: "Lord of the universe, what is written in the Torah that You are giving to me? 'I am the Lord your G-d, who took you out of the land of Egypt.'" He then turned to the angels. "Did you go down to Egypt? Were you Pharaoh's slaves? What good is the Torah to you? What else is written there? 'You shall have no other gods besides Me!' Do you live among the gentiles who serve idols (that you must be warned against them)? What else is written there? 'Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it!' Do you ever work that you should need a day of rest?...' On hearing these words the angels immediately admitted to the Holy One, Blessed be He, that He was right to give the Torah to Moshe"(Shabbat 88b).
While there are angels in heaven, I believe that humans can (perhaps just for a moment) act as angels, as pure emissaries of G-d. When one transcends one's own self-interest and truly fulfills the will of G-d by helping another, in the deepest altruistic sense, perhaps for that moment they have transcended their own humanity. One might suggest that there are angels inside each of us (the angel who told Abraham not to sacrifice his son Isaac, the angel Jacob wrestled with, the angel who helped guide Joseph when he was lost, etc.) and that when we bring our will in accord with that purest side of the self we can actualize our holy potential.
Throughout scripture we find that angels are often given different unique attributes (Michael, angel of mercy; Gabriel, angel of justice; Raphael, angel of healing; and Uriel, angel of illumination). So too, it follows, that when one masters a Divine attribute one has realized the angelic component of their purest nature.
When we struggle each day with moral choices, which internal angel will say, "May it be even thus on another Sabbath [too]"? We make the choice each day to live as angels or demons. May we choose each day to sanctify the heavens by living with compassion and empathy as we actualize our inner angelic side.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."