The Cherubim: From Guardians of Eden to Auschwitz
James A. Diamond
Anxiety of Cherubim
I have been thinking for quite some time now about the significance of angels in the Jewish tradition to the extent that I devoted an entire chapter to them in a book on Jewish philosophical theology attempting to lend them some respectability. The problem that continues to vex is how to wrest meaning from creatures that are mythological figments of ancient cultures. They appear to be remnants of a pagan imagination and metaphysics, and yet they populate monotheistic Judaism’s canonical texts from the biblical, through the classical rabbinic, and the kabbalistic traditions. Two roles for example, out of a myriad of rabbinic assignments, illustrate how pivotal they are in the Jewish theological consciousness. One has them crowning all those at the foot of Mount Sinai, as well as conveying each and every commandment along with all its minutiae (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:2,2). As such they underpin Judaism’s foundational revelatory event and its entire jurisprudential framework. Another involves them as the medium of Jewish prayers, transporting and adorning God’s very own head with them, thereby constituting a continuous channel of communication between Jews and God (Shemot Rabbah 21:4). Without them could revelation occur, would commandments be intelligible, would petition, praise, or supplication ever draw God’s attention?
Considering their mythic overtones, the classical rabbis were themselves anxious about the possibility of angels becoming, in the popular consciousness, demigods or autonomous divine beings, sharing or competing with God’s governance. This fear resonates in a caution cited in the name of God, “If a person is in trouble, he should cry neither to Michael nor to Gabriel, rather he should cry to Me and I shall answer him immediately.” (j Berakhot 9:1). Despite an apparent comfort with directing prayers to angels expressed by various opinions in the Talmud and onward up until the modern period, anxiety over angelic ‘polytheism’ persists well beyond the ancient era. It reaches its height in no less than Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith, where the fifth admonishes worshipping only God to the exclusion of any intermediaries. Rather than dismiss or prohibit something so enchantingly seductive and widely accepted, some resolved their discomfort by reconstructing angels to conform to evolving theological and ethical sensibilities. One particular genus of the species angels known as cherubim, underwent just such a transformation to quell acute rabbinic anxieties they evoked.
Cherubim are particularly crucial in the angelic hierarchy geographically, architecturally, and oracularly. Their debut performance on the biblical stage is as fearsome armed guardians stationed at a specific location barring re-entry to the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:24). Subsequently, their images adorned the ark situated in the inner sanctum of the portable desert Tabernacle and the Holy of Holies of the later established Temples, the holiest space known to Judaism, where God Himself is thought to reside. As such, there is palpable rabbinic angst at the idea of a pagan incursion into the very heart of Jewish worship to the point where the possibility is canvassed that these icons contravene one of the cardinal Ten Commandments prohibiting the sculpting of graven images (Exod. 20:4) So dangerous is this idolatrous presence that the rabbis worry about it setting a precedent for those institutions that fill the vacuum left by the destroyed Temple. They thus prohibit their deployment in the future design of synagogues and rabbinic academies (Mekhilta, Exod. 20:19).
In addition to their biblical roles as guardians, cherubim are also integral to Ezekiel’s detailed vision of the divine realm recorded in his opening chapter, known as the Account of the Chariot where they are cast as throne-bearers. Rabbinic tradition acknowledges Ezekiel’s report of this majestic vision as the most esoteric account of divine grandeur, penetrable only by the most sophisticated and learned rabbinic adepts. Its meaning is so prone to heterodox misconceptions that its public teaching was severely restricted. Located in a speculative mysterious realm likened to an orchard (pardes), its access, according to some commentaries, is gained by deploying the powers of the divine name. Thus, the cherubimzealously shield their own nature as God’s throne-bearers, as well as the route to immortality in their capacity as sentries at the gates of the Garden of Eden. However, even for that exclusive club of rabbinic masters, a stroll in that ‘orchard’ is fraught with the dangers of death, derangement, and deviance experienced by members of a group of seminal classical rabbis who embarked on the pardes promenade (bHagigah 14b).
