Prayer: Letting Nothing Come Between God and Man

Here's a widely-known Gemara whose existence seems to raise a rather serious problem:

Shabbos 12b (and Sotah 33a)
    Tefila (prayer - may be said in any language: since its purpose is to evoke God's) mercy, therefore in whichever language you wish, pray. May tefila really be said in any language? Does Rav Yehuda not say: A man may not request his needs in Aramaic because Rabbi Yochanan said: Angels will not assist anyone who asks his needs in Aramaic because the angels do not recognize Aramaic? This is not a problem, (Rav Yehuda is talking about) an individual (whose prayers need the help of angels, while the mishna is talking about) a congregation.
So individuals, at least, cannot expect their Aramaic prayers to "reach" God unless they have the assistance of angels. This idea is actually codified as halacha here:

Shulchan Aruch (או"ח ק"א ס"ד)
    One may pray in any language he desires, but that is only with a congregation. An individual by himself, on the other hand, should pray only in Hebrew. Some say that this is only when he is praying for his own private needs, for instance, praying for a person who is ill or for some trouble that he might suffer in his home, but prayers that are normally set for the congregation (that an individual might pray on his own) may be said in any language. And some say that even an individual, when he prays for his private needs, may use any language except Aramaic.
...all of which raises a rather significant problem.

The Rambam famously traced the historical origins of idolatry: people, recognizing stars and planets as agents of God's power and kindness, began directing their appreciation and veneration to the agents rather than the Master. And...

Rambam (עכו"ם א א)
    ...once people adopted this concept, they began to build temples to the stars and to offer them sacrifices and to praise and extol them with words and prostration towards them in order to - according to their flawed reasoning - evoke the Creator's will.
Nevertheless, despite the good intentions that might have inspired those ancient pagans, the Rambam forbids any act of service (עבודה) towards anything besides God - even if you intend only to use this intermediary as a tool to come closer to God (ע' רמב"ם פירוש למשניות בהקדמתו לפרק חלק מסנהדרין ביסוד החמישי):

Rambam (עכו"ם ב א)
    The core of the commandment concerning idolatry is to avoid serving any of the creations: not an angel, nor a sphere, nor a star nor any of the four elements or anything that is formed from them. (This is true) even if the worshiper knows that the Lord is God and he serves this creation the way Enosh and the people of his generation began, nevertheless, this is idolatry.... In this manner, (the Torah) commanded saying (Devarim 11:16) "Take care lest your hearts should be seduced." Which is to say: do not stray (even) in your thoughts to serve (creations) as an intermediary (סרסור) between you and the Creator.
It would seem that not only does communicating with God require no help from anything or anyone - including angels - but seeking such help can be tantamount to idolatry!

The Ramban also permits no prayer to anything besides God, quoting a Yerushalmi explicitly forbidding invoking angels to gain access to God:

Ramban - Toras HaShem Temima (עמוד קע"א)
    The third category of idolatry is those who worship they may act as intermediaries between people and God.... And it would seem that even to pray to them (i.e., angels) in this way is forbidden to us as it says in the (Yerushalmi Brachos פרק ט הלכה א): Rabbi Yoden says in his own name, (a human being of) flesh and blood who has a patron, if he experiences trouble he doesn't simply barge into (the patron's presence looking for help) but instead, comes and stands near the patron's door and calls his servant or a member of his household so that he will go and announce that 'so and so is standing at the courtyard door' - maybe (the patron) will let him in or maybe he will just leave him there. But the Holy One, blessed be He, is not that way (it is as though He says): 'if a man should suffer troubles he should not cry out to (the angel) Michael or (the angel) Gabriel, but to Me you should cry out and I will immediately answer.' And about this it is written (Yoel 3:5) 'All who will call in the name of God will be saved.'
How could we possibly require anything at all between ourselves and God, no matter what language we choose for our prayer? Did David not write (Tehilim 145:18) "God is close to all who call Him..." and Yoel (as quoted above by the Ramban): "All who will call in the name of God will be saved"? And if we aren't allowed to serve angels even if only as intermediaries connecting us to God, then how may we rely on them to "amplify" our private Hebrew-language prayers?

Let's think a bit about angels - particularly the way they're portrayed in midrashic literature. It is not uncommon for angels to appear to argue with God as though their opinion counted next to His and as though they had their own will and preference. In fact, as Rabbi E.E. Dessler wrote (Vol. IV page 115), angels have no independent will at all. They exist only to serve their Master with complete unquestioning loyalty. If a midrash (perhaps taking its cue from the first chapter of Job) presents an angel differently, it is only a literary device meant to communicate some crucial philosophical message (see this for a far more comprehensive discussion of angels and free will).

Now let's think a bit about prayer. There are some obvious prerequisites, like conscious thoughts, a mouth (for verbal prayers) and some problem that needs solving. But there are others: ideally, one should pray in a level, enclosed area surrounded by windows that's free of foul smells and other distractions (ע' שו"ע או"ח צ). One should strive for a serious, calm and optimistic frame of mind (שם צ"ג ס"ק ב) and be appropriately dressed (שם סי' צ"א).

