Anger is universally considered a vice. We are asked to emulate the Divine who is “erech apayim,” slow to anger (Exodus 34:6, Deuteronomy 11:22). The rabbis, in fact, refer to anger as a form of idolatry, where one worships oneself. Thus, the rabbis teach that one must be slow to anger and easy to appease (Avot 5:10). Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav taught: “there is no peace in the world because there is too much anger. You can only make peace with joy.” The rabbis teach us, ‘One who sees an idol that has not been destroyed pronounces the blessing, ‘Blessed is He who is slow to anger”’ (Tosefta, Berakhot 7:2). I would suggest that this wording was chosen because God should be angry at how much evil there is in the world that is unchallenged. Yet God has humbly allowed us to be the ambassadors of truth and the defenders of justice on earth. We can emulate this Divine patience frustrated at an unredeemed world while still feeling a great sense of urgency.
In a brilliant Midrash, we learn that G-d withholds expressing anger not only from the just but also from the wicked. “Rav Shmuel bar Nachman said in the name of Rav Yochanan: It does not say here Erech Af, but rather Erech Apayim (in plural); He delays His anger with the righteous and delays His anger with the wicked” (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 2:1, Eruvin 22a). We are to withhold expressing anger to any person, good or bad.
However, expressing anger can be useful. The Rambam taught that, while one should not get angry, that one should pretend to be angry to educate young children when they’re doing wrong. On the most basic level, this emotion stimulates people to reach a goal, in the short term. Furthermore, it is a factor that can be particularly useful for social justice activists and leaders. Professor Jeff Stout, the great religion scholar at Princeton University, writes in “Blessed are the Organized”:
Anger is one of the most important traits they (organizers) look for in potential leaders. Someone who professes love of justice, but is not angered by its violation, is unlikely to stay with the struggle for justice through thick and thin, to display the passion that will motivate others to join in, or to have enough courage to stand up to the powers that be.
In social justice work, one must be sure to respond quickly to social problems and injustices and yet also be sure not to let anger dominate one’s psyche or persona. Sustained anger takes up an extraordinary amount of energy, and as activists we must preserve our energy as best we can to ensure we are effective. The Hassidic rabbis, therefore, teach that we must not subdue our anger, for that leads to lost potential. Rather, we should channel our anger into more productive and healthy emotions that increase our ability to engage in constructive organizing. Mohandas Gandhi, who led the fight for independence in India, observed that “anger controlled can be transmuted into a power that can move the world.” To clarify further, Professor Stout describe his concept of “just anger,” that
… stands midway between despairing rage and liberal squeamishness about the vehement passions. A politics of just anger aims to restore the spirit of democracy to democratic culture, a spirit disposed to become angry at right things in the right way and use this passion to motivate the level of political involvement essential to striving for significant social change.
To Stout, “elites” that proclaim their impartiality too often support social injustice by insisting that “victims” remain passive, and view any righteous anger of the oppressed as a violation of “the elite code of decorum.” The proper role of social organizers, Stout notes, is to “oppose that code” and disrupt the deceptive calm of oppression.
Finally, Stout explained that anger can facilitate the creation of a communal feeling of empowerment, which can lead to social justice.
The experience of anger can reveal to us that we do indeed care about being treated as citizens. If we did not think of ourselves as bound together to some extent by mutual respect, then we would not be angered by the behavior and negligence of elites. To feel anger is to have the importance of the relationship and its demands drawn to our attention. Accordingly, the individual who rarely experiences anger in response to injustices…[shows] slavishness and apathy. A central task of a leader … is to help others transform themselves from slavish or apathetic victims into people who behave and feel as citizens do.
To put this differently, as the French existentialist (and French Resistance member) Albert Camus wrote: “I rebel—therefore we exist.”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his “Prayer for Peace,” wrote: “O Lord, we confess our sins, we are ashamed of the inadequacy of our anguish, of how faint and slight is our mercy. We are a generation that has lost its capacity for outrage. We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible.” We must feel outrage, as our prophets once did, when we encounter oppression and injustice. This is what it means to be alive and to be Jewish.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik argued, “Of course, love is a great and noble emotion, fostering the social spirit and elevating man, but not always is the loving person capable of meeting the challenge of harsh realities. In certain situations, a disjunctive emotion, such as anger or indignation may become the motivating force for noble and valuable action” (A Theory of Emotions, 183). The greatest Jewish philosophers of the last century recognized the importance of this truth: Controlled and righteous anger, in defence of social justice and other noble causes, is no vice.
Anger is unhealthy, but it is also human. We should dismiss rage (hema) when it comes from self-righteousness but when anger (af) is experienced in response to the pain of another we should harness the emotion to elevate ourselves by responding to a greater calling.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"