While much of their discussions are focused upon how we observe Judaism, from time to time the rabbis turn their attention to the why. On today’s daf, the rabbis consider a profound question at the heart of Jewish observance: Is it better to follow God’s path out of love or fear?
Both positions have a basis in the Torah. Deuteronomy 6:5, the first line of the first paragraph of the Shema prayer, states: “You shall love your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” And Leviticus 19:14 says: “You shall fear your God.” These verses, and many others like them, root our commitment to serving God in both these powerful emotions. But is one superior to the other?
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: Greater is the one who performs mitzvot out of love than the one who performs mitzvot out of fear, as this endures for 1,000 generations and that endures for 2,000 generations.
Rabbi Shimon suggests serving God from a place of love is preferable to serving God from fear — perhaps twice as preferable, for its impact endures twice as long. Two-thousand generations is a really long time, but so is 1,000 generations. Even if we take these numbers less than literally, we can safely assert that Rabbi Shimon believes that while acting out of love will sustain us longer, both are effective.
Follow a short discussion of Rabbi Shimon’s teaching, the Gemara shares an anecdote that takes another stab at this question:
Two students who were sitting before Rava, and one said to him: It was read to me in my dream: “How abundant is Your goodness, which You have laid up for those who fear You” (Psalms 31:20).
And one said to Rava: It was read to me in my dream: “So shall all those who take refuge in You rejoice; they will forever shout for joy, and You will shelter them; let them also who love Your name exult in You” (Psalms 5:12).
Two students share with their teacher Rava verses that came to them in dreams. One verse concerns the reward for fearing God, and the other concerns the reward for loving God. In response, Rava says to them:
You are both completely righteous sages. One sage serves out of love, and one sage serves out of fear.
Love and fear, says Rava, are both righteous paths and the students should not fret about the difference. Both, in the end, are fully righteous.
Modern science has taught us that our motivations are complex and that there are many factors that shape our decisions. Those who choose to live a Jewish life choose from a wider palette than just love and fear. Whose choices are more righteous? We could, like the Gemara, ask this question. Yet it might be wiser to follow in Rava’s footsteps, viewing all who count themselves as part of the Jewish people as completely righteous. Indeed, this may be the path toward ensuring that we endure for the next 2,000 generations — and beyond.
Read all of Sotah 31 on Sefaria.