Halachah’s Opposition to Anger and a First Exception

This week starts a series on anger and whether it has appropriate manifestations.  I hope to show that the English word anger is insufficient for how Judaism views the emotion, and that there are situations where Judaism calls for something that we might call anger, but is actually different.

What stimulates me to this topic is the current insistence, in many Jewish and non-Jewish circles, that all situations can be handled in positive, reinforcing ways. I don’t question the wide utility of a positive and encouraging approach, I simply object to the pretense that that is the only tool we have, and I think it a misrepresentation of Judaism to say so (even though significant figures in the Jewish community do repeatedly say so).

A note: While I hope, over the next three or four posts, to carve out some room for anger in a complete Jewish personality, it is certainly true that Judaism is very leery of anger, as most of its manifestations are problematic and even destructive.  So that readers not think I am trying to hide or elide that fact, I spend most of this essay laying out ways in which traditional sources warn us away from anger, with two relatively small exceptions at the end.

Rambam and Anger as a Part of Our Character

In the beginning of Hilchot De’ot, Laws of Character Development, Rambam lays out his central rule of good character, cultivating the middle path in each character trait.  While this is undeniably an idea he found in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Rambam is careful to point out that Chazal (such as in Mo’ed Katan 5a) urged people to calculate their ways, which Rambam understood to mean continual evaluation and adjustment of one’s various traits.

In De’ot 1;4, he speaks of the middle road in anger, of not being a ba’al chemah, a person quick to anger, but also not someone who is so unreactive as to be almost dead (we’ll return to that below). That concession to some anger seems to be wiped away in the next chapter, where Rambam writes that, despite his comments about the middle road, two character traits are so dangerous, so problematic, we should go to the extreme in avoiding them.

The first is arrogance, which we won’t discuss today, except to note that the first Lubavitcher rebbe, in his Shulchan Aruch haRav, claimed that anger stems from arrogance, an important insight even if I am not sure it is as universally true as he states it.

The second exception is anger.  Rambam writes that we should teach ourselves never to become angry, and adds that Chazal tell us that anyone who becomes angry is as if worshipping idols, will lose his/her wisdom or prophecy, that people who tend to anger don’t really live their lives.  Let’s track down those sources, to see how roundly Chazal opposed anger.

Anger in the Talmud

Berachot 29b tells of Eliyahu speaking to R. Yehudah, the brother of R. Salah Chasida (an Amora mentioned five times in the Bavli, as far as my CD-Rom tells me, in three of which Eliyahu is telling him something).  Eliyahu says to him, don’t become angry, so that you not sin.

Orchot Tsadikkim, a fifteenth century discussion of character traits both good and bad, offers two ideas for how anger leads to sin. First, it causes us to do whatever it is that our anger tells us to do. Second, being an angry person makes us resistant to tochachah, to remonstration.

That connection between anger and tochachah can work in two ways. First, anger can lead us to reject what others tell us. The sting of realizing a personal imperfection can cause an angry person  to focus on rejecting the messenger instead of considering the message.  Second, people often refrain from remonstrating with such a person at all, for fear that the anger bubbling inside of them will be turned in their direction. An angry person, then, might not even have the opportunity to hear remonstration, since others will avoid getting involved.

Destructive Anger Can Be Like Idol Worship

Shabbat 105b records a baraita where R. Shim’on b. Elazar reports a tradition of Hilfa bar Igra in the name of R. Yochanan b. Nuri, that we should view someone who tears clothing or breaks dishes or wastes money in anger as if they are an idol worshipper. Today, the evil inclination tells him to do this, tomorrow that, until eventually, if the evil inclination tells him to, he’ll worship idols. Nedarim 22b notes that when someone is filled with anger, even the Divine Presence has no meaning for that person.

I think the point is that once anger takes control, we lose our ability to pay attention. If, additionally, that anger leads us to destroy things—which has no positive or productive element to it—it shows how far our loss of control has progressed.  From there, it’s only a quantitative jump to losing such control that we worship idols. It’s not that such a person will worship idols, it’s that the loss of self-control shows s/he has become someone for whom it’s a possibility.

Losing Wisdom or Prophecy, Losing Life

Pesachim 66b quotes Resh Lakish that anyone who becomes angry, if he is a wise person, his wisdom leaves him, if a prophet, prophecy leaves him. He chooses these examples because he has cases in Scripture that demonstrate it. First, in Bamidbar 31, Moshe Rabbenu becomes incensed with the soldiers who brought back booty from the war with Midian.  After he finishes excoriating them for what they’ve done, Elazar tells them how to kasher the pots and other items they brought back. Why Elazar and not Moshe? Because Moshe, in his anger, forgot those halachot.

In Melachim Bet 3, Yehoshafat, the King of Yehudah, Yoram, the king of the Northern Kingdom, and the king of Edom find themselves in a tight spot, and call Elisha to consult. Elisha tells Yoram that he wouldn’t speak with him, but for the presence of Yehoshafat, and then says to call a musician to play for him, so that he can prophecy. Resh Lakish understands that the need for the musician was that Elisha was infuriated by the King of Israel’s calling him for a prophecy, when Yoram and his father, Achav, had consistently rejected prophecies until then.