The question of the cherubim’s precise appearance is crucial for our plunge into cherubic theology. The Torah’s silence on their physical description piques rabbinic curiosity to investigate their precise semblance. Biblical scholarship has long been intrigued by this question but the ancient rabbis did not share the same assumptions or goals and were not all that interested in discovering historical origins. Employing creative philology as an aid to construct history rather than retrieve it, generates a position that the cherubimresembled children. Although children often signify innocence, associated with the naïveté of youthful inexperience, they can also demonstrate a remarkable degree of disregard for and cruelty to others as William Golding’s celebrated novel Lord of the Flies so shockingly depicted. Yet this split personality might be precisely why biblically they are assigned such dramatically antithetical roles, both reverentially adorning the ark in the Temple and menacingly guarding the entrance to the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:24).
Those guardian cherubim mirror the state of humanity in the Garden, where, on the one hand, innocence in the form of obliviousness to distinctions between good and bad did not provide a prophylactic against the seductive allure of power. As such they are daunting and intimidating images that discourage approach. On the other hand, as divine throne bearers, they also represent a transcendent realm to whose precinct human beings can aspire while domiciled firmly in a terrestrial one. As such they inspire and invite. They also form the barrier which cordons off the Garden and the Holy of Holies, idyllic spaces suffused with God’s presence, which humanity can only imagine but not inhabit. Various rabbinic sources in fact parallel the Garden with the Temple based on their mutual employment of the cherubim: “The innermost section of the Temple is modelled on the Garden of Eden… the Cherubim stand there on guard, on the model of those Cherubim who stand at the gates to the Garden of Eden.” (Midrash ha-ne`elam, Zohar hadash).
An inconsistency in the biblical descriptions of the cherubim’s orientation prompts another theological dimension addressed by the rabbis. One passage calls for them to face each other over the ark (Exod. 25:20), while another inconsistently mandates gazing outward beyond the inner sanctum, thus looking away from each other (2Chron 3:13). For contemporary biblical scholarship such textual anomalies pose a staple of criticism toward fragmenting the biblical corpus into discrete editorial units attributable to different times and multiple authors. For the rabbinic mind however, they offer creative opportunities toward preserving a unified textual harmony. Here, they resolve the contradiction by conceiving of pliant cherubim, whose angling varies according to different circumstances. What is determinative of their alignment is the conduct of the people, “when it states that the cherubim faced each other, it was when the people do the will of God and the verse that describes that the cherubim faced the Sanctuary and not toward each other, was when the people do not do the will of God.” (b. Bava Bathra 99b)
However , this response goes well beyond simply determining the mechanics of the cherubim’s movements and reflects on how to conceive of sacred space. Rather than a locus of the divine presence, the very throne of God mirrors the state of human affairs outside the Temple. In other words, holiness is a function of human behaviour. Considering the cherubim signify God’s throne, what is critical to the integrity of God’s presence and sovereignty is what transpires outside the Temple. Biblical scholars leave us with a fragmented text while the rabbis leave us with the possibility of a fragmented God, whose unity, signalled by cherubim aligned face to face, can be disturbed by human conduct, mirrored by cherubim alienated from each other.
Unanimity of opinion is alien to the rabbinic corpus and so, in predictable disagreement, another position reconciles the apparent discrepancy by conceiving the cherubim’s posture in a fixed stance that mediates between the two opposing facial directions. Instead, it claims that “their faces were angled sideways toward the Ark of the Covenant, like a student taking leave of his teacher” (b Bava Bathra 99b). This depiction of God as a teacher and the cherubim as disciples is in keeping with rabbinic self-perception as the essential transmitters and interpreters of God’s originating word. The rabbis even imagine God appearing at Sinai in the mode of “a scribe teaching Torah,” thus situating themselves as God’s successors in the continuous unfolding of that foundational revelation. The hybrid configuration that has the cherubim both looking back at God the teacher while at the same time departing captures the notion of an inward movement drawing from God and learning from His Torah with the view to an outward movement and the dissemination of God’s teachings. This compromise demeanor also extends the dual role of the cherubim as both guardians preventing access to God’s abode while also pointing to living on the outside and still maintaining life lived in the shadow of divinity that pervades the inside. The rabbinic interpretive enterprise assumes that very posture, offering continuing access to God’s revelation, itself metaphorized as a ‘tree of life’ (eg. bBerakhot 32b on Prov 3:18) whose original is no longer audible except through the medium of rabbinic teaching.
