Zero Rage Tolerance

messy kitchenNote: This article was originally published in April of 2013, but I recently added the passage regarding positive uses of anger.  It appears in the May 8th, 2015 edition of the Jewish News.

Breaking someone’s left index finger in a brawl doesn’t have an obvious connection to defiantly blaspheming the name of the Almighty.  Yet, the Torah lumps together the laws and consequences of these two actions in one Torah passage as part of a series of sins also including murder and property damage as well.  It is often difficult, admittedly, to determine the underlying order and organization of the Torah in many places.  But the grouping of these seemingly unrelated topics into one unified lineup is particularly puzzling.

angry womanR. Avigdor Miller (1908 – 2001), the prolific author and popular rabbinic speaker and educator, points out a common root that all of these sins share that serves as a basic ethical reminder. They are all typically committed in anger.  This passage makes clear that there is responsibility and culpability even for deeds committed in a moment of wrath.  In a fit of anger, a person can do anything – damage another’s property, assault and injure someone, commit the blasphemy of cursing the Almighty Himself, and even commit murder.  The Talmud, based on the verse “An angry person has many transgressions” (Proverbs 29:22), elaborates on the dangers of anger in some detail.  One observation that it makes is that it is certain that a mercurial individual’s sins outweigh his merits.  It is well known that although Maimonides (1135 – 1204) advocates moderation and balance in all character traits by following the golden mean, anger is one of the only two exceptions that he makes to this principle.  Instead, from the perspective of good character, anger is never justified and one should self-enforce a zero-tolerance policy.

But isn’t anger sometimes positive and necessary to convey a message and a point? According to the Mussarites all character traits, including even those that seem overtly negative, have some context in which they can be used positively, benevolently, and beneficially. Does Maimonides, with his zero-tolerance policy disagree with that viewpoint? Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato also writes about anger in his Mesilat Yesharim and, like Maimonides, writes that one should not get angry in any circumstances but adds that one should not even get angry when it is necessary for educational purposes. Lest the reader conclude that he advocates a permissive pedagogical style with no limits, consequences, or rebuke, he is careful to specify that a teacher should discipline his student and a parent must reprimand her child – even with anger. But it must only be a superficial demonstration of anger, in his words: “anger of the face, not anger of the heart.”

zero toleranceIt seems trite to discuss the negativity of a behavior like anger. That may only be due to the fact that we have not contrasted the zero-tolerance view expressed above with any other perspective.  Although most people would agree that many of the pitfalls and potential dangers of anger are obvious, it nevertheless seems to be nearly universally widespread in our society.  It is often glorified on the big screen.  Because it is so common, we may unknowingly relate to it not as a harmful feeling and potentially dangerous basis for unwise or dangerous behavior, but rather as an emotion and motivation that is actually fully justified, legitimate, and respectable.  We may think that it is healthy to express anger and unhealthy to suppress it and not act on it or show it.  This stands in stark contrast to the Maimonidean approach mentioned above that anger is rooted a character flaw and can easily result in immature, irrational, and irresponsible thinking and behavior and ruined relationships.  The Torah passage that begins with the blasphemer challenges us to rethink this attitude and recognize that anger is anything but prudent and respectable.

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