- Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence, and Fear of God
Upon waking, observant Jews for centuries have begun their days by reciting the phrase Reishit chachma yirat Hashem, namely, "The beginning of wisdom is the reverence of G-d." Those who wish to single out pious Jews for praise refer to them as Yirei Shamayim, people who hold Heaven (read: the Creator) in awe, a practice perhaps modeled on a phrase found in Psalm 115.
Multiple sentences in the Torah command Jews to revere G-d, including the decree in Deuteronomy 10:20, "You shall revere the Lord your G-d," and also "And now, Israel, what does G-d require of you but to revere [him]?" (10:12). The renowned scholar Nechama Leibowitz postulated that, based on four encounters involving Abraham, Joseph, the midwives Shifra and Puah in Egypt, and the nation of Amalek, the Torah holds awe of the Creator as a "universal ethical value" (p. 15) for which all people—Jews and non Jews alike—are held accountable. In short, yirat Shamayim stands as both shorthand for broader patterns of commitment and devotion in religious life and as an indispensable personal goal—more specifically a mitzvah (commandment)—for Jews. [End Page 158]
This volume, the latest produced by the Orthodox Forum series of conferences at Yeshiva University, simultaneously pursues two roles. First, it seeks to serve as a guide for interested scholars and practitioners seeking to deepen their own yirat Shamayim and second, to present sociological analyses of the obstacles confronting Modern Orthodoxy, in particular with regard to reverence for the Creator. Stern's introductory chapter illuminates this area of theology as a potential weakness in the Modern Orthodox community which has "not nurtured our own garden" (p. xvi) especially in areas of education and transmission of values. As "people with suburban lives" (p. 76), Modern Orthodox Jews often struggle with "laxity with regard to particular halahkot" (p. 316) and more particularly with the negative spiritual consequences of materialism and cynicism (p. 311). As Jack Bieler points out, modern Orthodoxy's lifestyle embodies "both piety and [material] excess, two values that are contradictory" (p. 228). Against this very modern backdrop of physical comfort and scientific empiricism (p. 243) the authors seek to define as well as dispel common but inaccurate notions of awe of G-d.
As is often the case with edited volumes produced from conferences, a number of the essays are at best tangential to the main subject, and the volume would have benefited from a concluding chapter which would draw out broader theoretical and pragmatic lessons (although the introduction does lay out the core themes within the book). Despite these minor editorial issues, the book as a whole succeeds handily in its task.
The book puts to rest any erroneous notions of yirat Shamayim as simply terror of G-d, that is, an "irrational passion of fear" (p. 24) produced when confronted with the unknown or, alternatively, potentially unpleasant consequences. That variety of fear is best captured not by the Hebrew root yirah, but rather by the root pachad, and the essays by Shalom Carmy and others do a fine job of emphasizing this point. Personally, I found Nathaniel Helfgot's argument that yirat Shamayim can be defined as "commitment to and observance of mitzvot, coupled with a passion for that observance rather than a lukewarm perfunctory behaviorism" (p. 84) convincing. Some scholars further categorize yirat Shamayim as "acknowledgement of one's dependence on G-d" (p. 384) and see it as part of the virtuous cycle which drives the acquisition of learning. Referencing the Maharal, Alan Brill states that "religious knowledge leads to fear and fear leads to higher knowledge" (p. 62). Thus yirat Shamayim pushes individuals upward in their engagement both with their Creator and his texts. Reverence of Heaven is one half of the force which connects Jews with G-d, and ahavat Hashem, or love of G-d, balances out this connection—as Warren Harvey writes (p. 16), the patriarch Abraham is...