If the Torah is Judaism’s constitution, and God is its framer, then rabbinic jurisprudence which radically revamps, expands, and contemporizes, can be characterized more as activist than originalist in its jurisprudential philosophy. Every rabbinic interpretation or innovation also mimics this cherubic posture which demonstrates deference to the teacher while also departing from her. It looks back toward its origins, to a God whose teachings are embedded in the Torah’s text, while also forever taking leave of that very text, often in quite startling and radical new directions.
The development of cherubic theology evolves in an even more radical direction which profoundly reflects how the rabbis conceived of the relationship between God and His people. One school of thought suggests that when the people “ascended for one of the pilgrimage Festivals, the priests would roll back the curtain and show them the cherubs embracing one another, and say to them: See how you are beloved before God, like the love of a male and female.” Similarly, another opinion reads the description of the cherubim images embroidered into the curtains and ornamenting the walls of the Temple as wrapped around each other “like a man and his partner.” (bYoma 54a-b) While offering some sense of the relationship with the transcendent realm toward which cult and ritual aims, the cherubim also sanctify earthly eros, a dimension of the religious experience which later became a crux of kabbalistic theology. With its constructions of a bi-gendered God whose internal male and female dimensions yearn for balancing and unity, it also elevates these rabbinically imagined cherubim to daring theological heights. The erotic embrace between their distinctly gendered male and female forms proves that “any place where there is no union between male and female is not worthy of observing the divine presence.” (Zohar III:59a-b ).
A remarkable addendum to this ‘historical’ account of the cherubim’s orientation and role in the celebration of the pilgrimage festivals also reveals what the rabbis view as a distinction between Jewish and pagan theologies. Though, according to rabbinic sages the cherubim along with the Ark were absent in the second Temple (bYoma 21a), considering all the rabbinic sources we have discussed date to after destruction of the second Temple, the thrust of the message blurs the historical lines between the two temples and the two civilizations that destroyed them. They envisage the enemy (Babylonian/Roman) during their pillaging of the Temple, having “entered the Sanctuary, and saw the cherubs clinging to one another. They took them out to the market, and said: These Jews, whose blessing is a blessing and whose curse is a curse, are occupied with such matters? They immediately demeaned them, as it is stated: All who honored her demeaned her because they have seen her nakedness” (Lam. 1:8) (Yoma 54b). Confronted by the entwined male and female cherubim partners on their breach of the Temple’s inner compound the pagan pillagers publicly ridicule the object of Israelite worship as pornography. This rabbinic account of what was then the most traumatic event in Jewish history casts the enemy projecting its own values onto the cherubim, shaping them in accord with their utility-based culture. Women, slaves, and children, the most vulnerable in society, were commodified objects, with children particularly exposed to sexual exploitation. Indeed, at the very moment the second Temple is breached, the Rabbis depict Titus, the commanding pagan general, defiling its sanctity by grotesque sexual violence: “He seized a whore (zonah), entered the holy Temple, spread out a Torah scroll, and performed a sin upon it. He drew a sword and cut into the curtain that veiled the holy of holies, but a miracle occurred and blood bubbled forth.” (bGittin 56b) The pagan assault climaxes in a rape at the threshold of the cherubim (or the space where they once stood), at the very curtain pulled back to reveal them enwrapped in relational bliss. The graphic clash in mores between the two cultures could not be more dramatic. Even Moses Mendelssohn, the reputed father of the Jewish Enlightenment, seized on this construction of the cherubim to demonstrate how Judaism’s perpetual aptitude for reinterpretation forms a bulwark against idolatry and should therefore be worthy of Christianity’s respect and tolerance. The Temple’s conquerors mistook the cherubim for idols since “They saw everything with the eyes the barbarians and with their own point of view. In accordance with their own customs, they took an image of divine providence and prevailing grace for an image of the Deity, for the Deity itself, and delighted in their discovery.” (Jerusalem: Or on Religious Power and Judaism). Rather than authentic relationship that signifies the divine presence, the pagans, blinded by their own sexual mores, see only lasciviousness in the cherubim’s embrace. Rabbinic exegesis turns the verse cited from Lamentations on its head, from its patent criticism of an Israel that sinned thereby becoming defenceless (nakedness) prey to its enemies, into a disparagement of Israel’s enemies for desecrating what Israel held most sacred. The sanctified spoils of Israel’s destruction are icons of depravity in the conquering pagan hands. What is “demeaned” and “naked” is not Israel’s glory, but rather the invader’s own culture and religion it had superimposed onto the cherubim’s loving embrace.
