(This was delivered on September 30, 2019, as a Rosh Hashanah address to the congregation I serve, Machar, The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism.)
We’ve come to the part of our proceedings where the rabbi talks at you for a while.
Before I begin, I need to let you know that we’re talking about anger, and we’ll be talking about trauma. I won’t be going into deep detail, but — if you find that you need space, or need to step out, please do what you need to take care of yourself.
Every year that I’ve led High Holidays services — here, in Indiana and Arizona as a student rabbi — I’ve been asked, “What if I can’t forgive?” Sometimes it’s asked simply as a matter of curiosity. But often, that question isn’t the real question that’s bothering someone when they ask.
Often, the real question is whether it’s okay to be angry. Because we’re angry often: sometimes over small things, sometimes over not-so-small things. Many of us here today are at least a little angry almost all the time, as we — and I include myself in this group — watch the ever-accelerating betrayal of the values we thought our society stood for.
I want to share a story with you. It’s not my story; it’s the story of someone who is an early-career Jewish community professional. Rakhel Silverman currently works with Jews United for Justice in D.C., and is a childhood abuse survivor. They open an article written for the Jewish Women’s Archive this way:
To the rabbi who gave me a pamphlet on forgiveness when I was in inpatient care for childhood trauma:
(They used all four letters.) Rakhel continues:
My fellow Jews, now that the High Holidays are here it’s time we had a little chat.
What to you may be just another time of year is one I dread for months.
I have always been told that not forgiving someone is a sin. This haunts me every year when I hear sermons and read about the importance of teshuva (repentance), and granting others forgiveness.
I am told it is not just for the good of the perpetrator, but for myself. People view forgiveness as the secret to healing, as if it isn’t a long painful process…
Imagine yourself in Rakhel’s place — and many of us are or have been. You’ve suffered trauma — irrevocable, life-changing harm. And year after year, you encounter the High Holidays, which traditionally compel forgiveness, while living in a broader society that celebrates it.
This is true for secular Jews, as well. Year after year, day after day, our society pushes us to forgive. We come to High Holiday services and receive another push to forgive, even as we wrestle with the consequences of what has happened to us.
Our cultures — secular and Jewish — condemn anger and praise forgiveness. Even when they might offer exceptions to those values, they do so only grudgingly. We are, the culture says, supposed to forgive.
The rabbis of the Talmud made this the traditional Jewish position 1800 years ago. For sins between one person and another, we’re told, Yom Kippur does not atone until the offender appeases the offended (m. Yom 8:9). Until forgiveness happens, atonement — in other words, the offender’s fate — hangs in the balance.
But the rabbis also said that when asking for forgiveness like this, assuming the request is sincere, one need only ask three times: after that, the person who refuses to grant forgiveness is considered a sinner (b. Yoma 87a-b; Maimonides, MT Teshuva 2:9).
This is what Rakhel was talking about in their article. You’re supposed to ask for forgiveness — and you’re expected to forgive, and forgive ungrudgingly. You only get three chances before the tables are turned. There’s an exception to this — if the other person isn’t sincere and hasn’t started on the path of teshuvah, of repentance, you don’t ever have to accept. But how do you know they’re sincere?
Truly, you don’t.
And so, as Rakhel writes, we’re pressured to act as if healing “isn’t a long and painful process…as if there’s some way to heal that I have been too prideful to consider.” You’re somehow — and Jew tradition provides no real guidance as to how — supposed to just … stop being angry.
To raise the stakes, our secular culture disapproves of anger, and Jewish tradition views anger as nearly poisonous.
The Talmud says at one point, “Every person who gets angry is like someone who worships idols” (b. Shab. 105b). A Hasidic ethical work, Sefer Ha-Midot, says that angry people are sickly, go blind, and contract leprosy. An 18th century ethical text, Mesillat Yesharim, goes so far as to tell us that ideally, one should never become angry. There’s a single, small exception: teachers and parents who might need to intimidate students into studying get to pretend to be angry. (Since Heather, our school director, is here — please don’t tell our teachers that yelling at the kids is a teaching tool.)
But the rabbis also display some amount of intuition that there’s something wrong with all of this. The Talmud (b. Yoma 87a) tells a story about Rav, one of its greatest sages. Rav, we read, once decided that with Yom Kippur soon arriving, he should help along toward atonement a particular butcher that he thought had wronged him. So, Rav presents himself to the butcher. The butcher sees Rav and says, “I have nothing to say to you.” The butcher then hacks angrily into a bone, a splinter of it flies off, and the butcher falls dead.
