Can angels reclaim place in Jewish life

Raised in a traditional Reform family, Gary Markowitz said he didn't know from angels — until he met one.

The purported encounter completely changed his life as a publisher of magazines and trade publications. Today the Hawaii resident is a self-supporting fine artist who paints the subject that changed his life — his encounters with the Divine.

Juliet Goldstein of Santa Cruz believes angels accompanied the late Renewal guru, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, when he made a visit to the Bay Area in 1994. He led a Shabbaton in the Santa Cruz area for about 35 people.

"The weather turned beautiful," she recalled, and her own apartment — which the rabbi did not visit — was filled with the light of what she felt were angelic presences.

Because angels have been largely absent from modern Jewish worship, most Jews have only heard of them in the context of Christian art and lore. Jewish angels actually precede Raphael's cheeky cherubs and the fabled frescoes of Italian churches.

But their omission from Jewish life has left many Jews confused about what their tradition has to say on the subject. Who expunged the Jewish angels? Where did they come from, and why did they go?

Those questions are especially pertinent now, on the eve of the millennium when prophetic tales and resurging spiritual activity such as angelology have captured the collective imagination.

In recent years, angels have made a comeback in self-help books, movies and television sitcoms.

Eighteenth-century Jewish reformers seeking legitimacy eliminated them from liturgy. But more than 200 years later, some local rabbis, such as Lavey Derby and Miriam Senturia, are beginning to discuss angels in sermons and healing services.

And Jewish worshippers have joined the national fad, invoking the heavenly hosts during services, at the bedside of the ill, and in their personal lives.

However, some say it's not necessary to invite them; angels show up when they're least expected.

Markowitz had left behind his childhood Jewish practice many years before his angel experience in 1991. The self-employed family man had grown more accustomed to consciousness-raising practices than synagogue life. But when the angels arrived, his Jewish beliefs resurfaced.

Reeling from marital troubles, Markowitz said, he sat down in his graphic arts studio and cried out, "If there is any God outside of ourselves, I need to know now."

Suddenly, he said, a jolt of energy shot from the back of his neck through his spine. A burst of white and gold light enveloped him, and a feminine presence appeared, although not visually.

The presence, he now believes, was an angel.

"I felt as though I had gotten to heaven, but it wasn't like anything I had experienced because it was not physical…I said, `I am not Moses. Why am I being shown this?'

"Then I heard, `Share what you've been shown.' "

Another rush of vibrations hit him, and he was back in his studio. The angel was gone.

"I remember from my 10th-grade confirmation class, my teacher told me that we didn't really know if there was anything after this life," Markowitz said. The emphasis "wasn't so much that there was a God but being a Jew was being a good person and living a good life."

Markowitz hadn't questioned that concept. But his angel experience caused him to ponder the subject anew.

A week later, he repeated aloud some words that the angel had told him — "trust and faith." Again the rush of energy coursed through him and the angel returned. The feminine presence turned masculine before him and declared itself the Jewish archangel Gabriel.

The angels continued to visit several times a week for about two years, Markowitz said. During that time, they showed him breathing techniques and hand gestures. He soon found himself compelled to draw and then to paint.

Though not to the same degree as Markowitz, some local spiritual leaders also draw on the power of angels. Senturia of Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center uses angels to provide spiritual imagery for the sick and dying.

She pointed out that traditional Jews also invoke angels. For example, mohels call on Elijah, a Jewish healing angel, to mend circumcision wounds.

When visiting with patients at Ruach Ami, Senturia said, she likes to sing Rami Shapiro's version of "Ahavat Olam," which is full of angel imagery and has a soothing melody:

"We are embraced by arms that find us…We are counseled by voices that guide us…We are supported by hands that uplift us…We are loved by an unending love."

Patients comment on sudden feelings of peace and closeness with God when she sings it. Some report a watchful presence, God or perhaps an angel, that watched over them like a guardian.

Other times, the Reconstructionist rabbi said she has experienced a spiritual presence herself while singing the song. Often, a conversation about angels ensues.

"I remind them that there are people in their lives that may be messengers," she said.

Derby of the Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon said he refers to angels during sermons, in his Kabbalah classes and in healing situations.

"Angels are very real to me in my work and in my personal spiritual life," Derby said. "I don't mean John Travolta or the guys with the halos and feathers but those messengers who guide us along the way."

The Conservative rabbi said the term angel includes the energy created in the universe by performing mitzvot — as well as different manifestations of the Divine such as strength, vision, goodness and mercy.

Yet, historically, there is much more to Jewish angelology than heavenly deeds on Earth.

Both classical Jewish texts and folklore are filled with malakhim (Hebrew for "angels") — golems and dybbuks (supernatural tricksters), benei Elohim (sons of God) and kedoshim (holy beings). Even the Torah has a few good angels.

However, Derby and Senturia may be two of the few rabbis who believe in angels. The more liberal movements of Judaism banished the celestial crew generations ago as nothing but ghost stories or metaphoric symbols of the human psyche.

For example, the Torah says that Jacob wrestled with a mysterious being, perhaps an angel. But modern Jewish rationalists say the being, or ish, was simply colorful language to describe Jacob's grappling with his own psyche.

The Orthodox still have their angels but they, too, tend to explain them symbolically. Only the Chassidim and some Renewal Jews take their angels straight, believing that they are literally God's messengers.

Avram Davis, co-director of the Jewish Renewal meditation center Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley, said the resurgence of angelology is part of a Jewish yearning to feel more connected with the Divine.

Jewish angels, he said, lost their place in modern practice after the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment of the 18th century. Reformers of the era emphasized science at the expense of the unprovable.

"In Europe, there was a lot of drive to fit in, to be academically sound and above reproach. Anything that smacked of the folk medicine or the superstition of the old country was rejected," Davis said.

"A lot of [Jewish spiritual] teachers were on one hand really into [angels] and on another hand nervous about idolatry."

In the end, the angels went the way of the evil eye.

But, said Davis, "we threw out the baby with the bath water."

Today, the meditation leader teaches a mystical and contemplative approach to Judaism that appeals to those who once left Judaism because of its rationalist stance.

Angels, he said, provide a spiritual intimacy that, sadly, is "esoteric to modern Judaism."

Some say the case for angels and other links to God may prevail if Judaism is to survive.

"God is either manifest in our life or the whole point is lost," Davis said. "There is nothing in it for us. Religion becomes a waste of time. You're better off going to the beach."

Near the beaches of Santa Cruz, Goldstein incorporates angel imagery into her work as a psychological counselor and healer. She also believes Carlebach left behind some angels to guide the isolated Jewish community in Santa Cruz.

In his Maui studio, Markowitz renders his angel experiences on canvas with acrylic paint. A gallery in the tourist town of Lahaina exhibits and sells his art to an international clientele, many of whom are drawn to the spiritual nature of the images, the painter said.

The new start took its toll on Markowitz. On the course of his new path, he gave up his home, a reliable income and ended his marriage.

"But I became more sensitive and compassionate. I see the divinity in everybody now and try to find that in myself," an attitude he feels the angels helped him to achieve.

His financial situation also improved. Today, he sells 50 originals a year for up to $5,000 apiece.

Markowitz said he misses the angels, who still watch over him but appear now only occasionally. Being in the company of angels, he said, "can become very addictive but it's not [what's] important."

In the end, his confirmation teacher was right — "I've learned what's important is to be here."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.