Getting Real: Yirat Shamayim as Fear of God

As anyone who’s read very many of these article knows, I strongly advocate developing evolved, both time-and-place-appropriate practices in our faith. While I don’t know what these emerging changes will look like, I do know what they shouldn’t look like. We must never enslave our spiritual work to narcissism, to ego-flattery, to comfort/therapy, nor to making Torah practice acceptable to the outside world (there is nothing within normative Torah practice that advocates violence or dishonesty, so there is nothing to excise, but many of our mitzvot do transcend the rational, which has become a false god within the faith of secularism).

The oft-stated purpose of our Avoda, holy service, is to partner with The Creator in bringing the world to its ultimate perfection. Since we can’t know in advance what that will look like, and even if we could, the project’s complexity greatly exceeds human intellect. Thus, we rely on God and the Torah, even though the link between mitzva practice and desired outcome is rarely, if ever, comprehensible. Rather, out of our love, and the implicit trust that love implies, we hand over our individual autonomies to God.

Ultimately, nothing is scarier in human life than losing control. Losing it to other people, especially in a political/military sense is terrifying and every people, every nation strives to protect its security and autonomy. As Jews, that struggle has historically been highly ineffective–this is an area in which we are, indeed, the world authority.

On a personal level, little is a terrifying as an intense loving relationship. Much as we long for it, faced with completely opening ourselves to another, dropping all of our defenses and privacy, few are willing to go all the way. To fully trust our lives and tender needs to the hands of another is conceivable only when we assume responsibility for the welfare of that other person, providing them the reciprocal safety to fully give themselves as well. Even many successful and long-term marriages don’t go that far. We are, indeed, terrified of love.

Likewise, when asked to fully trust The Creator, saving nothing in reserve, holding no “hole-card” up our sleeve, we tremble. This is the Yirah, fear, that on its own is debilitating but, combined with the Ahava, love, allows us to fully travel the path to our, and His, goal.

This approach discredits basing “new halacha” on its inner psychological effects, whether it calms us, makes us feel good, “spiritual” or “connected”. Of course, we might feel all these things, but often we won’t, or at least they will be long delayed, perhaps beyond our individual lifespan. We also gain nothing, only lose, watering down our millennia-old practice to bring it into conformity with surrounding society. This is the lesson we preach but forget, year after year, around the upcoming festival of Chanuka when we had to defeat exactly that assimilation with Greek culture. “If only we weren’t so different, so separatist, if only we were “universal”, the world will love us,” is a false hope that has brought only death and destruction upon us over the generations.

Much like choosing a single mate out of the pool of all potential lovers begins with the overcoming the calculation of “could I maybe do better?”, as Jews we also have to overcome the gambler’s fear of staking all on a single roll of the dice.

Although our tradition, our prophets and sages, assure us that we ultimately will win, taking that step is truly Yirat HaShem, absolute fear and terror, not awe or awareness or any other euphemism we might prefer to make it less scary.

It’s time to get real and take the journey armed only with the ultimate sense of Ahava, love of God.

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4 Responses to Getting Real: Yirat Shamayim as Fear of God

  1. Beautiful style of writing. A few questions. a. Are you equating halachah with HaShem? b. Do you advocate all male poskim? c. Why are you conflating the psychological with a feel good approach? Are you advocating we abandon Reb Zalman’s Integral Halachic approach? (I prefer to call it kavod lev halachah), where the depths of authentic awareness and change that become possible can be excruciating and/or healing as psalms so often reflect? I write as one of his early partners in developing the concept (as is Danny Siegel) and as a present day practitioner. d. The Zohar describes yirat hashem and ahavat hashem as the mitzvatic (hope ok to make up a word) two wings for our lives, very foundational mitzvot…if, without that freefall of Love our souls can’t fly, nor without that Awefilled Trembling freefal, Yirah…soaring and plunging in Emunah would the psychological ultimately have burst out into visibility to join a arba olamos dimension equality of awareness; is it your sense Hashem does not want us to use all of our capacities to evolve and support one another when it comes to halachic frameworks? On what are you basing that? How do you do a “get” for example, were someone like me or my newly frum step-daughter to place our souls in your hands in Trust of a healthy, holy, halachic process? with gratitude, GOldie