The rabbinic project to neutralize any idolatrous dimensions of ancient Israel’s practices continues, culminating in Moses Maimonides’ philosophically refined construct in the Middle Ages. For him, cherubim are just one class of the larger problem angels pose in general for a rationalist thinker. Once again, like the rabbis before him, he reshapes their meaning, but in his case transforming out of existence altogether their ‘primitive’ sense of beings that accompany or are part of God’s entourage carrying out his bidding. As the meaning of the Hebrew term for angel, ‘messenger’ (mal’akh) implies, anything that implements some order of God is an ‘angel’. Thus, any natural phenomenon is considered an angel in the sense of having been brought into existence by God, as the Creator of everything, to carry out a certain purpose. Angel becomes a metaphor for simply nature and indicates any causal force that performs its mandate in accord with God’s original program at creation that triggered all natural processes. By broadening the term so widely as to encompass all of natural causality Maimonides brilliantly drained it of any meaning whatsoever except for the world and all its natural forces. Perhaps this was not spiritually/superstitiously satisfying for many. However, for his keenly rationalist mind, the most spiritual of all world views is in fact his favourite rabbinic maxim, “The world goes its customary way,” for it is only via a deep empirical appreciation of the creation that one can fulfill the cardinal commandments to know God’s existence, and to love and fear God.
Though Maimonides vacates angels of their popularly crude meaning, the cherubim still posed a particular problem, as they did for the rabbis, beyond a textual exegetical one. There were in fact sculpted figures mandated by the Torah to be spatially situated within the layout of the Temple. Critical to Maimonides’ demythologization of angels and cherubim is his rationale which zeroes in on why two were installed in the Temple rather than one:
If there had been one image, I mean the image of a single cherub, this might have been misleading, for it could be thought that this was the image of God which was to be worshipped, as the idolaters do, or that there was only a single individual angel, which would lead to a certain kind of dualism. But since two cherubim were made, along with the explicit declaration stated that “the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4), belief in the existence of angels and that they are multiple was clearly established. (Guide of the Perplexed III:45)
The duality of the cherubim signals a multiplicity that inheres within nature which comprises an infinite number of bodies, causes, and effects, distinguishing themselves as components of the creation in contradistinction to that singular absolute unity belonging only to the Creator. Ironically, in a religion that presumedly eschews iconography, icons are for Maimonides precisely what bolster monotheistic belief and sharply distinguish between God and the world. He applied his philosophical exegesis via allegory and metaphor to remove the idolatrous sense of the biblical text exuded by a literalist approach, to the concrete images of the cherubim. It also defused their patent infringement of the prohibition against graven images. The two cherubim remind human beings that they inhabit a material realm of multiplicity sustained by collaboration between all its working parts, while only God is truly unified, unique, and alone, the only “One” worthy of veneration. In this sense the cherubim are a constant reminder of the deficient state in which Adam, as a solitary individual, was first created, when the One himself acknowledged his own defective creation, declaring “It is not good for man to be alone.”
