Friday, December 12, 2008

Yiras Shamayim

The Orthodox Forum topic for 2006 was Yiras Shamayim, the fear of God, and a selection of articles presented at that conference was recently published as: Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence and Fear of God (link). This is, in my opinion, the single most important topic covered by the Orthodox Forum. I do not mean in any way to belittle the other 17 or so topics covered (nor can I name them all) but I think this issue goes to the single most important religious problem in the Modern Orthodox community (actually, just about any Jewish community).

"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Ps. 111:10). "The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone." (Ecc. 12:13). The fear of God is both the first and fundamental principle of religion but it is also the last, the final word on each matter. So how do you write a whole book on something so basic? It must have been hard to find topics to assign to different scholars on this subject. If I had to do it, I'd just write that I am in favor of it and not have much more to say.

Click here to read morePresumably for that reason, some of the chapters in this book only loosely fit the general topic. Nevertheless, those chapters are still important and interesting, and the chapters that deal squarely with Yiras Shamayim are essential reading.

As you will see below, YUTorah has posted each of the chapters in this book. However, I personally think that if you are going to buy one Orthodox Forum, it should be this one. The issues raised are so important that it is a book you want to keep on your shelf for decades.

The book is long and I haven't had the chance to read each chapter with the care it deserves. But I don't want to leave anybody out so I will sometimes write only brief comments on each chapter.

  • R. Robert Hirt, Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence, and Fear of God: link - Brief introduction from the series editor with a nice anecdote from R. Bernard Revel.

  • Dr. Marc Stern, Introduction: A Failure to Guard My Own Vineyard: link - An introduction to the volume -- beginning with a lengthy excerpt from the writings of R. Zvi Dov Kanotopsky about the importance of Yiras Shamayim and the contemprary lack of it -- and a summary of the articles.

  • Dr. Warren Zev Harvey, Yirat Shamayim in Jewish Thought: link - A fascinating survey of talmudic, medieval and modern understandings of Yiras Shamayim -- is it behavior, an attitude, a universal ethic, fear, awe, etc.? The survey of twentieth century thinkers is quite unique.

  • R. Elyakim Krumbein, Nefesh ha-Hayyim and the Roots of the Musar Controversy: link - An analysis of the Nefesh Ha-Chaim that concludes that even the author of that book, R. Chaim Volozhiner, who advocated a Torah-only curriculum, would approve of learning Mussar today. R. Krumbein concludes with some thoughts on the make-up of a contemporary Mussar curriculum (see also his book, Musar for Moderns).

  • R. Alan Brill, Moving Beyond Lightness and Confronting Fears: Hasidic Thought on the Fear of Heaven: link - An analysis of Yiras Shamayim in Chassidic thought, concluding that it can be (and is) incorporated into contemporary Jewish thought.

  • R. Nathaniel Helfgot, Between Heaven and Earth: Curricula, Pedagogical Choices, Methodologies and Values in The Study and Teaching of Tanakh: Where They Can and Should Lead Us: link - A debate with R. Mosheh Lichtenstein over the usage of modern methodologies in studying the Bible. I see this discussion as only tangentially related to the book's topic, in the sense of how we learn Yiras Shamayim from the biblical stories, the Yiras Shamayim we use in our interpretation of the Bible and whether modern methods of Bible study undermine Yiras Shamayim. R. Helfgot lays out seven methods of modern Bible study and argues they do not undermine Yiras Shamayim and sometimes add to it. Even without the connection to Yiras Shamayim, it's a fascinating discussion and (surprisingly) high on the Modern Orthodox community's agenda.

  • R. Mosheh Lichtenstein, Fear of God: The Beginning of Wisdom and the End of Tanakh Study: link - R. Lichtenstein lays out his program for interpreting the Torah and its characters: Midrash for children, sophisticated study for adults but not in a detached way, criticism of biblical figures must be coupled with a profound respect for their spiritual achievements, using the methods of biblical criticism without recognizing that the Bible is an expression of a relationship with God is problematic.

  • Dr. Erica Brown, What Are We Afraid of? Fear and Its Role in Jewish Adult Education: link - Interesting discussion of strategies in adult education, but only tangentially related to the book's topic.

  • R. Jack Bieler, Fear of God and Prayer: link - A discussion of how Yiras Shamayim is necessary for prayer and that the Jewish prayer traditions are designed to inculcate it. We just need to recognize and emphasize those traditions (including stopping the talking during prayer services). I take issue somewhat with his harsh stance on talking in synagogue in this post: link

  • R. Aharon Lichtenstein, Contemporary Impediments to Yirat Shamayim: link - Describes the impediments to Yiras Shamayim that have always existed, that the modern condition exacerbates -- both intellectual and physical/spiritual and material, and offers recommendations on how to minimize or avoid these impediments. Great line: "It is not that we have over-intellectualized faith. It is, rather, if such a term exists, that we have under-emotionalized it." (p. 248)

  • R. Shalom Carmy, “Yet My Soul Drew Back” Fear of God as Experience and Commandment in an Age Of Anxiety: link - This chapter was also published in the latest issue of Tradition and I will repeat my comments from here: A characteristically profound article on yiras shamayim as experienced today. If I understand correctly, his conclusion is that today, at best, we engage in a fear out of desire. I think this is similar to what the Rishonim called yirah me-ahavah, discussed by the Orechos Tzadikim at the end of sha'ar ha-ahavah.

  • R. Kenneth Auman, Lechu Banim Shim’u li Yirat Hashem Alamedchem: Come, Children, Listen to Me; I Will Teach You How to Revere the Lord: If Only It Were So Easy: link - What a rabbi can do to increase Yiras Shamayim among his congregants -- habituation, inspiration and lower his expectations.

  • R. Meir Soloveichik, A Nation Under God Jews, Christians, and the American Public Square: link - People should use their religious worldviews to influence politics, based on the writings of Rav Soloveitchik.

  • Dr. Marc Stern, Civil Religion Is An Obstacle to Serious Yirat Shamayim: link - Argues against the value of a "civil religion", basically a least common denominator of religious beliefs in the country.

  • R. Mark Gottlieb, “The Beginning of Wisdom:" Towards a Curriculum of Yirat Shamayim in Modern Orthodox High Schools: link - An extended version of the article published by Atid in a recent booklet. I'll repeat my comments from here: It seems to me that the most important issue of Jewish education is something that R. Mark Gottlieb (of MTA) discusses, transmitting to students a Jewish worldview. R. Gottlieb wants to create a course on the Jewish worldview but I think Dr. Jon Levisohn (of Brandeis) is right that while this may be an interesting course, this is something that has to be incorporated into all of the courses. Mussar/Hashkafah should pervade throughout every discussion, whether in Jewish or secular studies. Wherever you can find an opportunity to show students how they can see the world through Jewish eyes, you should. Because with this lesson learned, everything else Jewish will come in time.

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