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Oh the Humanity! On Anger and Forgiveness in the Jewish Tradition

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Tbird is the guest author of this post about anger and forgiveness. She recently completed her conversion to Judaism after years of study. Originally from New York, she now lives outside Denver Colorado and has a Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology from Colorado State University in Fort Collins. She has also been my friend for many years and is a constant inspiration to me. I hope you find her as inspiring as I do. 

Many belief systems call on us to seek out one another’s humanity, even in the darkness of people. We are asked to find a spark in the people who would hurt us or others.

The Quaker belief is that every life has value.

Universal Unitarianism holds the principle of “affirming and upholding the inherent worth and dignity of every person” at the top of their list.

As humans in the West, we are constantly told to be good, be polite, be kind to strangers, know compassion, let go of anger, and forgive. This is hard to reconcile when we know there is evil in the world; there are people who hurt children, murder neighbors, or think it’s a good idea to barbecue live kittens. How are we supposed to be nice, to affirm the inherent worth of such people?

In Judaism, the good and the bad both have a place. There is room for both anger and forgiveness.

There are debatably over 600 “mitzvot” or good deeds that are required by Judaism. Non-Jews have only the ten commandments of those 600+, but Jews have all of them that don’t require the Temple that was destroyed.

“Anger makes you smaller while forgiveness forces you to grow beyond what you were.” (Photo credit: deeplifequotes)

These laws include everything from various rituals, to a firm affirmation of monotheism to leaving the corners of one’s field unreaped so that poor travelers might have sustenance, to honest business dealings, to eating matzoh on Passover, to the proper care of the dead, and many more. Be good, be fair, don’t be bad, don’t be a cheater. Love the stranger as thyself.

Yet the bad urges are recognized. Anger, hate, fury, sadness; all of these things have a place too.

The bad is often the passion that pushes us forward. The bad is the passion that urges us forward a lot of the time. When the good urges and bad urges are in balance, we can live more fully. If we are only good and sweet and kind all the time … what happens to us?

Often we get walked on, taken advantage of, used. When we only rely on anger and fear, then what happens? We end up alienating everyone, hurting people, hurting ourselves. When we harness anger, we can make it work for us in positive ways.

When we harness the negative aspects that, let’s face it, we all have, then we can use that intense power and passion to accomplish great things. Moses, in the Torah, is a man of little patience. He’s also the man who gets the job done. His anger and frustration are used to find solutions, to ask for help, to inspire people to continue forward.

Had he only been a nice man, he’d likely have been driven to despair by the constant demands of the people as they marched through the desert on a seemingly endless journey. It was one man’s passion, balanced with goodness and righteousness, that drove him and thousands of others to accomplish a great mission.

Had Moses not used his anger, no one would have survived. They wanted to turn back, to quit, and they were not united in what to do in giving up, so they would have scattered at been lost.

We see this in recent history. It’s not the complacent nice guy who moves forward. It’s the man of passion, who believes in what he’s doing. It’s Bill Gates who gets it done. We don’t know the name of the nice guy who let someone else take his ideas.

Yes, it’s true, not everyone harnesses this negative energy for positive outcome. Hitler used only his anger and his fear, he balanced it with nothing else. His higher purpose was not for the good of everyone involved.

Certainly murderers have a passion to carry out what for most people are only expression of frustration. “I hate my boss, I wish he’d die!” Balance that phrase as an urge to change ones situation with the knowledge that murder is not an option, and you get a person who finds a better job or creates a startup company of her own. Without the balance, you get a person who comes to the office with a set of guns and ends up on the 6 o’clock news.

So how do we recognize the humanity in the person who has hurt us? Not the murderers on the news, but the people right up close, those who we interact with by choice or by necessity – how do we love these people as ourselves? How do we find a place for each person in a way that we can uphold that person’s dignity, even as he or she is working to trample our dignity into the ground?

In Judaism, the saying goes that if there are two Jews in a room there are three or more opinions. My solution is likely not going to be your solution. Your solution may or may not work for me. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t guidelines. In most mundane cases, there are two quick and easy ways to deal with conflict: Understanding or elimination.

If we can understand the motives of the person who would hurt us, perhaps we can find a solution to the hurt, fear, or anger behind that motivation. This requires lots of investment, and one has to hope that the payoff with be enlightenment on all sides so that understanding may be ongoing. For me, this is the best possible solution.

If we are aware that the person we seek to understand is not interested in being understood, or what we would seek to understand is so out of line with our own belief system, then we are left with elimination.

We seek to remove the person from our lives peacefully, with no ill will. I often liken this to disliking or being allergic to foods: Were I allergic to mushrooms, I would not have them in my life. That does not make the mushroom inherently bad or wrong or evil. It does not make me inherently bad or wrong or evil. It simply means that mushrooms and I should not interact. We are free to go about our own individual ways, seeking that which we can appreciate.

One can hold another’s humanity as inherently worthy and recognize that person’s dignity without having to interact, understand or even love that person. We can acknowledge and make room for that person’s beliefs without having to respect those beliefs. We can be angry and still offer forgiveness.

It doesn’t have to be about Good or Bad, it can be about balance. In daily life, there is plenty of room for all opinions, all ways of living, but that doesn’t mean we have to subject ourselves to that which is not good for our own individual path in life. We can take a short cut or go the long way around.

And, I am told, now that I am a Jew, I can hold another’s worth as inherent and still have the right to stand up and say, “I think you are completely wrong, and here’s why.” Because I am allowed to affirm and uphold the inherent worth and dignity of myself as well.


  • ANGER: Right OR Wrong? (thecounselingmoment.wordpress.com)
  • Forgive Me God, For I Am Human, Every Day. (elephantjournal.com)
  • The Wilde Weekly: Forgiveness and Acceptance (zen-haven.com)
  • Is your anger is killing your art? (sethgodin.typepad.com)
  • Wonder and anger (sethgodin.typepad.com)
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