I’m not a big fan of the term “God-fearing.” To me, it seems misused. It’s completely backwards and it makes no sense. How so? Let’s examine.
Imagine two individuals at two extremes of the religious/behavioral spectrum. One is a great, pious scholar. He studies, prays, performs acts of charity – the whole nine yards. The other is a drunken, womanizing, drug-dealing gambler. (I am not implying an inherent correlation of those behaviors, I’m just painting a picture.) Conventional wisdom would call the former individual “God-fearing,” but is that really the case? The scholar might love God and eagerly anticipate “meeting” Him in the Next World. No fear at all there. The reprobate might actually dread his eventual reckoning, even if he lacks the moral rectitude to change his ways.
When we announce the new month in shul, the text we recite asks that we be given “yiras Shamayim” and “yiras chait” – fear of Heaven and fear of sin. Fear of sin actually seems like a good idea. I’m not inclined to rob the poor box since I’m a moral person, but that doesn’t make me a perfect person. We’re all prone to weaknesses and temptation, so a fear of consequences could be a healthy disincentive when needed. But is Heaven something we’re typically afraid of? Clearly, “fear” must not mean “terror.”
Let’s frame things by looking at who else we’re supposed to “fear.” In addition to “Honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12), the Torah tells us, “Each person must fear his mother and father” (Leviticus 19:3). Most people have no reason to be scared of their parents – nor would their parents want that! So what does it mean?
The Talmud (Kiddushin 30-33) explains what is meant by “honor” and what is meant by “fear.” We honor our parents through the things we do – going to visit, calling before Shabbos, bringing them a cup of coffee. We show our “fear” of them through the things we don’t do. We don’t contradict them. We don’t sit in their designated places. The Torah does not command us, however, to hide under the bed when our parents come home. One “fears” a serial killer. What we do to our parents is show deference.
I think the phrase “fear of God” is an equally poor translation, largely because we are meant to love Him. A sane person does not love Charles Manson or Freddy Krueger while cowering in terror behind the drapes. If we were meant to fear God in that sense, we would be incapacitated by dread and anxiety at all hours of the day. No, that can’t be it. If we’re supposed to defer to our parents, then what we should do here is to revere God. We should be in utter awe of Him.
One way in which we would show our awe of God is by behaving modestly even when we are alone because He is still with us. Another is through how we act in shul. (If we would be on our best behavior when meeting the president at the White House, how much more should we be in awe when meeting the King of the universe at His “house!”) Sadly, most of us are not that good when it comes to “fearing” God as we should.
Conversely, there is a way in which we excel when it comes to fearing God, even though we shouldn’t. For some reason, Jews are afraid to talk about Him.
It’s true. We can go through yeshiva for pre-school, grade school, junior high, high school and college, yet never have a single class talking about God. Our textual skills can be fabulous. We know all about how to make tea on Shabbos and the intricate laws of lashon hara. We’re great when it comes to “the Torah says,” “the Talmud says,” “the Shulchan Aruch says,” and “Rav Moshe says.” But when it comes to talking about God, for some reason that’s beyond our comfort level. Too often, we act as if God is “He Who Shall Not Be Named.”
Not only is avoiding talking about God not what is meant by “Hashem, your God, you shall fear…” (Deuteronomy 10:20 – mitzvah #432 in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos), it actually impedes our performance of “You shall love Hashem your God…” (Deuteronomy 6:5 – mitzvah #418). Practically speaking, the Torah can’t just dictate our emotions, so how are we meant to love God? By getting to know Him. If we learn about God, we won’t be able to help but love Him. And for that, we need to talk about Him.
To that end, we are launching a new series on OU Torah, entitled The God Papers. This series is based on the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed) and is intended to get the God conversation going. Does God have a body? Does He get angry? What does His Name mean? If He can do anything, can He make a rock so heavy He can’t lift it? These and many other topics will be discussed over the course of numerous brief and accessible articles.
Hopefully, by engaging in God talk, we can overcome our Zeusophobia (the irrational fear of God). We can move from “fear” of God to proper awe and reverence, as well as to enhancing our ability to love Him.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.