Despite the image bequeathed to us by medieval Christian artists, the cherubim of the Hebrew Bible are never depicted as rosy-cheeked or childlike. In the vision of Ezekiel, which gives the only detailed biblical account of their appearance, they are described as having the faces of various creatures and four wings each. James A. Diamond explains the significance of these angelic beings in Jewish thought, and the struggle of ancient and medieval thinkers to place them into a monotheistic cosmology:
Considering their mythic overtones, the classical rabbis were . . . 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.” (Talmud, Brakhot 9:1). . . . 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.
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 (Genesis 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.
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.
From the medieval theologians, Diamond goes on to examine how the image of “the iron cherub of Acra” in the Holocaust poetry of the Romanian Jewish writer Paul Celan.