Monday, January 29, 2018

On Love of God, Fear of God and Intellectual Humility

            Maimonides prefaces the 'Laws Concerning Foreign Worship' (הלכות עבודה זרה) in the Mishneh Torah, with a complex, nuanced, fascinating, and conceptual description of the process by which man went from worshipping the One God, Creator of the Universe, to adoring idols of wood and stone. He identifies three basic stages to this process. First, people argued that:[1]
"Since God," they said, 'created these stars and spheres to guide the world, set them on high and allotted to them honor, and since they are ministers who minister before Him, they deserve to be praised and glorified…and it is the will of God, blessed be He, that men should aggrandize and honor those whom he aggrandized and honored, just as a king desires that respect should be shown to the ministers who stand before him, and this honor is shown to the king.' When this idea arose in their minds, they began to erect temples to the stars, offered up sacrifices to them, praised and glorified them in speech, and prostrated themselves before them – their purpose, according to their perverse notions, being to obtain the Creator's favor.
            In other words, Avodah Zarah began as a well-intentioned, though deeply misguided form of worship of the One God. Quickly, however, it deteriorated further. In Maimonides' retelling, false prophets arose who claimed to speak in God's Name and proceeded to institutionalize this adoration of the stars, which was still formally directed (if, indirectly) at God.[2] It did not take long, however, for self-styled prophets to arise who 'declared that the star, celestial sphere, or angel, had communed with them, and said to them: "Worship me in such and such fashion," had taught them a definite ritual, and said to them: "Do this, and do not do that." So gradually the custom spread throughout the world of worshipping figures with various modes of worship, such as offering up sacrifices to them, and bowing down to them. 'Time passed and, eventually, all that remained was the worship of idols and the celestial bodies they embodied. 'The honored and revered Name of God,' Rambam concludes, 'was forgotten by mankind, vanished from their lips and hearts, and was no longer known to them.'[3]
            There is much to say about this passage. Here, though, I would like to focus on just one question.[4] Why did Maimonides write that 'the honored and revered Name of God (השם הנכבד והנורא) was forgotten'? Why didn't he simply write that 'God was forgotten' or 'the Name of God' was forgotten? What do the added words 'the honored and revered' add to his point? The question legitimate, because Maimonides took great pride in the care and precision with which he wrote the Mishneh Torah. In his words, 'in discussing Torah and wisdom, a man's words should be few but full of meaning.'[5]
            Maimonides refers to 'the honored and revered Name of God' only four other times in the Mishneh Torah.[6] On all of these occasions, he invokes these words in the context of an unmediated encounter between Man and God. Of these, the passage in  
which it first appears reveals the key to fully understanding its significance.  
            At the very start of the Mishneh Torah, after he concludes his discussion of God's existence, Maimonides writes:
            It is our duty to love and fear this honored and revered God ((השם הנכבד והנורא
As it is said: "You shall love the Lord your God" (Deut. 6, 5) and it is further said: "You shall fear the Lord your God" (ibid. 6, 13).
And what is the way that will lead to the love of Him and the fear of Him? When a person contemplates His great and wondrous works and creatures, and from them obtains a glimpse of His wisdom which is incomparable and infinite, he will straightway love Him, praise Him, glorify Him, and long with an exceeding longing to know His great Name, even as David said, "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God" (Ps. 42, 3). And when he ponders these matters, he will recoil frightened, and realize that he is a small creature, lowly and obscure, endowed with slight and slender intelligence, standing in the presence of Him who is perfect in knowledge. And so David said "When I consider Your heavens, the work of your fingers- what is man that you are
mindful of him?" (Ps. 8, 4-5).[7]
            Rav Soloveitchik emphasized that Man's relationship with God is marked by an essential, eternal contradiction. [8] On the one hand, Man is fascinated by the infinite wisdom, the intricate beauty that is encoded in God's creation.[9] His utter fascination with creation awakens in man an unquenchable thirst to know the wisdom of the Creator, and by extension, the Creator Himself. This drive to knowledge, though, is fundamentally different than the detached curiosity of the scientist, or the removed inquisitiveness of the academic. It is a passionate, burning drive to intimacy with God, via knowledge of Him and of His ways. This unique mixture of desire and cognition, of reason and adoration is the essence of the command to Love God. As Maimonides states elsewhere, 'for Knowledge of God and Love of God are identical.'[10]
            If Love of God is a natural result of Man's fascination with His Wisdom, Fear of God, recoil and retreat, is its obverse. The vastness of the cosmos, the elegant intricacies of nature, and incomprehensibly endless nature of knowledge leads Man to a painful awareness of his limitations, of his abject inability to draw nigh to the source of all Wisdom.     Yet, Amor vincit omnia, love conquers all (or at least, it tries to). So, despite the lesson in humility that is cultivated by the fear of God, Man redoubles his efforts and resumes his pursuit of his beloved Creator, only to be driven back by the awareness of his limitations. 'The spiritual life of human beings,' Rav Soloveitchik concludes, 'like the cosmos, is the result of this dialectical movement, coming close and retreating. It means to fly toward God and fly away from Him, forward and backward. When idolatry arose, this awareness "vanished from the lips of everyone." They forgot the basic principle that is responsible for existence: love of God and fear of God, moving forward and backward, advancing and retreating.'[11]
            On the face of it, when Maimonides describes the nadir of human civilization as a time when 'The honored and revered Name of God, was forgotten by mankind,' he is making two, inter-dependent points: 1) God was forgotten and 2) God can only be known by the back and forth movement that is Ahavah and Yir'ah, Love and Fear.
