Do we love God, or mostly fear Him?

The title itself – suggesting that fear, not love, primarily defines our interaction with God – may offend some readers deeply.  Easy enough to understand why, as it sounds so negative about the experience religion mandates.  After all, we’re reminded daily, in perhaps the most important prayer we say, the Shema, taken verbatim from the Torah, that “You shall love your God, with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your resources.” (Deuteronomy 6:5).

So why is it that people may fear, far more than love, God?  There is no daily instruction to “fear” God (even though, quoting the Torah, we’re reminded twice daily in prayer that if you sin, “then the wrath of God will blaze against you.” Deuteronomy 11:17).  Still, the Shema basically says “You need to love [not fear] Me!”  Every single day, four times a day if we are in full compliance with the regimen, we’re commanded to “love” God.  Nothing about fear.

In that iconic moment when God tested man, He directed Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac on an altar.  Satisfied by Abraham’s unimaginable willingness, the angel of God, perhaps God Himself, told Abraham to stand down –   “  .    .    . [F]or now I know that you are a God-fearing man   .    .     .”  “God-fearing man,” not God-loving.  Curious.

But think about it – can one be “ordered” to love another?   Do you love your spouse because he or she insists? No, one does not gain love by demanding it, although one likely commands fear if you present as sufficiently powerful or imposing. God does demand that we fear Him (“God, your God, shall you fear” Deuteronomy 10:20).  And He inflicts punishment after punishment on mankind, which has the irresistible impact of inducing fear.  But yet, our daily invocation of His name is about love.

Insisting on love seems counterintuitive, especially when God seems to enforce that love largely through fear – even the Shema tells us the consequences of not loving God.  Could it be that we choose to love Him precisely because we fear not doing so? It’s almost, please pardon the suggestion, like expressing your love to someone with a figurative gun pointed at your head.  This all sounds cynical, I admit – perhaps the words of a skeptic who finds disagreement with the very concept of loving God.

In the dark night of your soul, when you think about your interaction with God, how do you see the motivating characteristic that connects you to Him and the religious observances you practice in His Name? When you piously observe the Shabbat and deny yourself the things that give you pleasure, when you meticulously observe the laws of kashrut and deprive yourself of foods you crave, when you abstain from inappropriate relationships, when you desist from taking false oaths in His Name, do you do so because you love God?  Or because you fear Him?  Is it both?

Yes, there are surely those among us whose belief in God is principally motivated by love –  individuals who are so committed to God on some serene level, who will say that fear doesn’t count for much in the equation. And maybe, even, they see “fear” as something totally different than do the rest of us. For them, maybe, “yirah” is significantly different than “pachad.”  “God-fearing” means God-loving; whereas “pachad” means dread. They would argue that the Angel (or God) was commenting that Abraham was influenced by awe, not dread.

Interestingly, despite the yirah versus pachad escape hatch, one would think that rabbis, who typically try to put the religion’s best face forward, would seriously disagree with the view that fear is the prime mover or motivator in man’s relationship to God. To that end, I took an unscientific, anonymous, poll of a number of rabbis – mostly, modern orthodox.  Love vs. fear.  Here are the somewhat wide-ranging results:

  • “Most people worship more out of fear. Love takes more work.”
  • “There is no question that they fear God much more than love God.”
  • “Depends on the Jew. There is certainly both, and since fear is baser, it is probably also more common.”
  • “I think there’s more to it than just love versus fear. ‘Religion by routine’ maybe has its origin in fear of God, but it is not a good representation. Genuine awe and fear of God takes constant work, but when properly cultivated can be profound, powerful, meaningful – and even joyful.”
  • “Neither. Modern Orthodox Jews function for the sake of community structures. Schools, shuls, protection, etc. Of course fear is an easier experience to develop than love. I’m not sure that most normal people think about the heavenly consequences of actions more than the social ones.” (Is this what some might call “Social Orthodoxy”?)
  • “Honestly, between my family and other experiences, if I could generalize, Ashkenazim fear a God they don’t care for, and Sefardim love a God in a naive way.” (This particular answer surprised me.)
  • Finally, “If I had to choose between the two, I’d say fear is the primary response. If I got more specific I’d say it depends upon the community. Some emphasize love and some fear. Personally, I think post-Shoah, ‘love’ is the relationship that needs to be emphasized. If allowed to move beyond these categories, I’d say apathy or ignorance is far more prevalent than love or fear.”

