Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Book Review: The Limits of Orthodox Theology, Chapter Five, Only God is to be Worshipped

"The Fifth Principle teaches that only God is to be worshipped. Stars, spheres, angels, and elements and their compounds have no free will, and as such must not be used as intermediaries to reach God."

The majority of the chapter centers around numerous references to praying to angels and asking them to intercess on our behalf. This type of intercession can even be found in the Talmud (BT Berakhot 60b, BT Sanhedrin 44b). More interesting is the fact that Maimonides himself contradicts the Fifth Principle in the Mishneh Torah (quoting BT Ber. 60b in 'Hilkhot tefilah' 7:5).

But there is one paragraph in this chapter which by itself makes this chapter valuable. One rabbi, Rabbi Nissim Gerondi of the fourteenth century, saw something in Scripture which violates (or seems to violate) the principle that only God is to be worshipped.
[Gerondi] puts forth the strange and original position that there is one particular angel before whom prostration is permitted. R. Nissim makes this claim in the course of explaining how it was that Joshua prostrated himself before an angel (Josh. 5:14), an act which should be forbidden, just as it is forbidden to sacrifice an animal, burn incense, or put a libation to an angel. (Prostration, sacrifice, incense-burning, and libation are the four forms of worship singled out by the Talmud as always being forbidden, even if this is not how the deity in question is usually worshipped.) R. Nissim does not suggest that prostration to an angel performed as an act of honor is permitted, just as it is with humans. This is probably because the Talmud (BT San. 61b) specifically exempts prostration to humans from the prohibition if it is not done as an act of worship. The implication is that prostration is by definition to be regarded as a form of worship with regard to angels. According to R. Nissim, however, there is one angel who is special in this regard, and before whom one can prostrate oneself. This is the angel spoken of in Exodus 23:20-2, concerning whom God says 'My name is in him.' It is because this angel in osme way share an aspect of God's divinity that it is treated differently from the other angels. As R. Nissim put it, 'Prostrating before him is as if one is prostrating before God.'

What Rabbi Nissim was in Scripture was an angel who shared aspects of God's divinity. God Himself says that God's name was within this angel.

As I've discussed previously, that angel can be explained by Christian beliefs. We have evidence of the Trinity.

How can an angel be divine and identified apart from God at the same time? In the same way as John 1:1 does regarding Jesus. Y'shua is both God and distinct from God the Father.

Traditional Jewish theology cannot handle these Scripture verses. If you want to keep the Fifth Principle, you need to let go of the Second Principle. And vice-versa.

Given the passages in the Tanakh which deal with this angel, it is surprising only one rabbi (that Shapiro knows of) caught the tension between Jewish theology and those texts.

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