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)."

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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.