Thursday, 25 Jun 2015

Written by Daniel Lichman

On Anger
Moses strikes the rock and is told, by way of punishment, that he will not enter the land. It is one of the most famous stories about Moses and the great tragedy of his life. Yet what Moses did to deserve this punishment is puzzling.

One perspective is given by the great medieval Jewish/Aristotellian philosopher Maimonides who, in his work on ethics – The Eight Chapters, advocates the view that many of us associate with this story: that Moses’ punishment was for his sin of anger. Yet, this raises a problem: why is anger, an emotion that comes up inside us without our ability to consciously control it, punished in this way? Is anger wrong?

This goes to the heart of Maimonides’ ethics. According to the Aristotellian system of ‘virtue ethics’ which Maimonides uses, right ethical action is judged according to the characteristics (the ‘virtues’) of the person acting, rather than according to the action itself. The issue was not that Moses struck the rock: it is that he did so in anger.

According to this kind of ethics a person should look to live by the ‘mean’, the middle way between extremes. For example a person should try to live according to ‘courage’ which is the mean in-between the extremes of ‘rashness’ and ‘cowardice’.

For Maimonides ‘anger’ is an unacceptable extreme. ‘Patience’ is the mean, the ideal, between anger and complete ‘indifference’.

Yet, interestingly, ‘anger’, alongside ‘humility’, is one of the two emotions about which Maimonides disagrees with Aristotle. For Aristotle, anger can sometimes be a good a thing, particularly anger that is rational, like moral indignation. Maimonides, following rabbinic teachings, disagrees, and advocates the cultivation of patience in all situations.

That there is a difference here between Aristotle and Maimonides’ virtue ethics is telling of a significant gulf in their thinking. The aim of Aristotle’s ethical system is human flourishing. Contrastingly Maimonides’ aim is knowledge of God. For the latter, anger is a block from closeness to and contemplation of the Divine, contrastingly, for Aristotle, occasional bursts of appropriate anger can help a person flourish.

Few of us share the kind of theology that Maimonides advocated, of a perfect God who created the universe and is un-moved by human thought or action. This problematises some of his assumptions about the virtues that one should cultivate to get closer to this God. Without the God-concept of Maimonides to support a rejection of anger and ensure our psychological wellbeing, we might think of Maimonides’ condemnation of anger as an unhealthy act of repression. Rather than advocating a move to patience from anger, one could feel that anger and explore what is underneath it. There is likely to be important learning within it.

A great way to explore anger is to feel it, and act on it in a safe context away from other people. Screaming out to God in open space, as advocated by the Chasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav is one helpful practice to explore this. Another way, as many of us know, is to hit things be they rocks, a punch bag or a pillow! Achieving catharsis of anger in a way that does not hurt anyone else is extremely healthy.

Perhaps then, Moses was acting appropriately, achieving catharsis by hitting the rock. So what then was his sin? Perhaps it was his inability to separate these two things: the task given to him by God to get water from the rock and his own anger that made him want to hit the rock. He did it publicly – the people who looked on as their teacher did this could not have understood the difference between the two. It might be healthy to feel, rather than repress anger, yet we must be careful to differentiate between actions that help us have a healthy expression of anger and actions that are ethically sound.

Student Rabbi Daniel Lichman

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.