    • Only a partial response as this could be a long discussion over time.
      No, halacha is halacha and to equate it with God would, in my mind, be obscene, limiting God to an infinitessimal slice of the infinite reality. Halacha is a/the technique given by God, either via or as the Torah (depending on perspective) to perform the mitzvot which is the “blueprint” for our job of completing/perfecting the world according to God’s standards. We’re the builders, not the architect, to extend an admittedly inadequate analogy. Halacha, as opposed to Mitzvot (and one can define, from a certain aspect, Torah as the 613 Mitzvot) evolves in order to work in specific times and places.
      As to Reb Zalman, alav hashalom’s Integral(I remember a previous incarnation when it was psycho-halacha) Halacha, I’m not one of his musmachim (and after a single conversation very early in our relationship, neither of us thought it worth developing) so I don’t think I’m bound to his derech. Some I agreed with, some I disagreed. I am, and he valued me as such, an “orthodox” rabbi who is open to and admiring of many aspects of Renewal, and as someone willing and eager to share my own years of experience and education and thought with Renewal. We learn from each other and hopefully we all grow to fulfill our unique neshamot. I think that the perceived emotional effect can be useful as a “thermometer” of how effective the mitzva performance was, but all too often that has become (and I’m not taking aim at Renewal, but at a much wider phenomenon (and far from all Renewal-niks fall into the trap) the entire purpose of Jewish practice. To me, the only goal is to build the Geula state-of-being and many times that seems to be agonizing, even if there are times it seems ecstatic.
      Of course Ahava and Yirah need to function together, to dance together. I hope I didn’t give the impression of separating the wings. Rather, and this would be my “elevator presentation”, love contains terrifying aspects. (I guess I need a tough editor!).
      My smicha is Yora Yora and not Yadin Yadin. I have no pretensions of being a posek. If nominated I will not run, if elected I will not serve. I lack the training.
      I advocate very few poskim today, male, female or otherwise.
      Of course I believe and actively teach that God wants us to use the entire being He gave us. But, I’m willing to give up my “architectural opinions” and defer to employing myself (and urging others to employ themselves) to following the blueprint. Which, as you know me and as anyone who has ever heard a single word of Torah from me knows, excludes uniformity, lock-step-marching and otherwise extinguishing our unique flames.

  2. Appreciate your thoughtful response. When you say blueprint and mitzvot, and point to contemporary idolatry of the rational, There is much agreement between us. When you advocate few poskim, and speak of the antiquity/integrity of the Halachic system, do you have a model in mind for evolving Judaism so that tens of thousands wouldn’t have continued to smoke and a high percentage die declaring smoking hadn’t been banned under halachah? or are you advocating the mitzvah of Shmirat HaGuf overrides the need for a ruling and many Rabbonim, as irrational embodied human beings simply didn’t have the spiritual, intellectual, emotional or moral strength to stop themselves from the addiction as role models for their communities? in such a top down system, is there a missing balance that might call structure where amcha can cease idolizing Rabbonim and hold them accountable? What measures might help our people improve the health of our relationship with the blueprint and its arbiters? why would few be better? can healthy innovation be expected in that circumstance, for in nature that which doesn’t change and differentiate into varieties becomes extinct…what bandwidth of partners in the development of our tradition is important, your stimulating discourse leads me to wonder…Reb Zalman called for “a consensus of the pious” and pushed some of us to serve in that way, leaving me to wonder what pious means in our time. your original post, seems to give part of your answer…is there more?

    • I don’t think that halacha trumps, or is supposed to trump, common sense. Just because a rav or a rebbe might have many followers, he isn’t necessarily an authority on anything. I’m not sure we’re supposed to have a top-down system as has evolved, largely in the galut. עשה לך רב, should be taken as applying to oneself–not necessarily making oneself a rabbi or a rabbinic authority, but, simply, to grow up, to make yourself big.
      I’ve come to find much of the distortions that bother both you and me to be integral elements of “circle the wagons” Judaism, and while I greatly appreciate that style as having been absolutely necessary to preserve our people and our tradition in the galut, by definition it is a defective, emergency modality. Although I do want and fully intend to return to Eretz Yisrael, even if I don’t I’m convinced that the only future for Judaism, and an evolving Judaism, is there. But I can’t describe or begin to envision what that evolved and evolving way of building and maintaining our relationship to God, how we’ll go about the “finishing touches” of our millennia-old tikkun olam project. Not only is it emerging, it is being revealed to us as it emerges.
      I think there will be a return to a more realistic, less romanticized practice, perhaps illuminated by the Yerushalmi (I don’t have enough direct experience yet with that, nor does anyone have much experience of actually applying it to Eretz Yisrael-based Judaism). I’m pretty passionately convinced that the developing complexity of science and society and technology are not abberations in Hashgacha Pratit, but rather new conditions which must be positively and joyously engaged (for example, even in Israel the concept of small, free-hold family farms, the yerusha to return to every 50 years, is untenable. As is the sense that antique shmitadd will benefit the poor in today’s society).
      But I don’t think there is any positive value for anyone to force their thoughts and visions of the future/paradigm-shift/evolving Judaism since, again returning to the architect/contractor metaphor, it’s just not our job (not said to avoid responsibility, but, rather, to take full responsibility for actually doing what we’re supposed to do).
      I’m not a fan of most contemporary halachic “authorities” since it often seems to be a scene from a banana republic rather than an enterprise of holiness. The type of rote expertise which is all but a very very few gedolim posses, is inadequate to make one an actual authority. Nonetheless, I am convinced that the only way we can learn each new step is through the media provided to connect us to that, Torah and Mitzvot (albeit performed in the manner that is effective when and where we’re performing them, not in some mythical past). However, although there are many nice practices in other traditions, and I have no problem with people within those traditions doing their assigned jobs (it’s not only us Jews who take a part in the enterprise), but I don’t think there is any constructive value in our applying those techniques and values to our own.
      Again, as we start to feel at home in our home, I think we’ll start to get the idea. And I don’t think we’ll need to battle the intransigent smoking-advocates because they too, maybe kicking and screaming (but we all kick and scream when we need to give up the security of repetition and have to start thinking and trying and, yes, often failing), but each of us can only get “there” as we all get there together.

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