Embracing the God of Anger: In Memory of George Floyd z”l, May 30, 2020
This has been a particularly painful, difficult week in the world. The callous murder of George Floyd has been haunting me all week.
I have to share that I am sitting here today in a place of a lot of personal pain and righteous anger. I am angry at the increasingly long list of everyday things that I can do and that others cannot do without fear — jogging, bird watching among them. I am angry at the fact that Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castille, Eric Garner, Trayon Martin, Tamir Rice and George Floyd and so many others will never have their lives back. I am angry that I live in a world where my friends and colleagues of color do not feel safe and worry every day about the safety of their children in a way that I will never have to.
I am angry by the responses I witnessed on a Facebook Group for moms that basically said it was “too political” for NYC moms to talk about their fears for their black children. I am angry that in a time of social distancing, people have to be in the streets in order for ONE of George Floyd’s murderers to be convincted of a crime.
Everytime I went to think about what to say this Shabbat, I struggled because of my anger. But then I went to study the text that we read today, and I found anger reflected in the text itself through the image of an “El Kana” — a jealous and impassioned God.
And I wondered: What might happen if we reclaimed this aspect of God and for ourselves, freeing space for righteous anger?
Today, we read the second iteration of the ten commandments, found in the Book of Deuteronomy. It is our reading for this in between time between Shavuot and our regular torah readings.
In the commandment not to worship idols, in both cases, the torah says:
לֹא־תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֥֣ה לָהֶ֖ם֮ וְלֹ֣א תָעָבְדֵ֑ם֒ כִּ֣י אָנֹכִ֞י יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ אֵ֣ל קַנָּ֔א פֹּ֠קֵד עֲוֺ֨ן אָב֧וֹת עַל־בָּנִ֛ים וְעַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֥ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִ֖ים לְשֹׂנְאָֽ֑י׃
You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me
וְעֹ֤֥שֶׂה חֶ֖֙סֶד֙ לַֽאֲלָפִ֑֔ים לְאֹהֲבַ֖י וּלְשֹׁמְרֵ֥י מצותו [מִצְוֺתָֽי׃] (ס)
but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.
While God is depicted as much more kind (1000th generation) than angry (3rd and 4th), God is still undeniably angry or at least (He has) with the potential to be and we see this played out elsewhere in Tanakh, especially in the prophets, when this idolatry thing really lures the Israelite nation.
Let’s be honest: the vision of an angry, jealous, impassioned Diety has not played well over the years. In fact, it has been for centuries among the greatest critiques of Judaism by Christian scholars and leaders who have contrasted the Old Testament God of Anger to the New Testament God of Love. If you google God & Old Testament, you can find many sources that support ongoing comparison and supremacy of the good god versus the old and grumpy one.
This is likely why speaking openly about God as angry may have us feeling a little embarrassed, a little shy — as we have absorbed many centuries of critique (at best) and oppression based on the vision of El Kanah.
The critiques of an angry God come also from within the Jewish community.
Yesterday we recited the 13 attributes — the 13 attributes were cut and pasted from a section of the torah, with the aspects of the Divine that were not so kind and compassionate excluded.
Maimonides interestingly teaches that the doctrine of Imitatio Deo- imitating the Divine — but he is also very clear that we should guard ourselves from ever becoming too angry, rather seeking “the middle path.” The discomfort with God’s anger seems to translate with discomfort with anger in general, and with rabbinic, medieval, Mussar and Hasidic teachers alike warning against the dangers of anger. In fact, Wikipedia has a page on Judaism and anger and it says: “Anger in Judaism is treated as a negative trait to be avoided whenever possible.”
I think it is time for us to go back to our Ur — original text — and reconstruct the God of Anger. To not be afraid of this God. And in the same pain to not be afraid of the anger that bubbles within ourselves. Instead of trying to distance ourselves from anger as much as possible, perhaps to embrace it, allow it, make space for it, and to allow it to motivate us towards justice.
To be clear: I am not speaking about all kinds of anger. It is not healthy or positive for us to hold onto personal slights. Interpersonal, relational anger is a topic for another time. I am talking about the kind of anger that emerges from the commandment we read today (and that I mentioned at the beginning): anger at those who deny God or godliness — those who deny the humanity of the other in their hearts and in their actions; and those who worship false idols — idols of power, supremacy, those who worship institutions over life.
I want to share two reasons why I think an embrace of anger, of El Kana, is a spiritual necessity in general and particularly in this moment. The first is informed by a mindfulness approach and the second is an approach from Abraham Joshua Heschel regarding the prophets.
The dismissal of the angry God historically has also meant that we too should be dismissive of the anger in our own hearts. That we should distance ourselves from anger. But I know from my own experience that when we embrace any emotion, including anger, we make space for our own feelings and most importantly we make space for the feelings of others. If we shut down anger, we do not have space for other people’s anger. If we allow ourselves to feel our own hurt and our own pain, we have the capacity to make space for the pain of others.
And we need that space right now. There are so many people who are hurting — black people who are hurting, brown people who are hurting. And they need to be heard in their anger. They need to not hear “Stop being so angry” like so many people say. We need to be able to tolerate and handle and embrace this anger to really be an ally to people who are struggling in the fight for racial justice, who are impacted directed.
Feeling — not denying — our emotions, including anger, is a window into empathy.
Now I want to return to a more particular Jewish lens with a teaching from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of blessed memory. In his book on the prophets, he writes: “Divine anger is not the antithesis of love, but its counterpart, a help to justice as demanded by true love.”
Divine anger is not the antithesis of love — it is its counterpart.
“Whoever said it is the God of Anger vs. the God the Love is wrong. The God of Love and the God of Anger are the same. The God that loves humanity and wants us to love the right thing is the same God is going to be angry when we do not do those things. This is a mirror for ourselves. Our anger is a reflection of our love. If we want to see humanity thrive, then we are naturally going to be angry at those who defy the idea that we are all created in the image of the Divine, that we are deserving of innate dignity and respond. We are going to be angry when society does not live up to its promise to serve all people. That anger is not bad — it is an expression of our love. It is not its opposite- it is its counterpart. We are angry because we love and we want to see the world be better and human beings be better.
Heschel also says, anger is a “help to justice” as demanded by true love. What does it mean for anger to be a help to justice, a demand?
If we love something and we know it is not being treated the right way, then we will be woken up to what needs to happen. We will allow ourselves to dream of a better world.
Audre Lorde, black activist and thinker, wrote , ““I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.”
It is the beginning of knowledge, a help to justice.
We know what can be better; we know what is wrong, and it is a call to justice. This anger, an expression of our love and our hope and our dreams, can become a tool to help us call out injustice and call for a better way of being in the world.
Heschel also said: “Anger may touch off deadly explosives, while the complete absence of anger stultifies moral sensibility.” Which feels resonant with the popular phrase: “If you are not angry you are not paying attention.”
I am angry. I am angry because I love. I love human beings. I love this gift of love. I want humans to thrive. And if we look into our hearts, we want every human being to thrive to their potential. And that is love.
Let ourselves feel the anger because it is a reflection of that love, that hope, that possibility.
Anger and love are not opposites. The God of anger and the God of love are not opposites. They are not two different gods. We need both. We need the anger to fire us up and motivate us. We need the love to sustain us. We need both.
In this moment of pain, of injustice, of uncovering layers of justice, I want to invite us to call on the God of love and the God of anger, the same God, to support us in our work. And I want us to dig deep into our hearts to make space for love and anger and to know that one is a reflection of the other. Let our anger and our love lift us up into a better tomorrow and let’s continue to fight.