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How does Judaism define Fear of God?

By

Rabbi Goldwasser

Rabbi Jeffrey Wolfson Goldwasser

Question: How does Judaism define Fear of God?

How does Judaism define fear of God? The Lord asked the Israelites (Hebrews) to fear Him. I figure it can't mean to be incapacitated or run screaming because that would take/keep you away from God.

Answer: Thanks for your question about "fearing God." I'm glad you ask it because many people, I think, misunderstand the term.

The most common terms used in the Hebrew Bible for "fearing" God are words related to Yirah. This word's root also appears in related terms used in the rabbinic literature: Yirat HaShem, "Fearing God's Name"; Yirat Shamayim, "Fearing Heaven"; and Yirat Cheit, "Fearing Sin."

There is no one-to-one correspondence between any two words from two different languages. While Yirah usually is translated as "fear," its usage suggests a meaning that might also be translated with the English word "awe." Different Hebrew words are used in the Bible for the kind of anxious fear one might describe as "dread" or "loathing."

The Hebrew Bible's concept of "fearing God," therefore, can be compared to the feeling of looking at the nighttime sky and being awed by the immensity of space and simultaneously terrified by the thought of our smallness in such a vast expanse. That is to say, it is the feeling of being overwhelmed by a reality greater than oneself and greater than that encountered in ordinary life. It is the feeling that the theologian Rudolf Otto called the Mysterium Tremendum.

That is a different experience than the anxiety one has in the course of everyday life -- although, it must be admitted, they are not distantly related as human emotions. What is clear to me, though, is that "fearing God" is not a compulsion that makes you cringe or causes you to make poor choices, as you might if you always were afraid of a person or thing.

Rather, "fearing God," is living life with a trembling awareness that life has meaning -- that the choices you make have consequences of ultimate significance. To "fear" God as a Jew means to hone within yourself an awareness of the divine Presence around you all the time. One who fears God in this way would never say, "It does not matter how I behave in this circumstance because no one will ever know."

To live in this way is a profound and spiritual experience. Yet, Jewish tradition says that, in addition to experiencing the fear of God, a person also should develop an awareness of the love of God. The Jewish liturgy says that God loves us with an unending, infinite love. Just as we wish to feel the awe of God around us, we also should desire to know and to feel that we are loved -- deeply and passionately -- by God.

I hope this addresses the question you have asked.

L'shalom,
Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser

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