Loving and Fearing God

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

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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.