Cherubim of Auschwitz
Finally, living with Maimonides for years as a principal focus of scholarship, on whom I believe all subsequent Jewish thinking consists of footnotes, my academic bias tends toward ending with him as the height of Jewish thought. However, like much of my thinking over the course of my personal and academic reflection, it must always end confronting another Jewish trauma whose catastrophic consequences shattered the continuum of Jewish thought, indeed of all thought as the great philosopher Emil Fackenheim posited. Paul Celan, a survivor poet of the Holocaust, or churban, his preferred Yiddish term for that catastrophe, was saturated with the “black milk” or crematoria ash his most famous poem “Death Fugue” (Todesfugue) memorialized, to the point that it literally poisoned his physical being into suicide. One of his earliest published poems, A Song in the Desert, written immediately after the end of the war ends with an intrusive image of a cherub. Yet it is an image so grotesquely distorted by its contextual landscape as to drain it of all the theological grandeur we have seen associated with it. Its final act can only be appreciated by examining it within its complete ‘lyrical’ setting:
A leaf was woven from blackening leafage in the region of Acra: there I pulled my black stallion around and jabbed at death with my rapier. And from wooden vessels I drank the ashes from the wells of Acra while with lowered visor I rode toward the ruins of the heavens. For dead are the angels and blinded was the Lord in the region of Acra, and there is no one who would guard while I sleep those laid to rest here. Battered and profaned the moon, the little flower from the region of Acra: thus bloom just as the thorns do, the hands with their rusty rings. Thus, in the end I’ll have to bend down for the kiss when they pray in Acra… Oh, flawed was night’s brigandine, the blood is seeping through the clasps! Thus became I her smiling brother, the iron cherub of Acra. Thus do I still utter the name and still feel the burn on the cheeks. (Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry: A Bilingual Edition, trans., Pierre Joris: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022)
The cherub appears within a suffocating setting of gloom consisting of ‘blackening leafage’, ‘death’, ‘ashes’, ‘ruins’, ‘dead angels’, a ‘blinded Lord’, ‘battered’, ‘profaned’, blooming ‘thorns’, ‘rust’, ‘seeping blood’, ‘burning cheeks.’ Though it might refer to the city Acre or Akko, Acra is also another geographical site of Jewish darkness. Historically, it is an ancient fortress in the vicinity of the second Temple, associated with foreign occupation, violence, destruction, death, and internecine struggle experienced by the ancient Jewish republic. That Acran havoc spanned the revival of monarchic independence in the two centuries before the Temple’s destruction during the Maccabean period, extending up to political and national demise with the Bar Kokhba revolt some 65 years later.
The ruined heavens, dead angels, and blinded God ultimately spawn the iron cherub of Acra. That fortress, witness to such prolonged incalculable agony suffered by the Jewish people in full view of the Temple, God’s abode, attests to a God who was blind to the misery unfolding in His presence. Acra is likely a stand-in for Auschwitz, where ashes are drunk from a well poisoned by the fallout from the crematoria’s chimneys, the same ‘black milk’ imbibed incessantly by the camp inmates, recorded in his seminal poem, Death Fugue (Todesfugue). The angels were once Israel’s protectors, illustrated by the archangel Michael who the book of Daniel singled out to be Israel’s saviour at a time of trouble, the like of which has never been since the nation came into being. (Dan 12:1) Of course for Celan, and for all who live after the Holocaust, there can be no other ‘trouble’ that fits the outer limits of affliction experienced by the nation surpassing that of Auschwitz. Yet no angel appeared to rescue the nation, and thus, God was blind and the angels died in the region of Acra/Auschwitz.
Against this background the cherub enters, but a cherub radically degraded by the devastation that surrounds it. This cherub trades in its golden metallic opulence and malleability for the crudeness and inflexibility of iron. The poem then ends with the cherub’s dramatic emasculation from its once majestic position as God’s throne bearer who heard God’s ineffable name pronounced once a year by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies. Yet, the Temple lies in ruins, the nation has been decimated, the blinded God ignored the people’s screams, and so all the cherub can do is to itself utter the divine name, all the while scarred by ‘burned cheeks.’ The glowing coals of destruction Ezekiel’s cherubs preserved to spread over ancient Jerusalem (Ezek 10:2), now scald the cherub itself, consigned to permanent impotence and disfigurement. Primo Levi, a fellow alumnus of those horrors, considered Celan’s literary obscurity to be a “reflection of the obscurity of his fate and his generation [which] grows ever denser around the reader, gripping him as if in an ice-cold iron vise.” Celan’s cherub abandons its life affirming embrace for an asphyxiating clench.
A rabbinically constructed Isaac is said to have heard the divine Voice echoing from between the heavenly cherubim, restoring his soul back to his body from which it had taken flight as he lay bound facing the glimmering sheen of Abraham’s knife. However, Celan’s own constructed cherub of Acra/Auschwitz, witness to the murder of millions, is shorn of its wings and no longer channels that resurrecting Voice, shattering the continuum of its transformative theological journey.
James A. Diamond, LL.M., PhD, is the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo. He has published widely on all areas of Jewish thought in many leading peer reviewed scholarly journals, such as Harvard Theological Review and the Journal of Religion. His books include Maimonides and the Hermeneutics of Concealment(SUNY Press), Converts, Heretics, and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider, (University of Notre Dame Press), Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon (Cambridge University Press), Reinventing Maimonides in Contemporary Jewish Thought, co-authored with Menachem Kellner (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization), and Jewish Theology Unbound(Oxford University Press).