Friday, July 10, 2009

Weekly question by Rabbi Moss:

I just wanted to ask you for some direction regarding fear of G-d. I was brought up with a Christian perception of G-d as an intimidating figure to be scared of. I embraced Judaism as I thought it sees G-d as more loving and forgiving, but I've noticed in Jewish sources references to G-d as being something also to fear. This is conjuring up all the negative feelings toward religion from my childhood. Can you shed some light on fear of G-d?

I think this is a translation issue. The word fear conjures an image of something scary, like a haunted house, or a dark alley, or a parking cop. I understand why you would recoil from a religion that promotes fear. We should not feel about G-d what we feel towards a bogey man.

Indeed there is a concept in Judaism called "Yiras Shamayim", translated as fear of heaven. But fear misses the true meaning of the word. A better word would be respect.

While love must be a primary motivating factor in our life, we also need a healthy dose of respect. The difference between love and respect is that when I love, I am preoccupied with my feelings toward you; when I respect, I am focusing on your presence rather than mine. Love is my desire to approach you. Respect is my deference to your otherness, your right to be who you are.

When you love someone but do not respect them, it ends up being all about you. The other is simply an object of your love, their opinion is not taken seriously, and they are not treated as a real being. Someone who loves their spouse but does not respect them never leaves space for the other to really exist. If you love your parents without respecting them, then you actually don't have parents, just good buddies. A friend whom you don't really respect is no more than a convenient accessory to keep you company when you are in the mood.

Respect means acknowledging someone else as being a valid and important being, to be listened to and honoured. It means looking up to someone and realising that there are things about the other person that we just have to accept, like it or not. Put simply, respect means taking someone else seriously.

So we love G-d, we feel close and intimate with Him, but we also respect that He is G-d, a real being, with expectations and demands. He is our parent whom we love, but He is also a king whom we must obey. It is this awe and respect that prevents us from thinking that G-d is just an extension of our own ego, a being that we can bend and stretch to fit in to our own image of Him.

Respect, not fear. There's no bogey man. Apart from parking cops, there's nothing to be scared of.


  1. Right on the money ! When Rabbis or Judaic scholars argue relentlessly on how the fear of Hashem is like this metaphor or that example, the first misstep is to compare any of those examples to one's relationship with Hashem. Chumash tells us that fear of Hashem will grant 1000 generations with reward; love of Hashem will grant 2000 generations. Nowhere does it say fear and love of Hshem will net 3000 of your generations with reward. Just as I would never say that someone's fear of Hashem strenghtens their faith, the same thing goes for my faith by way of love without fear. Furthermore, Erev Shabbat is highlighted by the joyous Lecha Dodi, meeeting our Bride. Marriage that contains even anb ounce of fear is a type of Hell.

  2. I would never ARGUE that one's fear of Hashem doesn't strengthen their faith in Hashem. iT WORKS FOR THEM. It doesn't work for me ... that point may not have been clear in the earlier post