An Arab was following a Chassidish woman in Jerusalem for about 20 minutes, after which he disappeared. The woman immediately called in his description to the police, who were able to make the arrest. They brought the suspect in for interrogation, during which he revealed that he was planning to stab her but couldn’t get close to her, since she had with her two big bullies with her, one on her right side and one on her left side. After realizing these bullies weren’t leaving her sides, he gave up. The police went back to the woman to confirm she was alone as she had told them. She confirmed that she was alone, but said the whole time the Arab was following her, she kept repeating the words from the bedtime Shema: “מימיני מיכאל ומשמאלי גבריאל” ["To my right, Michael, to my left Gavriel"]
Someone wrote to me to ask for the "rationalist response." They also forwarded a list of objections to the story by a skeptic, along with their responses to said objections. My response was something much more basic: What reason is there to believe that it is actually true?
Still, it's a beautiful story, and in stressful times like these, it makes people feel good. For many people, that is why they believe that it is true. And given that therapeutic effect, I don't think that it's necessarily a good idea to dismiss it. When people are full of anxiety and fear, if they want to believe that they have angels by their side protecting them, and this helps them leave their homes and continue with their lives, then let them believe it!
What bothers me, however, is the reaction to some people who disbelieve the story. I saw someone quote a popular saying: "Anyone who believes every such story is a fool. But anyone who believes none of them is an apikorus." This saying is often proffered with the undertone that any given story should not be dismissed.
Well, Rambam would certainly not have believed any of these stories at all. As he writes in the Treatise Concerning the Resurrection of the Dead:
"…Our efforts, and the efforts of select individuals, are in contrast to the efforts of the masses. For with the masses who are people of the Torah, that which is beloved to them and tasty to their folly is that they should place Torah and rational thinking as two opposite extremes, and will derive everything impossible as distinct from that which is reasonable, and they say that it is a miracle, and they flee from something being in accordance with natural law, whether with something recounted from past events, with something that is in the present, or with something which is said to happen in the future. But we shall endeavor to integrate the Torah with rational thought, leading events according to the natural order wherever possible; only with something that is clarified to be a miracle and cannot be otherwise explained at all will we say that it is a miracle."And that's with regard to events in the Torah. Certainly when it comes to popular legends, he would dismiss them as folktales. Of course, there are indeed people who dismiss Rambam as an apikorus, not entirely without basis. Still, most of us would consider him a legitimate role model to follow.
I would paraphrase the popular saying as follows: "Anyone who believes every such story is a fool. And anyone who believes none of them is a Maimonidean rationalist."