We skipped a part of the story here, however. You see, while Rav is on his way, a student of his sees him walking. Knowing where he is going and why, the student says of Rav, “Abba [Rav’s real name] is off to commit murder.”
This being a story from the Talmud, we can twist it and turn it dozens of ways. Most of those ways can tell us a lot about anger and forgiveness, whether the story is true or not.
It lets us know what forgiveness is: it’s an act that indicates that one person has agreed to restore the status of a relationship with another person, after that relationship was knocked out of whack when the first person was harmed by the second. It’s often transactional: it’s something that can be sought or offered, though it can also be entirely internal.
Forgiveness is also about anger. Rav’s student sees where Rav is going and says, “Abba is off to commit murder.” This — the vindictive desire to see someone pay for their harmful behavior — is anger. Anger is what forgiveness — freely given, genuine forgiveness — is supposed to cut off.
But why the pressure to forgive? For the rabbis, everyone is meant to have pity for everyone else, because everyone is in the same general situation: everyone’s atonement depends on the willingness of others to be gracious, and the grievances of this world are supposed to pale in comparison to the joys of a messianic age.
Why so much attention on dead rabbis?
Because this framework of forgiveness and relinquishing anger comes into Christianity, too. And, through Christianity, this is the framework that came into secular culture. But secular culture is secular: divine reward and punishment aren’t supposed to be relevant. And yet, gutted of the motivations that make it work, we retain a framework of forgiveness that rests on a foundation of the supercharged fear of divine punishment.
And forgiveness is its own bundle of contradictions.
When we forgive, we set aside our anger — or so we think. But often, we actually feed our anger. Anger causes us to want someone to suffer, to endure some kind of loss — even if it’s just in terms of status — for having harmed us. When we offer forgiveness, all too often we give anger what it’s asking for.
Think of that saying, “Be the better person.” If someone asks for forgiveness, they lose face; they suffer. Even if they don’t ask — even if we grant forgiveness only in our own minds — we often tell ourselves a story that makes us “the better person.”
That just encourages us to be angry again, because — even if we’re uncomfortable admitting it — when we’re “the better person,” we’ve often also satisfied a desire for comeuppance.
This is what the Talmud puts its finger on when it tells that story of Rav and the butcher. Rav — he thinks magnanimously — makes himself present to accept an apology. But Rav’s student sees the truth: “Abba is going to commit murder.”
Rav doesn’t set aside his anger. He centers it.
Offering forgiveness can make anger more powerful. And the pressure to forgive is so strong that it warps our society.
Even as #MeToo revelations continue, for example, the powerful men whose behavior has been exposed often believe they should quickly be able to resume their positions in life. This isn’t only because they’re self-entitled and offensive, though that’s often also true.
We’re expected to let bygones be bygones. So we shouldn’t be surprised when the Harvey Weinsteins of the world expect to be forgiven quickly: society tells them over and over again that they will be. As Rakhel Silverman notes, “there is a larger societal problem of blaming the victims and putting the burden on them to fix their situation, and then to forgive the abusers.”
I’ve painted a bleak picture: I’ve just said that one of the keystones of the entire season we’re in, the idea of requesting and granting forgiveness, is often incapable of dealing with the worst kinds of offenses. Even where the anger-forgiveness process isn’t totally broken, putting it on an annual clock prematurely cuts off dealing with anger while paradoxically encouraging it. And there’s no reason to be beholden to that annual clock, because the real motivator for scheduled forgiveness — direct divine reward or punishment — simply isn’t one we accept as true.
So…do we just stay angry? Do we forgive prematurely, knowing that we’ll just get angry again? Or do we just hang around with Princess Elsa from Frozen and sing “Let It Go” until we actually can let it go?
As Humanistic Jews, as people who take the secular seriously, we have a way to solve this dilemma.
We shouldn’t solve it. We should do something different.
As Humanistic Jews — which means, as Jews with a Humanistic view of ethics — the main question we have to answer is, “What good does this do, and whom does it hurt?” That’s what Humanistic ethics is about: what happens when I do this?
It starts here: when you are angry, be angry. But be angry safely. For many of us, therapy may be part of this. Self-harm isn’t altruism.
For some people, forgiving may be the next step. For routine anger, for hurts within the family that aren’t deep ones, or the everyday scraps of work and life, forgiveness can often happen, and can be the right thing. Our love for one another or our mutual interests can often overcome our anger, and expressing forgiveness is often actually healing, restorative. Sometimes, too, simply having a good-hearted attitude — something the Greek philosophers called eudaimoneia — is enough to move us past the everyday hurts. And these are most of our relationships, most of the time.
