Why Does Jewish Tradition Compare Anger to Idolatry?

The Talmud (Shabbat 105b) compares one who gets angry to one who worships idols. Why? Clearly, on one level, the intention is to underline the gravity of the fault. Similarly the Talmud elsewhere compares one who humiliates another in public to one who sheds blood (Bava Metzia 58b). This is of a piece with the Talmud’s great concern to elevate the sensitivity of the mitzvot bein adam l’chavero (interpersonal commandments) to exquisite levels. 

There is a deeper meaning to be found, however. What is idolatry? As the Psalms and Isaiah affirm (Psalms 97:7; 115:4; Isaiah 44:6-23) it is to worship the work of ones own hands. On that level, our technological age may be the most idolatrous in history. Pertinent to this discussion, however, is an understanding of the inner dynamic of anger. When we are angry, what are we angry at? The person who we believe has hurt us? Yet when we are angry we do not see that person as they are. We are in the possession of what Spinoza called “inadequate ideas”: conceptions which fall short of the full intelligibility of what faces us; ideas which separate aspects of the object of our thought from a larger causal web and distort that object in the fires of our passions (Ethics). As Spinoza wrote in general terms, and several Rabbis have also said with regard to this passage, anger separates the hated object from its reality as grounded in God and His will. 

In short when angry we are worshipping a conception which is not of God but is the work of our own hands. We do not attend and reverence the being who we believe hurt us; rather we attend and reverence a being of our own making, a hateful caricature of Gods child formed of our own hands and lifted not only above truth but also above ourselves. Anger is never in our own best Interests. As the Buddha said, “Anger is like a flaming torch that we pick up to hurl at another, wounding our own hands first.” 

Anger is like idolatry because it is the worshiping of a creature of our own creation which we hold above the reality of Gods creation. The actual human being, the infinitely complex personality mixed of good and bad, is in their essence, in their true name, formed in the image of God. The Hebrew word for image, tselem, is the same word used for an idolatrous statue in the Torah (eg. Numbers 33:52). This shocking congruence teaches us that the human being is the only acceptable idol, the only representation of God that we can approach with lawful reverence. It must, however, be the person as they actually exist. This is the living reality who can not be fairly caricatured and needs to be approached as much with unknowing as knowing, as much with love as justice.  It is this balance that is obliterated by anger, which affirms a cheap and simplified knowing, an arrogant and superficial claim to justice, and is incompatible with love.

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Freelance journalist and writer. I have been published in the Forward, the Jewish Independent, Tikkun, Elephant Journal and elsewhere.

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