A Band of Evil Angels

In the section of the Haggada that calculates the number of plagues at the Red Sea, Rabbis Eliezer and Akiva each quote from Psalm 78: “He sent against them the fierceness of his anger, wrath, indignation and trouble, a band of evil angels”. They chose to quote from this psalm because it elaborates on the plagues sent against the Egyptians. But it is not clear why the fierce, destructive angels sent against the Egyptians are described as ‘evil’. Unpleasant as they were, surely they were acting for good, not evil.

The difficulty goes away when we realise that the Hebrew word ra, does not mean ‘evil’, in the sense that an English speaker understands the word. Evil as a force at war with good, as a negative agency to be opposed and driven out, is not a Jewish concept. Evil, in Jewish thought, is as much a part of divine creation as anything else. The prophet Isaiah describes God as ‘Making peace and creating ra (evil). The rabbis said that were it not for the ‘evil’ inclination (i.e. our natural urges) nobody would ever build a house or raise a family. The trouble is that as English speakers when we translate ra as evil, we are subliminally affected by the interpretation that our spoken language puts upon the word. And our spoken language, English, has a Christian view of the world. Christianity sees evil as an independent entity to be battled, Judaism sees it as just one of many forces present in the world.

The problem of translation colours almost every aspect of how those of us who don’t speak Hebrew relate to Judaism. We call Judaism a religion, but it is not. There is no word for religion in Hebrew or indeed in any other ancient culture. The Latin word religio relates to the cultic practices of a tribe or sect, it has no connection with faith or commandment. The nearest words in Hebrew to religion are dat, a word of probable Persian origin meaning law, or emunah¸ meaning faith. Judaism is a holistic system of being, not a religion. But we call it a religion because we speak English. And because we call it a religion, we think of it in the same way that Christians think of Christianity –something to believe in, or not.

Another example of translation acting as a barrier to is when we speak of the prohibition of work on Shabbat. We say that ‘work’ is prohibited on Shabbat because that is how we translate the Hebrew word malacha. But malacha doesn’t mean work in that sense, it implies an activity which is creative or changes the state of something. As one of my childhood teachers used to tell me, we can carry a bag of coal up and down stairs all day on Shabbat (people used coal in those days) and not be guilty of desecrating the sanctity of the day. But carry one piece outdoors, and we have transgressed a prohibition. In theory we could go to work on Shabbat and not transgress the prohibition against work.

Jews have spent many centuries living among others. We have managed both to preserve our identity and to fit in with those societies that have accepted us. We speak their languages, we internalise their concepts, we lose track of our own. In the West we have become so good at acculturation that people now speak of a Judeo-Christian tradition, a somewhat vague concept that defies rigorous analysis but is a convenient way of saying that the two religions have shared values.

Yet the values to which the Judeo-Christian tradition purports to assent are generally also shared by Islam. Unlike Judaism however, Islam is at a far earlier stage of its global dispersion. It has not yet acculturated to the same extent as Judaism. And so the idea of a Judeo-Christian tradition has the unintended consequence effect of making Islam into the Other. It is a false distinction; in philosophical terms Judaism is closer to Islam than it is to Christianity. But in English speaking countries we don’t share a vocabulary with Islam.

Whether or not we use the words ‘evil angels’ at our seder tables may not be that important to us. But what is important is to understand that the day to day vocabulary that we use to frame our Jewish identity does not convey the full picture, that we need to delve more deeply into the concepts behind the words we use and not rely overmuch on vernacular approximations. For a multicultural society to be successful, each element needs to be proud of what it stands for and loyal to its founding principles. Translation is convenient. Translation without interpretation is rarely enough.

© 2020 Harry Freedman Books