To Awe in Hashem and His Creation

In several places in Torah, Hashem commands us to love Him with all our hearts and with all of our being. We are also likewise commanded to fear him, that is, to revere and respect him. Hashem presents himself to us in a manner ancient people could comprehend as a divine king. Unlike many other ancient nations who saw their monarch as the “living g-d” or manifestation of the g-ds, in Judaism no man holds this station. Hashem is Himself the divine king. The highest human leader of the Israelites whether a King or Queen, a Shofet (Chieftain), or President or Prime Minister is still but a humble servant of the highest authority, the divine King. A king should be beloved among his people, who should show him appreciation, deference, and respect; so too for Hashem. The people must also fear their king, for to break his laws means to suffer punishment. This simplifies the relationship to Hashem such that mankind can easily comprehend what our divine King demands of us and how we relate to Him.

Why are we commanded both to love and to fear Hashem? Beyond His relationship to us as a divine King, how are these commands to be made manifest in our daily lives? What of the apparent contradiction between love and fear? I will draw here upon the wisdom of three great Jewish philosophers to discuss what it means to love and to fear Hashem. The diverse views and contributions of these philosophers will grant still greater understanding of the topic. 

Maimonides (the Rambam), who lived in the late 12th Century, is among the greatest of Jewish philosophers after the inspired age and one of the greatest Rabbinical thinkers of all time. Maimonides wrote that to love Hashem means to live one’s life in a manner that demonstrates the love of Hashem and also to be an example to others of righteousness. Our love of Hashem should shine so brightly that it should attract others to live likewise righteous lives. To fear Hashem means to obey His laws above all else. Maimonides goes further, however, that to study and learn philosophy and science, to understand life and creation, is likewise demonstrating a love of Hashem. We should not allow our fear to overcome our curiosity and prevent us from learning and studying. Living a righteous life, setting a positive example that not only demonstrates our love of Hashem but also draws others to the path of righteousness, and studying life and creation answer the commandments to love and to fear Hashem.

Another among the greatest Jewish philosophers, this time a secular Jew, was Baruch Spinoza who lived in the mid-17th Century. Spinoza was purportedly booted from his synagogue for his studies of philosophy and science, which led him to choose a secular life. In his book The Ethics, Spinoza argues that feelings or emotions rather than representing separate and distinct responses to circumstances, are primal having opposite expressions in varying degrees of intensity. Love and hate, for example, could thus be argued to be essentially “flip sides of the same coin.” All emotions are, in Spinoza’s view, the combination of a passion, an object, and time. To love someone is to feel passionately about them, at the greatest degree of intensity one seeks the absolute best interests of the other to the abnegation of one’s wants and needs. Likewise, to hate at the ultimate intensity is to seek the absolute harm of another and their destruction likewise to the abnegation of one’s desires and necessities. Thus, this passion for another person can be expressed in opposite ways and to varying degrees of intensity. 

One might sacrifice more for a child or a romantic partner than for even the most beloved friend. One might hate an enemy who has done them serious harm more than they hate the person who received the promotion to which they felt entitled. Can the love and fear of Hashem be, in truth, the same passion expressed in opposite ways to the intensity of one’s faith? Is not the root of love and fear awe? To awe in something or someone is to love and revere them so also to fear and respect that person. Spinoza would tell us that they are the same feeling expressed in different ways. We express our awe of Hashem by learning His laws and precepts, by understanding the underlying principals by which He sought to guide us (as recorded in our scriptures), and to study the lives He gave us and His creation at large. We express our awe of Hashem by being His representatives in this world among our fellow humans by being a positive example, a light unto the nations. 

Maimonides likewise expressed the concern that should we fear too much and fail to study life and creation then we will also diminish ourselves and show a lack of love in Hashem. Did Hashem not give us sentience and rational minds that we may learn and explore? Did He not tell Adam to go around the Garden of [ignorant] Bliss (Gan Eden) to name the plants and animals? Learning and study are part of our mission in life. Not just the learning and study of the Torah and its precepts, but also of the greater universe. There has been a challenge in recent centuries whereby some of those who learn and study cease to have faith. The thought leaders of several major religions have resisted more rational thinking that would challenge their authority personally and, in their minds, the authority of religious doctrine. Likewise, those who study science have slowly begun, at first unintentionally but as time passed with increasing deliberateness, to interpose their scientific discoveries with religious thought. Thus, a conflict has emerged between the two.

How do we study and learn so as to demonstrate our awe in Hashem and our love of Him and His wonderous creation without deviating from the path of righteousness? It is certainly possible to do both. Here I introduce the third Jewish philosopher to the discussion: Jacub Al-Qirqisani is widely hailed as the greatest Hakham (wiseman or sage) of the Karaite Jewish movement. His early 10th Century writings came in the flowering of medieval thought in the Middle East. Muslim conquest had united Persia, wherein Qirqisani lived, with North Africa, and Spain. Aware that they lacked the knowledge of how to govern their vast realms, the Arab rulers of this empire had the Greek and Latin texts translated into Arabic and thus began a study of Greco-Roman and Persian philosophy and science. In this blossoming of intellectual pursuit Qiriqisani wrote his primary work: Kitab Al-Anwar. This multi-volume work addresses many topics and brings together the ideas of Anan Ben David, prior to this a persona non-grata of Karaite writers, with the maintream Karaite thought. He also describes the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic movements up to his time. 

Qirqisani addresses early in his work the question of whether one should study philosophy and science and also how to go about it. He encourages the study of higher learning in strong terms but adds some caveats. He lists a number of things a scholar must take for a given prior to entering into his or her studies. First among these, that Hashem is our divine King and we must observe His Torah and His commandments. A certainty and faith in the ultimate truth being thus firmly established, the scholar can go forward to study. One must pursue his or her studies in terms of awe; loving and fearing Hashem. It is Hashem’s creation we are studying. Those who perceive a conflict between that which they have learned and their faith are failing to show sufficient awe in Hashem either by allowing their studies to weaken their faith or by closing their minds to the pursuit of objective science. Those who study science and say there is no g-d are foolish lacking faith in fundamental truth and morality. Those who say science is flawed and should not be studied and that religious thought should be substituted as “literally true” are likewise failing to demonstrate an awe in Hashem and His creation.

Of course our scriptures are literally true: they convey moral truths and precepts, they teach us of the nature of man, they tell us of creation that it was deliberate and that it was Hashem who is behind it all. Yet, the Torah is clearly not intended to represent the whole of human knowledge, it is intended as an ethnography, an explanation of moral truths and guide to morality, and as a constitution for a holy nation; Hashem’s firstborn son among the nations. The law teaches us right from wrong and guides our conduct. It organizes our society and protects the rights of all people. It establishes institutions of human authority that, while corruptible in their being made up of flawed men, are intended to hold fast to the tradition of the Torah. The Torah was not meant to teach us of evolution, physics, biology beyond where it was necessary to make mention of them in conveying principled truths. The apparent conflict is therefore of our own making. Men who studied science sought to interpose alternate ideas of random chance for the work of a conscious universe. Men who practiced religion jealously guarded their authority and in a vain, if perhaps well intentioned, effort to defend the authority of religious doctrine. They created a conflict that should never have existed. 

Whether the world is 6,000 years old or 6 billion, whether everything was created in six Earth days or 15 billion years, whether Hashem made man right from the dirt or evolved him over millions of years (made up of minerals and liquids of the Earth) are questions that are largely irrelevant to the moral truths of the Torah. Yet, it is extremely important to the advance of human knowledge and capacity that we pursue science with an open mind. From the conspiracy theories that center on Earth being flat to the current biophobia of academia regarding biological sex and its neurological and behavioral consequences, those who deny established science do harm to our society. Scientists have weakened science by engaging in political efforts. Religious leaders have likewise weakened themselves by refusing to accept science. If faith is to survive these times, it will require the faithful to awe in Hashem in His laws and the beliefs based upon them and to awe in His creation through the study of objective science.

 It is true that Hashem created everything in His own timeframe and He conveyed the story of creation in a way that gave meaning to it so as to make certain humans of all times, generations, and of various levels of intellectual prowess could understand it. This does not mean He wished us to show Him the disrespect of failing to study His creation. The study of science is an act of faith, it is to awe in Hashem. It could be argued to be a necessary pursuit included in the commandments to love and fear Hashem. The weak of mind and faith will argue science versus religion, while those confident of their faith, who are righteous and living in awe of Hashem will see no conflict and will instead learn and study. 

The Torah tells us both to love and fear Hashem. Maimonides argues that this requires first the living of a righteous lifestyle to be a light to one’s community and encourage others to love Hashem, and to love Hashem’s creation by studying it scientifically. He notes that while we must fear Hashem that we should maintain our faith in Him and our adherence to His laws we must not allow fear of knowledge to prevent us from loving Hashem by studying creation. Spinoza helps us clarify that love and fear are the same feeling with different expressions and that in this way, they are the same passion: to awe in Hashem. Finally, Qirqisani, who preceded Maimonides, reminds us that though we wish to study and learn, we cannot study our way out of our faith. We must hold firm to the essential truths and moral laws conveyed to us by the divine in the form of the Torah and inspired scriptures. The apparent conflicts and contradictions that arise in the process of learning result from our own flaws, individually and as flawed beings, not from Hashem, His Torah or His creation.

To love and fear Hashem, to be in awe of Him, thus includes dedication in lifestyle, in mind, in faith, and in the pursuit of knowledge. Never to give up studying His creation and gathering knowledge whilst likewise maintaining a faith in Hashem’s teachings. This is the challenge that faces every generation but perhaps ours more than any that came before. To remain dedicated to our beliefs and morals in a time when we are told such notions are harmful, bigoted, and obsolete is no small order. Today more than ever before we must awe in Hashem, love and fear Him, live righteously in example and learning, and to show dedication to His way. 


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