Yirat Shamayim: Fear and Trembling?

In today’s age, we tend to instinctively recoil from fear. Perhaps the rise of science and the advance of technology has convinced us that we can master our fate and rid ourselves of situations which expose our weaknesses. Voltaire, the 18th Century French philosopher, confidently declared that modern civlization had finally conquered the terror of the daunting universe: “when I look at Paris and London I see no reason to fall into this despair… I see a place where men are as happy as human nature allows.” It remains unclear whether the Paris and London of today would still inspire Voltaire with such quixotic optimism. Nevertheless, Voltaire thought that modern society had finally vanquished the mystery and fear that gripped past societies.

Where science has not granted mastery over life, society has seemingly grown evermore uncomfortable with uncertainty and anxiety. When confronted with today’s genuine dangers, be it the threat of violent extremism or the silent spread of disease, the fear we do experience is compounded tenfold. In many ways, we are unable to live with fear.  A comment made by Montaigne almost five centuries ago still rings true today; “The thing in the world I am most afraid of is fear, that passion alone” (Essays, Vol. 1).

Jewish thought, however, seems to place fear at the very heart of its worldview. Not only is it something not to be avoided at all costs, but something to be actively pursued. Rabbinic thought in the Talmud is replete with statements underscoring the many virtues of fear, particularly that of yirat shamayim, fear of heaven.

First and foremost, fear is a trait which God Himself cherishes: “Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai stated: God has nothing [of man’s deeds] in His treasury except a store of the fear of heaven” (Berachot 33b). Fear is also seen as the keystone of knowledge: “Where there is no fear, there is no wisdom” (Avot, ch. 3). Torah scholars who lack fear of heaven are “considered to have the inner treasures, but lack the keys to the outer door” (Shabbat 31a). After decrying the futility of all human endeavours and the vanity of man’s efforts to change his world, Kohelet issues one final instruction to mankind: “When all has been considered: Fear God and keep His commandments for this is the whole of man” (Kohelet 12:13). Fear is nothing less than the very essence of man.

Given our innate inclination to escape fear, either by removing the objects of fear or by avoiding frightening encounters, the first question that pops to mind is not necessarily why people don’t fear God much these days, but why would they want to fear God at all? In short, why does fear attain such prominence in Judaism?

Many seem to contrast fear with the experience of love. Love draws people near to one another, removes barriers, spawns intimacy and grants security. Fear, on the other hand, reflects distance, isolation and often breeds insecurity. Translated into the religious realm, moments of love reflect our closeness to God whereas fear represents our incalculable distance from the Divine.

And yet, a strong strand within the Jewish tradition attempts to diminish the supposed distance between love and fear of God. Fear need not necessarily lead to alienation and insecurity. The proper dosage of fear actually encourages closeness and empowers. Love and fear can indeed co-exist as part of the very same complex experience of God.

200px-AE_Kaplan3
Kaplan was born in Lithuania, studying at the famed Telz and Slobodka yeshivot before his move to Germany.

One figure who sought to bridge the gap between love and fear of God was Rabbi Abraham Eliyah Kaplan (1890-1924). Kaplan was a budding Orthodox rabbi who sought to combine the intensely passionate world of Lithuanian Mussar with the academic and scholarly environment of German Orthodoxy. Kaplan was a remarkably creative and eclectic figure; he  composed poetry, began an extensive and novel commentary to the Talmud and wrote numerous philosophical tracts. Kaplan headed the esteemed Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary for four years until his sudden death at the tragic age of just 34. In 1925, Kaplan wrote an essay  entitled “In the Footsteps of Fear [Yirah]” where he presents his understanding of fear in the Jewish tradition.

Kaplan argues against those who connect fear with the negative feelings of dread, with those who associate fear with a “bent head, wrinkled brow, glazed eyes, hunched back, trembling left hand, right hand clapping al cheit, knocking thighs, failing knees, stumbling heels.” Fear should never be debilitating. Such associations, Kaplan argues, are “heretical” and disfigure the appropriate experience of fear.

Properly understood, fear offers us the sobering experience of seeing things as they truly are, without charm or illusion. “Fear”, Kaplan writes, “is to see things as they really are… Fear [Yirah] of God’s majesty is in truth the vision [Reiyah] of God’s majesty….Yirah is not pain, not anguish, not bitter anxiety. What does Yirah resemble? The tingle of the concern a father has for his beloved son while he carries him on his shoulders, dances with him, to be careful of him lest he fall… you have here an incomparable joy, incomparable gratification, and pleasurable concern is entwined within them.”

In Kaplan’s worldview, Yirah is the dampening but ultimately rewarding realisation that one is inherently limited, finite and, well, human. To cite another modern rabbinic thinker, Rav Tzadok Hakohen Rabinowitz of Lublin; “the very essence of fear is recognition of one’s shortcomings” (Tzidkat Haztadik, 212). Knowledge of one’s flaws allows one to approach life with honesty, sobriety and pragmatism. Unlike dread, which makes us shrink away, those who learn to fear in this positive manner grow ever closer to the feared object. In this work, Kaplan tackles the issue of fear in relation to the Divine, yet he believed it to apply to our wider experiences in life too.

Understood in this sense, love and fear are not as opposed to one another as we might have initially thought. Without Yirah, a sense of perspective, one loses touch with reality and remains less attuned to  one’s own weaknesses and human frailties. Confronting our fears admittedly might deprive us of our charmed and fantastical visions of our selves, but, embracing positive fear ultimately grants us a self-awareness that empowers us to experience life in a more genuine fashion. Rabbi Isaac Hutner (1906-1988) compactly summarised this sentiment: “Fear without love, surely there is a deficiency here of love; love without fear, there is nothing here at all” (Letters and Writings, 346).

One thought on “Yirat Shamayim: Fear and Trembling?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *