In our Jewish communities we often talk about how we are inspired by God and, in our prayer, about how we love and praise God, but one emotion we don’t often talk about these days is fear of God.
Yet in the Torah, and subsequently in the list of 613 mitzvot, we find an injunction to ‘yirat shamayim’.
The English translation of this phrase includes ‘fear’ or ‘awe of Heaven.’
Our generations have focused on the former, ‘fear of God’, the phrase our Rabbis used being ‘yirat haShem’.
Fear is generally a negative term. It has also many Christian overtones. While we know that Jews are not averse to ‘guilt’, the austerity and orthodoxy of Christianity contributes to adverse phrases such as “I’ll put the fear of God in to you.”
Such a reading does God a disservice.
So does the often-heard term ‘God-fearing’. To be so pious with regard to ritual law – in relation to God – can lead to religious anxiety; passing-up opportunities to engage positively in the world for fear of upsetting God.
Liberal Judaism errs towards an ‘awe of God’ understanding instead.
Yirah expresses an appreciation of the miraculous in the everyday and having a sense of awe and gratitude for the gifts that we have been given to affect the world.
In the words of The Liberal Jewish Synagogue’s senior rabbi, Rabbi Alexandra Wright: “It is tremble at the mystery, majesty and beauty of creation in wonder, appreciation and resolve to confidently use our freedom in God’s service so all know to love God.”
For me, awe wins over fear every time.
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein is senior rabbi at Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue