There are constant reports about religious tensions in Israel and how one sect denigrates and delegitimizes another. One religious group is consumed with anger at others, and secularists are angry not just with the haredim, but with religion, too, and with God.
When I read these reports, I can’t help thinking about the Book of Jonah, which we read on Yom Kippur afternoon – especially the passage near the end when God says to Jonah: “Are you right to be angry?” Jonah’s anger is about a tree, but it could have been about anything. No wonder the sages say: “Whoever gets angry is as if they worshiped idols!” It is a succinct judgment about anger, or at least the wrong sort of anger. Interesting. It seems that we have to learn to be angry at the right things.
Someone I know was angry because when the procession led by the cantor and rabbi carried the Torah around the synagogue, the rabbi didn’t smile at this person. Someone else was angry because he came to a service for a yahrzeit and didn’t get sh’lishi, the third aliya. A husband was angry because his wife didn’t buy the right butter. Another person was angry because of an event in the family when he was a child.
What a good question it is: Are you right to be angry? Are you wasting good anger on trivialities? If you’re going to be angry, be angry at injustice, exploitation and deliberate falsehood. Be angry, if need be, with God. I remember that one of my most successful Australian radio broadcast series was on the theme of confrontations with God. As a Jew, I knew that one may, and sometimes must, face up to God.
Not that I found it easy to explain this to a conference of navy chaplains when I was senior rabbi to the Australian Defense Force. After I had given a talk on a biblical theme, one of the chaplains stood up and said that sometimes things happened that seemed so unfair, he wanted to shout at God, yet he knew it was wrong and one must never argue with God. He was still unconvinced when I told him that in the Bible, man was constantly angry with God. Abraham was, and Moses, and Job.... And I quoted a Holocaust survivor who said: “At home we used to say, ‘If God lived in my village I’d break all His windows!’” The theme of the long Yom Kippur prayers is our human wrongdoing. Actually, there could be another side of the story, a liturgy of Divine repentance toward His creatures.
In the Jewish theology of covenant, each side has obligations; each is entitled to recoil when it sees the other not living up to its covenant responsibilities. Parallel to our viddu’i, or confession, about sins against God, maybe God should make His own confession about times and ways in which He seemed to have let human beings down, and plead with human beings for their understanding and mercy.
Whether this apparent parity is appropriate deserves consideration. Regardless, though, people do get angry with God – and they certainly do with rabbis. Members of every community have long-standing hang-ups about rabbis – especially, it seems, Orthodox rabbis.
As you can imagine, I know a lot of rabbis. I have been a member of the rabbinic profession for well over 50 years.
I recall the late Rabbi Jacob Danglow saying at a Jewish function in Melbourne: “I have seen rabbinic comings and goings – and their goings-on.” There are rabbis who deserve criticism – and rabbis who don’t.
Yet the real things that people should be angry with are not rabbis, but human beings generally (not excluding rabbis) who are mean, unjust and unfair.
Someone once told me, ”What‘s wrong with you is that in your view, the best way from Point A to Point B is a straight line. Others of us prefer to be more devious.”
I’m not angry with my critics, though at first I do get upset if people speak to me in a negative way. I concede that sometimes their criticism is warranted, in which case they mean it as a criticism, but I see it as a compliment.
They wouldn’t say what they do if they didn’t think I was worth it.
While I am being personal, let me tell you that other criticisms I heard of myself. “Your beard is too short.”
“You spent too much of your life at universities.” “You mix too much with Christian clerics.” I’m afraid I’m guilty as charged.
When God asks Jonah, “Are you right to be angry?” it’s a good question.
Are we right to be angry with other people? Sometimes yes, but let it be in the terms that the Talmud reports of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, who disagreed but nevertheless always spoke civilly to one another (Eruvin 13b).
Somehow they knew how to disagree agreeably.
But more importantly, let’s be angry at things, attitudes and policies that cause intolerance, humiliation and suffering in society. Let’s be angry – but let’s use our anger constructively to help make society better. Let’s be angry at ourselves because we have compromised our principles and connived at things that should never occur. Let’s be angry with ourselves, but handle our anger in a positive way to make ourselves better human beings.
It is said that when Jacob Epstein was a boy, he crushed a bird to death in his hands. Ashamed of himself, he thereafter used his hands creatively and became Sir Jacob Epstein, the famous sculptor.
If we want to be angry with God, that’s fair enough.
From ancient times, people have been questioning Him and His governance of the world. Abraham said: “Shall the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” Moses asked: “Why have You dealt evilly with this people?” Job for his part wanted to take God to court.
But let’s remember – hard as life can be with God, it’s much harder without Him.
If we claim the right to be angry with God, let’s allow Him to be angry with us too. Let’s plead for time to mend our ways and resume our covenant relationship with Him.
The retrospective (Sephardi) version of Kol Nidre asks Him to forgive our errors of the past year. The prospective (Ashkenazi) version asks Him to understand if we go wrong in the year ahead. It’s good to combine the versions, looking back and forward at the same time.
We need both past and future in the covenant. We need each side to treat the other with forbearance, forgiveness and a liberal dose of humor.
The author is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney