Angels, Satan, amulets: 3 things most don't know about Judaism
This month I wanted to share with you three aspects of Judaism that most people, both Jews and non-Jews, seem not to know.
Part of that reason is that much of the information that people have about Judaism is filtered through the lens of Christianity. This is true even for Jewish people who often only learn the most basic tenants of Judaism at weekly Hebrew school while they live, learn, and work in an American context whose main operating system is Christian.
#1 – Jews believe in angels. If you asked the vast majority of American Jews who are part of the liberal denominations, if Judaism believes in angels, they would say no. And yet, there are instances of angels all over the tradition hiding in plain sight. Each Friday night, Jews all over the world sing the Shabbat song“Shalom Aleichem.” If you’ve ever read the words, it depicts a Jewish family welcoming angels to the Shabbat table, inviting them in, and asking for their Sabbath blessing.
Additionally, angels appear in many biblical narratives as well as later rabbinic commentaries. One of the most well known examples is found in Genesis 32 when the patriarch Jacob wrestles all night with someone, but it’s not quite clear with whom. In the original Hebrew, the word is “man,” and yet if you ask many Jews they will tell you that Jacob was wrestling with an angel.
Ironically, you’ll get this answer even from people who say Jews don’t believe in angels – it’s like they know and repeat the story without ever realizing that they just said “angel.” Part of the confusion here is that while there are many ancient Jewish textual sources that mention angels, it is almost never talked about in temples and synagogues around the country.
#2 – Satan appears in Judaism, not just in Christianity. This is another instance where many people assume that the notion of Satan is purely a Christian one, but in fact Satan makes appearances both in the Hebrew Bible (see the Book of Job) and in later rabbinic commentaries.
A great example of this is when the rabbis offer a back-story about what’s motivating God to command Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22. The commentaries paint the picture that Satan goaded God into testing Abraham’s faith.
There are however some important differences between the Satan of Judaism and the Satan of Christianity. In Judaism, Satan is an angel who remains subservient to God rather than becoming an opponent to God. It was once described to me that Satan is the angel whose job it is to provoke and antagonize God, but there is no duality here. In Jewish tradition, Satan is not imagined as having the power to represent evil in the world or to be a competing force with God’s goodness.
#3 – Judaism has a well-developed tradition of amulets believed to protect you from evil.
The best example of this is the tradition of Jews putting mezuzahs (small boxes containing parchment of Torah text) on their doors. Throughout the ages, mezuzahs have been understood by many as a literal and figurative amulet.
The great 11th century Torah commentator Rashi explains that mezuzahs on your doors can protect you from demons. While it is true that most Jewish people today don’t think of a mezuzah as an amulet, they might tell their kids to kiss it for good luck on their way out the door.
Perhaps the most colorful example of the use of amulets today is by some Sephardic communities who use them to ward off the demon Lilith from harming their young children.
The origin of this custom emerges from the tradition that understands Lilith as Adam’s first wife (created in Genesis 1 rather than Eve who was created in in Genesis 2).
The story goes that Lilith was kicked out of the Garden of Eden and replaced by Eve because she was more sexually dominate than either God or Adam wanted.
For ever after, Lilith became a sort of “queen of the demons.”
Again, this is not something that is a living and active part of the Judaism for most modern, American Jews of Ashkenazi decent, and still, it is possible to buy an amulet against Lilith in most large American cities.