These are all tools that serve to enrich our prayers - as the more focused and sincere they are, the more we'll absorb their lessons (which, according to Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, is prayer's primary purpose: it's even the simplest translation of the word תפילה).

Perhaps we can apply this to our understanding of the above Gemara. Thinking of angels as purely mechanical (and perhaps even metaphoric) tools in God's Hand, could we not explain their characterization in the Gemara as prayer "amplifiers" in terms similar to those we might use to describe, say, the preference for a room with windows? In other words, just as windows remind us (when necessary) to think of God "above", so too the thought that there are elements built in to our minds or broader environment ("angels") that lubricate our receptivity to spiritual matters can encourage us to invest yet more effort in the process of prayer.

The Meiri (Shabbos 12b) offers a similarly rational explanation that also avoids the problem:
    A man may not request his needs in Aramaic: since people are not so fluent in Aramaic, they are less likely to focus sufficiently to ensure that their prayer should be acceptable. Nevertheless, since people naturally focus their prayers more for a sick person, there is no concern (that Aramaic prayer will be flawed). Similarly, the Gaonim wrote that public prayer may be said in any language since 'the Divine Presence is with a public gathering,' that is to say that their focus will be greater.
So in fact we do not need anything "between" our hearts and God beyond the various tools that already exist, simply waiting to be used. And we are no more using angels as intermediaries than we're using our mouths or frame of mind as intermediaries.

Source Material

סוטה לג.
תפלה: רחמי היא כל היכי דבעי מצלי ותפלה בכל לשון והאמר רב יהודה לעולם אל ישאל אדם צרכיו בלשון ארמית דאמר רבי יוחנן כל השואל צרכיו בלשון ארמי אין מלאכי השרת נזקקין לו לפי שאין מלאכי השרת מכירין בלשון ארמי לא קשיא הא ביחיד הא בצבור

יחיד. צריך שיסייעוהו מלאכי השרת ציבור לא צריכי להו דכתיב (איוב לו) הן אל כביר לא ימאס אינו מואס בתפלתן של רבים

רמב"ם עכו"ם א א
כיון שעלה דבר זה על לבם התחילו לבנות לכוכבים היכלות ולהקריב להן קרבנות ולשבחם ולפארם בדברים ולהשתחוות למולם כדי להשיג רצון הבורא בדעתם הרעה

רמב"ם עכו"ם ב א
עיקר הצווי בעבודת כוכבים שלא לעבוד אחד מכל הברואים לא מלאך ולא גלגל ולא כוכב ולא אחד מארבעה היסודות ולא אחד מכל הנבראים מהן ואע"פ שהעובד יודע שה' הוא האל' והוא עובד הנברא הזה על דרך שעבד אנוש ואנשי דורו תחלה הרי זה עובד כוכבים. וענין זה הוא שהזהירה תורה עליו ואמרה ופן תשא עיניך השמימה וראית את השמש וגו' אשר חלק ה' אלהיך אותם לכל העמים. כלומר שמא תשוט בעין לבך תראה שאלו הן המנהיגים את העולם והם שחלק ה' אותם לכל העולם להיות חיים והווים ואינם נפסדים כמנהגו של עולם ותאמר שראוי להשתחוות להם ולעובדן. ובענין הזה צוה ואמר השמרו לכם פן יפתה לבבכם. כלומר שלא תטעו בהרהור הלב לעבוד אלו להיות סרסור ביניכם ובין הבורא

רבנ"ן תורת ד' תמימה (עמוד קע"א)
והע"ז השלישית מהם העובדים למלאכים...או להיותם מליצים בינם ובין הקל לעובדים אותם וכל אחד עובד שלו וכל זה נזהר לנו בתורה. ונראה שאפילו להתפלל להם על דרך זה אסור לנו כמו שנאמר בהגדה (ירושלמי ברכות - דף סג,א פרק ט הלכה א גמרא) רבי יודן אמר משמיה דידיה בשר ודם יש לו פטרון אם באת לו עת צרה אינו נכנס אצלו פתאום אלא בא ועמד לו על פתחו של פטרונו וקורא לעבדו או לבן ביתו והוא אומר איש פלוני עומד על פתח חצירך שמא מכניסו ושמא מניחו. אבל הקב"ה אינו כן אם בא על אדם צרה לא יצווח לא למיכאל ולא לגבריאל אלא לי יצווח ואני עונה לו מיד. הה"ד (יואל ב) כל אשר יקרא בשם ה' ימלט

שו"ע או"ח ק"א ס"ד
יכול להתפלל בכל לשון שירצה והני מילי בצבור אבל ביחיד לא יתפלל אלא בלשון הקודש ויש אומרים דהני מילי כששואל צרכיו כגון שהתפלל על חולה או על שום צער שיש לו בביתו אבל תפלה הקבועה לצבור אפילו יחיד יכול לאומרה בכל לשון ויש אומרים דאף יחיד כששואל צרכיו יכול לשאול בכל לשון שירצה חוץ מלשון ארמי