“God’s 120 Guardian Angels”
Eighteen years in the making, David Birnbaum’s “120 Guardian Angels”, the poetic portion of his new book God and Good, is a beautiful and fitting complement to his 1988 masterpiece, God and Evil. Nearly everything about this new work, with the exception of its genuine excellence, contrasts markedly with Birnbaum’s earlier book.
Whereas God and Evil was discursive, closely argued and philosophical, “120 Guardian Angels” is poetic, highly personal, and mythological. Whereas God and Evil was profoundly serious, “120 Guardian Angels” is often light and humorous.
Whereas God and Evil spoke with the highest imaginable degree of generality (declaring, for example, that “Holy Potential is at the epicenter of the Divine”) “120 Guardian Angels” can be extraordinarily particular (Guardian Angel #62 is “Snowstorms on School Days, and #88 is “Playing Chess with Your Son”). However, while Birnbaum’s new work is “particular” in the Aristotelian sense that knowledge of the particular brings clarity to the universal, it is hardly particular in the sense of “particularistic” or “parochial”. Indeed, Birnbaum’s angels, while they do seem to have a fondness for Jewish ideas and activities (Guardian Angel #25 is “Lighting Shabbos Candles” and #75 is “Gemorrah Chavrusahs”), are ecumenical enough to include in amongst them #71 “Ju Jitsu” and #89 “Catholic School Marching Bands.”
Birnbaum, in God and Evil, argued that “Holy Potential” is the “primal thrust of the cosmos” and that man, created in the divine image, has as his purpose the actualization and fulfillment of that potential. In this new book, Birnbaum’s angels speak to us directly and inform us precisely how this potential can be attained. Many of the angels, of course, reflect universally acknowledged ideas and values (Guardian Angel #4
is “Freedom” and #5 is “Mercy”), but it is in the more idiosyncratic amongst them (e.g. #44 “Five-Year Old Girls Giggling”, #50 “Putting-the-Kids-to-Bed”, and #58 “Iron Mill Workers”) that we get the sense that the factory of Holy (and human) Potential is really working.
Reading Birnbaum’s book, I cannot help but also view it as a complement to Lin Yutang’s 1937 Confucian classic The Importance of Living, in which the author speaks so eloquently and so spiritually of life’s simple pleasures, like “lying in bed” and “sitting in chairs”. Lin tells us “If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon
in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.” Birnbaum, in God and Evil, espoused a much more active, and hence Jewish/Western, view of life’s meaning, but here in “120 Guardian Angels” he makes room for such dalliances as “Bubbles” (angel #13), “Kite Flying” (#54) and “Catching the Moment” (#40). There appears to be an appreciation that in matters of actualizing Holy Potential there is, indeed, as Lin Yutang articulated, both “the noble art of getting things done [and] the noble art of [sometimes] leaving things undone.
The Kabbalists, in whom much of Birnbaum’s thinking is rooted (angel #109 is “Lurianic Kabbalah”), held that there is a coincidence of opposites governing both God and humanity; Birnbaum’s latest effort, especially when placed in the context of his earlier one, (with the complementary book titles explicitly forewarning us) most certainly seems to embody this dialectical spirit.
Chayyim Vital, whose great work Sefer Etz Chayyim, is the classic exposition of Lurianic Kabbalah, once acknowledged that the world is for the most part evil, with only the slightest bit of good mixed in. Adin Steinsaltz, the contemporary rabbinic sage and Kabbalist, has said that the full meaning of Vital’s seemingly pessimistic dictum is that “ours is the worst of all possible worlds in which there is yet hope, and that this is paradoxically the ‘best of all possible worlds.’” The reason for this, Rabbi Steinsaltz tells us, is that only in such a world of extreme adversity, a world “on the brink” of total disaster, can humankind be motivated to realize the emotional, spiritual, aesthetic and intellectual possibilities that have been bequeathed to it by our creator.
David Birnbaum’s mythic 120 Guardian Angels are a celestial chorus imploring us to do just that, to realize our full cosmic potential as human beings and thereby act as partners with the divine in actualizing the potential of our world.
Dr. Sanford Drob
May 19, 2006
Founding co-Editor, The NY Jewish Review