Should We Fear God or Love God — or Both?

Moses' message to relate to God through love, not only through fear, is especially relevant in the modern age.

Commentary on Parashat Vaetchanan, Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11

What is the proper emotional attitude to take toward God? In our day, as in the past, religious human beings divide into two general camps. Some argue that we must fear and venerate God, while others stress the need to love God.

The two modes of relationship, fear and love, have a long history within Judaism. Both yirat shamayim (fear of heaven) and ahavat ha-Shem (love of God) find ample attestation in traditional and modern writings. While most Jews retain elements of both, individuals and communities tend to stress one tendency over the other.

The natural consequence of a stress on fearing God is to expect human-divine relating to work in one direction. God commands and people obey. Halacha (Jewish law) is treated as immutable because people, including community leaders, are overwhelmed by a sense of their own inadequacy and insignificance. The highest form of human response becomes complete, unquestioning acquiescence.

While fear of God may be important as a secondary value, preventing the diminution of God into a rubber-stamp of our latest preferences or our most egregious shortcomings, there is a long precedent that gives priority to relating to God in love.

This week’s Torah portion highlights the value of ahavat ha-Shem as a primary mode of Jewish piety. Standing before the assembled tribes of Israel, Moses recalls the stirring moment at Mount Sinai when God gave the Ten Commandments. He then continues with the Shema, reminding us of God’s unity and pledging our loyalty to God’s exclusive service. Immediately following, Moses continues his instructions to the people by telling them, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” For Moses, the most important component of serving God is to love God.

In his commentary to the Torah, Rashi (11th-century France) affirms that judgment. He explains that Moses meant, “Perform God’s commandments out of love. One cannot compare a person who acts out of love to one who acts from fear, who serves a master out of fear. When the latter feels overburdened, he leaves and goes away.” Rashi, keen student of the human heart, knows that fear can motivate behavior only so long as the power of compulsion remains. As soon as the source of fear loses its strength, service stops.

So, too, those who serve God primarily through fear do so only as long as it “works” for them. Once they no longer see their service as exempting them from the hazards and disappointments of life, their inducement for serving God also stops.

Perhaps it was for this reason that Maimonides (12th-century Spain and Egypt) insisted that serving God out of fear is not “the standard set by the prophets and sages.” At best, he claims, it is a useful educational measure “until their knowledge shall have increased when they will serve out of love.”

What was true then is even more true now. Modernity, with its insistence on the worth of the individual, on the ability of humanity to progress, has moved us beyond the utility of fear as a functional training device. If Jews who wish to be modern also desire to draw close to God, they will do so out of love. What is crucial, then, is to become open to perceiving that love. Through the beauty of nature around us, we can experience God’s love as Creator.

Through profundity of our sacred Jewish heritage, we can integrate God’s love as the honen da’at, the One who bestows wisdom. Through the performance of mitzvot (commandments), we can takken olam be-malkhut Shaddai, repair the world under the sovereignty of God. And through the acts of compassion and caring from those we love and our community, we can experience God as the Gomel Hesed, the one who bestows lovingkindness.

Reprinted with permission from American Jewish University.


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