Later in Pesachim, 113b, the Gemara records a tradition that three people’s lives aren’t really lives.  The other two—people who are overly compassionate or overly finicky—are also interesting, but we’ll have to leave them for another time. The middle of the three is haratchanin, people who are always boiling.  The statement is not elaborated, but a discussion in Nedarim sheds some light.

On 22a, R. Shemuel bar Nachmani says in the name of R. Yonatan that anyone who becomes angry has all sorts of hell ruling over him. Not only that, his digestive and excretory systems will suffer.  Commentators offer various options for how that works, but the bottom line is that this Gmeara indicates that anger leads to actual physical problems.

The Torah Scholar’s Anger

I seem to have backed myself into a corner—anger is obviously very bad on its own and causes tremendous damage to those who yield to it.  The first step towards balancing that picture comes from Ta’anit 4a, where Rava says that if a Torah scholar becomes angry, it is the Torah within him that causes him to boil over, since Yirmiyahu 23 refers to the words of Hashem as a fire.

Rashi takes that in its least exculpatory sense, that the knowledge of Torah makes the scholar more sensitive than others, and we should therefore judge the scholar gently for his anger.

Rashi doesn’t say what it is that the scholar is more sensitive to.  Pesikta Zutrata, commenting on the verse “for in much wisdom is much anger (Kohelet 1;18)” says that when wise people see inappropriate activity, they become angry. If that was Rashi’s reference point, he would be saying that scholars’ knowledge of Torah will heighten their awareness to the world’s imperfection, of how wrongly people act, and will lead some such scholars to seem angrier than they should be.  We non-scholars should judge them meritoriously, because we have to realize that we’re not aware of what they’re aware of.

Meiri echoes that reading, but adds that the Torah scholar should still control his temper as much as possible, since people will only learn to improve if he speaks to them softly enough to make an impression. Meiri has a practical reason to avoid anger, one that is in tune with our times as well. There may be situations in the world that call for anger, but it is nonetheless an ineffective strategy for bringing about change.

Torat Chayyim disagrees, arguing that the Torah scholar’s anger isn’t actually a bad attribute.  He reads it as anger against evildoers, which is jealousy or zeal for God’s honor, and that’s what the Gemara meant by saying the Torah was firing him up.  This is, he says, a good character trait, and earns the scholar merit.

That is the first time we’ve seen someone willing to take that stand, and on which I hope to build in coming weeks. It isn’t, however, the common way to read that text, and is a step further than I had intended to go this week. What I do want to show is one context where the demonstration of anger was more broadly accepted as valuable (Meiri notwithstanding).

Back to Rambam

When I started this discussion with Rambam’s opposition to anger, I left out two important pieces of what he says. First, in the first chapter of De’ot, Rambam defined the middle road as only getting angry about situations that deserved anger (similar to what we just saw in Torat Chayyim).

In the next chapter, when he turns to saying that anger should be avoided completely, that the middle road is not the best path in that trait, he takes up those situations as well.  He recognizes situations where a person has to instill some awe or fear in those around him, to train them in the right way to act (by responding vigorously to a wrong, even by breaking things to make a point, to make clear how important it is that such a wrong never occur again).  He sees this as true for a parent, a head of a household, or a head of a community; in each case, one important response to wrongdoing is an angry one, because often that teaches a lesson that a more gentle response will not.

Rambam’s recommendation, not an easy one to follow, is to demonstrate anger but not feel it. That is, Rambam sees a dilemma, the tension between the value of training people not to act wrongly and the damage done to the person evincing the anger.  Rather than recommend not doing it, he recommends taking on the challenge of expressing it but not feeling it.

Iggerot Moshe Orach Chayyim 1;54 suggests that Rambam would distinguish between well-known wrongs and more private ones. In the latter case, he thinks Rambam would urge handling it in ways other than with anger. But with publicized wrongs, even R. Moshe Feinstein recognized that the reaction had to make clear how bad the situation was, and if there was no anger involved, it would be too easy for others to assume it wasn’t that serious a wrong.

The Strict Limits on Anger

We are left with our first impressions of anger—outside of responding to wrongs, it seems to be indefensible and destructive to the person who yields to it, an almost pure manifestation of the evil inclination.  Complicating the topic, already, is that some people are placed in situations where anger is at least understandable, and others in situations that call for anger.

For as far as we’ve gone, Rabbenu Yonah’s counsel in the second chapter of his commentary to Avot seems to put it best. When the Mishnah tells us not to be easy to anger, he says that it is a terrible character trait, and one which draws people to follow it further, and which we have to resist.  Any time that anger seems necessary, he says, we should weigh carefully whether that’s true, leaning heavily in the direction of avoiding it.

If, however, the only way to effectively fight wrongdoing is through anger, than we have to, much as we may suffer, much as we may have to work hard, afterwards, to restore our personalities to their proper balance

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Mr. Martin Kaufman was educated at Yeshiva Universty and New York University"s Graduate School of Business Administration. Was Chairman and CEO of Philipp Brothers, formerly one of the world's largest commodity trading companies. He is a global consultant to entities in the financial and natural resource sectors all over the world. Mr. Kaufman has lectured extensively in numerous Adult Education programs for many years and presently gives shiurim in the New York City area. He has also served on two boards of Yeshiva University, amongst many other Boards. Mr. Kaufman lives in Manhattan with his wife and three children.

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