by R. Gil Student
I. Anger Is Bad
Anger is a destructive force. It does not just cloud judgment, which would imply reliance on instinct. Anger overwhelms judgment, taking you in directions to which your rational mind and your other, less powerful, emotions would object if they could. A life full of anger is a life full of pain and regrets.
Rambam condemns anger completely. He writes (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Dei’os 2:2): “Anger is a very bad trait, and it is fitting for a person to distance himself from it to the other extreme. A person should accustom himself to not get angry even about something about which it is fitting to get angry.” The Rambam continues that anyone who gets angry is as if he worshipped idolatry.1 While this homily can be taken in the direction of self-worship, Rambam probably meant otherwise. Paganism is about giving primacy to a person’s animal nature. Similarly, anger shuts out all other considerations and cedes complete control to this natural reaction.2
II. Anger Is Sometimes Good
However, other Jewish thinkers take a slightly more moderate stance toward anger. The Mishnah (Avos 5:11) lists four types of relationships with anger:
- Easily angered and easily appeased — the good (appeasal) is negated by the bad (anger)
- Difficult to anger and difficult to be appeased — the bad (appeasal) is negated by the good (anger)
- Difficult to anger and easily appeased — pious
- Easily angered and difficult to appease — wicked
It is striking that the Mishnah does not even consider someone who never gets angry. Some interpret this as recognizing that humans are flawed; the ideal of never getting angry is aspirational but unattainable (Tiferes Yisrael, ad loc., n. 87). However, others take instruction from this omission. Sometimes anger is an appropriate response.
Rabbeinu Yonah (ad loc.) writes: “You should not refrain from anger completely because sometimes a person is required to get angry for God’s vengeance like Pinchas.” Anger is unwise and dangerous for the reasons already mentioned. But anger is powerful and sometimes we need that passion. Without anger, there would be no revolutions against tyrants, no stamping out injustice, no demand to right wrongs. Rabbi Norman Lamm has said that Modern Orthodoxy needs to be passionate about moderation and not moderate about passion. That is the Maimonidean path. Rabbeinu Yonah argues that achieving success requires sometimes replacing moderation with passion.
III. Moshe’s Anger
Rav Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (Tosefos Yom Tov, ad loc.) insists that anger is sometimes necessary. He points to Moshe as an example. When the Jewish soldiers return from their battle against Midian with booty, “Moshe became angry” (Num. 31:14). Similarly, before hitting the rock, Moshe angrily yelled at the people, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you from this rock?” (Num. 20:10). This precedent teaches that sometimes anger is a justified reaction.
Rambam (Shemonah Perakim, ch. 4) believes that Moshe was only allowed to express anger when God was angry. He could communicate divine anger but not express his own. In the latter example, Moshe was punished for expressing human anger. For Rambam, this was setting a terrible example, implying to the people that anger is a legitimate response to difficult situations. Other commentators interpret this episode differently, offering a wide variety of explanations of Moshe’s sin.3
IV. Anger at Wickedness
The anonymously written classical work on ethics, Orechos Tzadikim, routinely describes character traits as either good or bad and then, at the end of the chapter, shows when they can be the opposite. In this sense, the author is more Maimonidean than the Rambam. Rambam allows for exceptions from the Golden Mean; nearly all traits are best kept in moderation but a few–anger among them–must be kept at an extreme. In its chapter on anger, Orechos Tzadikim says that this trait, too, can sometimes be used in a positive way. When used properly, anger can be a tool for discipline. Students and children sometimes react appropriately to anger. When the angry response shocks them into seeing how improper their actions were, they may change their ways. However, uncontrolled anger is never allowed. Anger without bounds destroys but within limits can be used in a constructive fashion.
When we see wickedness, we must protest. Many today get angry about injustice and they are right. When widows, orphans and the weak are oppressed, we are expected to get angry on God’s behalf. But we are supposed to get angry not just about interpersonal wickedness but offense aimed at God, as well. Religious offenses should hurt us, anger us and drive us to protest, as well. Anger can be a force of action and positive change.
R. Yosef Kafach, in his edition of Mishneh Torah (ad loc., n. 17) suggests that the Rambam got this from a variant of Nedarim 22a. This variant is attested by Responsa Rashbash (no. 370). R. Nachum Rabinovich (Yad Peshutah ad loc.) suggests that this is Rambam’s expansion of Talmudic thinking and not a direct quote. ↩
Note that Rambam (ibid., 1:4) seems to contradict his condemnation of anger. R. Yosef Kafach (ibid., ch. 2 n. 15) argues that the complete condemnation quoted above is the clearest articulation of Rambam’s view. ↩
Ramban, Num. 20:10 says that this anger was divinely sanctioned. ↩