Loving and Fearing God

Should Jews feel one emotion over the other--or both equally?

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

In Jewish thought the love and fear of God are to be understood as complementing one another. Fear without love can easily result in a too rigorous and ultimately stultifying approach to the religious life. Love without fear can just as easily degenerate into sheer sentimentalism. 

Biblical and Rabbinic Love

The great biblical text for the love of God is: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:5). "All your heart" in this context refers less to the emotions than to the mind: in the biblical idiom the intellect is located in the heart, the inner aspect of the human personality. "With all your soul" means "with all your being"; the Hebrew nefesh, translated as "soul," really refers in the Bible to what we would call the person rather than the soul. hand of GOd

But in early rabbinic thought the love of God is understood less as an attitude of mind or as an emotional response than its advocating a course of action. The rabbinic Midrash known as the Sifre, for example, has the following comment on the verse: "Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day (Deuternomy 6:6)." "Why is this said? Because it is said: 'You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart' and I do not know in what way God is to be loved, therefore it says: 'Take to heart instructions with which I charge you this day.' Take these to heart and in this way you will come to recognize God and cleave to His ways."

In this passage, typical of the rabbinic emphasis on doing the will of God, on the deed, love is understood to mean the practice of the precepts and the study of the Torah. This leads to, and in a sense is identified with, the "recognition" of God and attachment to His laws. There are passages in the rabbinic literature which do speak of the love of God as an intense longing for God's nearness. But the main emphasis in the rabbinic literature is on love expressed in the deed.

Love of God in the Middle Ages

The medieval thinkers, on the other hand, Saadiah, Bahya Ibn Pakudah, Maimonides, and the Kabbalists, do place emphasis on the mystical love of God. Maimonides devotes the opening chapters of his Mishneh Torah to an account of the marvels of the created universe, in the course of which he remarks (Yesodey Ha-Torah, 2.2): "How does man come to love and fear God? No sooner does man reflect on His deeds and on His great and marvelous creatures, seeing in them His incomparable and limitless wisdom, than he is moved to love and to praise and to glorify and he has an intense desire to know the great Name. As David said: 'My soul thirsts for God, for the living God' (Psalms 42:3)."

The Kabbalists not infrequently use erotic symbolism for the love of man for God, this being compared to human love between a man and a woman, but the pure love of God is often described without any erotic overtones. The Zohar (iii. 267a) understands the love of God to mean that the one who loves is ready to sacrifice everything he has and even life itself in his love for the Creator. "One who loves God is crowned with loving-kindness on all sides and does loving-kindness throughout, sparing neither his person nor his money."

In Hasidism the love of God generally means completely disinterested service of God with joy in the heart. Tales are told of a number of Hasidic masters who believed that they had forfeited their right to heavenly bliss. Becoming aware of this they declared that now they would have the opportunity of serving and loving God without any thought of self, not even that of the self enjoying the nearness of God for ever.

There is thus no single Jewish understanding of the concept of the love of God. On the whole, two distinct tendencies emerge. On the one hand, there are Jewish teachers, represented particularly in the rabbinic tradition, who prefer to speak of the love of God in terms of the practical details of the religious life. For them, to study the Torah and keep its precepts is the love of God. On the other hand, there are those who understand the love of God in its mystical sense of intense longing for the nearness of God and for communion with Him. But even this latter group of teachers emphasize the great difficulties in the way of attainment of their ideal and teach that in its highest reaches it is only for a few very rare souls.

Biblical and Rabbinic Fear

From the many references in the Bible to both the love and the fear of God, without any clear distinction being made between the two, it would seem, as many biblical scholars suggest, that the two are essentially identical with an intense relationship with God, especially as realized in ethical conduct.

The very expression "the fear of God" often refers to an extraordinary degree of piety and moral worth. Of the Hebrew midwives who defied Pharaoh's order for them to kill the infants the verse says: "The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live (Exodus 1:17)." Job is described as "wholehearted and upright, and one that feared God, and shunned evil (Job 1:1)." In the rabbinic literature, the usual expression for the fear of God is yirat shamayyim, "the fear of Heaven," by which is meant the determination to carry out God's will and not commit sins.

Fear of God in the Middle Ages

Nahmanides understands the positive precepts of the Torah--commands to do this or that--as based on the love of God and the negative precepts--not to do this or that--as based on the fear of God. Love is the motivation for action where this is demanded. Fear is the motivation for inaction where this is demanded.

In medieval Jewish thought, a distinction is drawn between two kinds of fear: fear of punishment and fear in the presence of the exalted majesty of God. The latter comes close to the feelings of awe and dread described in Rudolf Otto's phrase the "numinous."

The medieval thinkers believed in reward and punishment. It is not that they rejected the fear of punishment but that they believed this to be inferior to the higher fear of which they spoke. The Zohar, (i. 11b) remarks:

"There are three types of fear; two of these have no proper foundation but the third is the main foundation of fear. A man may fear God in order that his sons may live and not die or because he is afraid of some punishment to be visited on his person or his wealth and because of it he is in constant fear. But it follows that such a man's fear has no proper foundation. There is another man who fears God because he is terrified of punishment in the next world, in dread of Hell. Both these types of fear do not belong to the main foundation of fear and to its root meaning. But the fear which does have a proper foundation is when a man fears his Master because He is the great and mighty ruler, the Foundation and Root of all worlds and all before Him are accounted as nothing, as it is said: 'And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing' (Daniel 4:32)."

Hasidic thought is, generally free of references to the fear of hell-fire. In Hasidism the idea is often repeated that the fear of God has to be attained by human effort but the love of God is given to man by divine grace once he has attained fear. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev introduces into the concept of fear the Hasidic doctrine of annihilation of selfhood. In the lower fear a man is necessarily aware of himself since he dwells on his sinfulness. But in the higher fear a man is so overawed by God's majesty that he has no self-awareness at all, not even a sense of his own unworthiness.

In the [ethical] Musar movement the emphasis is placed on the lower fear. Taking a somber view of human nature, the Musarists say that only simple reflection on the severe punishments in store for the transgressor can penetrate man's stony heart. It is somewhat surprising that in modern Jewish theological thinking there is very little on the fear of God. This is no doubt partly because of the move from a God-centered to a man-centered universe and partly because of the unwholesome emotions the concept of fear is said to generate. But it is an odd religious outlook that can blithely ignore, for all its difficulties, such a deeply rooted concept as the fear of God.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.