But what about when forgiveness feels impossible because the anger doesn’t fade, or the harm seems too outrageous?
Maybe you’ll be ready one day to forgive.
But maybe you won’t.
Maybe you won’t. And you can absolutely say, “My rabbi said that I don’t have to.”
I’ll back you up. I’ve got business cards.
And if I’m honest: Will I forgive people who, while claiming to act in my name, create policies that cage children in frigid warehouses without parents, without medical care, and without beds or blankets? I probably won’t.
These collective offenses hurt us, but aren’t ours to forgive; in fact, I think we have a responsibility to do teshuvah for them, to help repair some of what’s been broken. But I am still angry about them, and I probably won’t stop.
At the same time, if all I do is refuse to forgive, I haven’t really lived up to my obligations as a Humanistic Jew. How does being angry or being unable to forgive actually make a difference to anyone? For I still haven’t answered the question, “Then what?”
Perhaps the best guidance we have for the “then what” comes from the experiences of trauma victims. They have things to teach us about anger.
Audre Lorde, an African-American poet, librarian, thinker, and social activist, addressing the dismissiveness with which she and other feminists of Color had been received by white feminists, wrote in her speech, “The Uses of Anger”:
I have seen situations where white women hear a racist remark, resent what has been said, become filled with fury, and remain silent because they are afraid. That unexpressed anger lies within them like an undetonated device, usually to be hurled at the first woman of Color who talks about racism.
But anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification, for it is in the painful process of this translation that we identify who are our allies with whom we have grave differences, and who are our genuine enemies.
The angers between women will not kill us if we can articulate them with precision, if we listen to the content of what is said with at least as much intensity as we defend ourselves against the manner of saying. When we turn from anger we turn from insight, saying we will accept only the designs already known, deadly and safely familiar. I have tried to learn my anger’s usefulness to me, as well as its limitations.
Rabbi and psychologist Tirzah Firestone, in her recent book Wounds into Wisdom, tells the stories of patients she’s treated who had deeply traumatic experiences. Often, for the Jewish patients, their pain is compounded by the intergenerational epigenetic effects of trauma that we are only beginning to understand.
Rami’s story in Rabbi Firestone’s book is particularly noteworthy.
Rami’s teenaged daughter was killed in a bombing. Rami was, of course, stricken with grief — and also with nearly uncontainable rage. But he realized that he was very near to committing the same kind of blindly destructive act that took his daughter’s life. A chance encounter with a friend led him to a bus station to meet other parents who had lost children to violence.
The first person off the bus was a Palestinian woman. Around her neck hung a photo of her daughter, killed in an Israeli military operation.
Rami was angry — but he was also open to seeing…something. And what he saw was another person’s humanity, and her lost daughter’s humanity. Humanity turned his heart.
In that moment, Rami says, “I found a reason to get out of bed in the morning…. The ability to look into the eyes of Israeli or Palestinian kids before they go into the army or into the ‘terrorist organization’” — the air quotes are Rami’s — “To put a crack, some doubt, some question mark into their thinking… Every nod of the head is a miracle. And I see so many miracles” (Firestone 135).
Rakhel, whose story we started with, writes,
Last year I led my Hillel’s meditative Neilah service [the service that ends Yom Kippur services in many congregations]. In picking liturgy and writing a sermon, I struggled with the dissonance I felt between the meaning of the day and my reality. How can I talk about teshuva when I have not forgiven my demons? How can I lead a negative service that may damage my peers’ self-esteem the way it hurts mine?
I then realized that I had autonomy to reframe and mark this day in whatever way I felt was right.
So this year, Yom Kippur is a time for me to practice radical self-forgiveness and acceptance.
Audre Lorde didn’t stop being angry. Rami hasn’t stopped being angry. Nor has Rakhel. But their anger helped them find purpose.
The answer is not, “Stop being angry and forgive.” The answer is to find purpose in it. Examine your anger. Understand it. Let it provide you with direction — not for comeuppance or to make you the “better person,” but to change what created it so that others don’t suffer, too.
My wish for you is a sweet and happy New Year. But I know all of us will have a year touched with anger, and so my wish for you is that you also have a year of renewed purpose — that you wrestle with your anger and come out the better for it.
If Audre Lorde could; if Rami could; if Rakhel could; we can, too.