Loving and Fearing God

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

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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.

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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.