by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Wherever we turn, anger seems to be the prevailing mood. It is not just the political climate wherever you turn. It is so unproductive but is one of the most common of emotions.
Together with guilt, it is probably the least constructive. Freud liked to characterize Moses and God as angry. But like any emotion, there are positive and negative aspects to them both.
To make matters more complicated, the anthropomorphism of the Bible, ascribing human emotions to God, makes it impossible to take words literally. God does not have rising blood pressure when angry, or a hand or arm, or a sore throat. And of course, to try to identify post-Freudian emotions and pathologies to the Bible makes no sense at all even if many of the emotions themselves are similar.
You might have thought that God would be angry with Adam and Eve for disobedience in the Garden of Eden. But no such word as anger appears until Chapter 4:5 when Cain is angry because his sacrifice was not accepted by God. The word Vayichar is used, which elsewhere describes hot passionate anger, and here seems to stem from jealousy, which leads Cain to kill his brother. God’s response, is not anger but outrage, and cold punishment. Cain then realizes the enormity of his crime and tries to repent. So that the aim of a rebuke is to correct, rather than to vent.
Despite the convention to use one word for anger, there are at least eight different words in the Bible for anger (and more if you include the unusual words and contentious vocabulary of the Book of Job). Were they simply words, fashionable at different times? Simply poetic? After all the texts spanned almost a thousand years and languages have many elements that evolve and change over that time. Or simply the idiosyncrasies of the authors?
The words Chara, Chari, or Charon are often used together with Af and are commonly translated as anger, passion, or burning. They are used by both God and human beings. Af comes from the word for a face, so it indicates showing anger to others in addition to feeling it. Then there is Katzaf, sharp anger, used by human beings when someone has offended or insulted them. But it is also used by God, for natural plagues, and revenge. Cheyma is hot, passionate, and burning anger. Zaam, overflowing anger or irritation. Evra excessive anger. And the most common word used post-biblically is Ka’as. The Mandelkern Concordance suggests a range of Latin words pumare, vehementia, ira, fastus, aegritudo, indignare, irasci, and provocare. So clearly, the Romans were just as preoccupied with anger as the Israelites!
Two well-known Talmudic sayings are “He who loses his temper, Ka’as, is rejecting God”. Or a “Person is judged by Kiso, Koso, and Ka’aso. How he spends his money, how he drinks and how easily he loses his temper. But then why does the Talmud like to use Ka’as instead of all the other earlier Biblical words that supposedly mean the same thing? Because the pun is easily memorable.
I would distinguish three kinds of Biblical/ Talmudic anger.
The anger of disappointment is what one feels when someone lets one down. Which I take to apply to God’s anger in the Bible, with human beings specifically, or Israel, in general, who betray Divine authority. The theological concept of Imitatio Dei, Imitating God, in Hebrew is the single word Kadosh, holiness. It signifies that we should try to follow ideal human moral behavior as required by God. And that is what is meant by saying that man was made in God’s Image. Having the capacity to identify good as opposed to evil.
This moral anger is based on the idea that there are bad moral and personal choices we humans make all the time. It is important to distinguish between good and bad. We should indeed be angry at bad people and evil actions. We should and indeed must be able to say that Putin is an evil man. The relativism that says that anything can count as moral, we can have our own moral standards, that we can do as we please or with what we can get away with, is the diametrical opposite of a religious or moral way of thinking. It goes against the idea that we should avoid evil people and evil actions and there is something called intrinsic evil.
The other kind of anger is what we would call frustration. Losing one’s cool under duress. Such as Moses hitting the rock because he has been put under such constant pressure. And the anger that often makes fools of ourselves when we overreact to naughty children. It often indicates a lack of self-control but also a sense of our failure to educate and discipline.
And finally, there is the anger of education or deterrence.
It seems to me, that the plethora of words for anger in all its variations, is intended to underline the severity of the problem of anger as much as its deterrent effect. We tend to act differently when other people are watching. Often one is tempted to modify actions either to avoid being embarrassed or on the other hand to make a point and achieve an effect. I would like to suggest that the number of different words in our texts for anger, indicates both the complexity of the emotions involved and more importantly encourages us to rise above the immediate passion, and look towards the nobler goals of life.
Or maybe it is just because we have had so many reasons to feel angry about, life, history, and even with God! And yet the amazing thing is that despite all the reasons one might have for anger, we are discouraged from dwelling on the offense, or the pain. We should try not to dwell on the negative or let anger drag us down. Instead, focus on the positive. Or to quote Monty Python “Always look on the bright side of life.”
Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.