Lest it go unsaid, I have not canvassed non-rabbi observers or, perhaps more illuminating, Jews who strongly believe in God but don’t engage in the rituals that Observant Judaism requires. Yes, rabbinical scholars have mined the depths of Torah thought, particularly as it relates to the Patriarch Abraham whom the Book of Isaiah refers to as God’s “friend” (ohavi) and “the seed of Abraham who loved Me” (Isaiah 41:8).

Beyond that, Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, whose thoughts on the subject I accidentally came upon, has argued that Abraham is not simply “God’s friend” or “one who loves God,” but rather “one who fears God – out of love.” He adds that fearing God is the more basic attribute to which everyone must aspire – if man only loves God, he is liable to see himself as God’s equal. He concludes that because Abraham was the great “lover” of God, he had to face the dreadful test of the Akeida, which experience was entirely one of fear to prove the balance – that he was filled with a love “intertwined with fear” (whatever this might mean).

To be sure, every individual, at day’s end, must find his or her own way to God.  God tells us to fear Him; He tells us to love Him.  And we who pray as is expected – required – likely (but who knows, for sure) revere Him with some combination of love and fear.  I suspect, however, that those who believe but don’t observe the pious and ritualistic technicalities of daily observance of God’s Law may well love, far more than fear, Him. Does that mean they love God more than do the more observant — that, by not obsessing with God’s many dictates about fearing Him, they are able to more purely love Him?

Sure, the non-Observant may become disturbed by, even angry with, God just like the rest of us when things are bad, or when tragedy strikes. But when things are in balance, when “life is good,” isn’t the non-Observant believer less distracted by the aforementioned  “religion by routine” or even “compulsion” — regimens that significantly impel those who see God as our Father who stands ever ready to punish our non-compliance?

Finally, lest the reader be left adrift at sea with the thoughts of one unscholarly commentator, I conclude quoting Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik’s iconic essay, “Rupture And Reconstruction: The Transformation Of Contemporary Orthodoxy” (Tradition, Vol 28, No. 4 (Summer,1994)):

Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that individual Divine Providence, though passionately believed as a theological principle – and I do not for a moment question the depth of that conviction – is no longer experienced as a simple reality.  With the shrinkage of God’s palpable hand in human affairs has come a marked loss of His immediate presence, with its primal fear and nurturing comfort.  With this distancing, the religious world has been irrevocably separated from the spirituality of its fathers, indeed, from the religious mood of intimate anthropomorphism that had cut across all the religious divides of the Old World.

It is this rupture in the traditional religious sensibilities that underlies much of the transformation of contemporary Orthodoxy.  Zealous to continue traditional Judaism unimpaired, religious Jews seek to ground their new emerging spirituality less on a now unattainable intimacy with Him, than on an intimacy with His Will, avidly eliciting its intricate demands and saturating their daily lives with its exactions.  Having lost the touch of His presence, they seek now solace in the pressure of His yoke.

Rabbi Soloveitchik seems to contend that the Observant today no longer fear God in the same manner that they used to.  Rather, they now look to the demands — he calls them “exactions” – that inhere in religious observance in an effort to fulfill their relationship to God.  But since he adds that the moderns are also less spiritual, does that equate to a conclusion that the moderns fear God more than they love Him?

I imagine, at day’s end, each individual must find the idiosyncratic answer for himself or herself – and that’s the way it probably should be.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are Mr. Cohen's and not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers. Dale J. Degenshein assists in preparing the articles on this blog.
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