Once man banished God from his awareness, nothing remained but the adoration of the cosmos itself, without any inkling that behind it was (as the Midrash states), 'the master of the castle.'[12]
            Upon further reflection, I don't think that this explanation does full justice to the Rambam's formulation. Indeed, I believe that there is a direct connection between the dialectical nature of our relationship with God, and the genesis (or the avoidance) of Avodah Zarah.
First, however, we need to define our terms.
            What does a 'dialectical relationship' mean? It means that we do not make absolute choices between competing values. Life is complicated, and man must negotiate between competing, conflicting, though equally valid values.[13] This is a difficult challenge, but it is far preferable to live with complexity and contradiction; it is far healthier to acknowledge the different emotional pulls and demands that man experiences, than to be imprisoned in an emotional, or an ideological, cage. Extremes, as we all know, are both logical and absurd.
            Living with competing values is more than a matter of mental or spiritual health. The alternative can be nothing less than devastating. It can lead to nothing less than different forms of idolatry, of Avodah Zarah.[14] This is precisely why Rambam decided to state not only that God's Name was forgotten, but that His 'honored and revered Name' gone from the memory of men. Apparently, there is a connection between the commandments to Love and Fear God, and the emergence of idolatry.
            Let us start by considering the case Love versus Fear of God.
            Rambam’s definition of Ahavat HaShem is really quite astonishing. He apparently assumes that the path to the Love of God runs through engagement with the broader world, through the study of Torah with Science and other disciplines.[15]
Now, according to the Rambam and most medieval Jewish thinkers, it is Man's intellect/soul that sets him apart from the other animals. This is what makes him created in the 'Image of God' (Tzalem E-lokim). The Torah demands that the Jew engage the world fearlessly, heroically and critically. He is commanded to uncover the Creator's 'wisdom which is incomparable and infinite,' as it is found in Torah and Hokhmah.[16] Thus, it is specifically by fully realizing his humanity, through study and thought that the individual stimulates within him, the Love of God, which drives him ever onward toward greater knowledge and greater intimacy with His Creator.
Love of God, moreover, and the study that leads to it are meant to be deeply passionate, even erotic, experiences. What else are we to conclude from Rambam's own words that one must 'love God with a great and exceeding love, so strong that one's soul shall be knit up with the love of God, and one should be continually enraptured by it, like a love sick individual, whose mind is at no time free from his passion for a particular woman, the thought of her filling his heart at all times, when sitting down or rising up, when he is eating or drinking.'[17]
Therein, however, lays the catch; and the reason that Rambam twins Love of God, with Fear of God. Despite our deep seated desire to know God through His wisdom, He is far beyond our ability to fathom. 'If I knew Him,' says the adage, 'I would be Him.'[18] The sudden awareness of 'the wisdom Him who is perfect in knowledge,'[19] drives home a profound awareness of the individual's limitations and instills not merely Fear, but an overwhelming Awe of God. Sobered by that awareness, the Jew realizes that the commandment to Love God, and to know God, is a never ending process. One yearns for Him, one thirst for His knowledge, yet total certainty and total intimacy will, by definition, never be his. Nevertheless, the time in His presence, the awareness of His Love and desire for man's search, make the effort worthwhile. As Maimonides, quoting the Psalmist, says: "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God."
            The commandment to fear, or be in awe, of God does more than simply describe a reality. It serves a constructive, formative function in our relationship with God. Let us assume, for the moment, that there was no such commandment. The emphasis, then, would be on Love alone; on man maximizing his intellect and knowledge, albeit in search of God. Such a circumstance opens up the real possibility of intellectual arrogance, and of cultural and moral narcissism. How easily vulnerable, egotistical man becomes intoxicated by his knowledge, seduced to his own self-importance! In his self-satisfaction, he imagines that he has arrived at 'the Truth,' and needs no one else but him. One might rephrase the old adage, 'Since I know Him, I am He.'[20]
In his conceit, man has a marked tendency to forget God. He sees only the life around him. 'The honored and revered Name of God is forgotten.' Once, in ancient times, Maimonides posited that man's inability to see beyond the mechanical universe led him to adore and worship it. Today, it is all too apparent, man worships himself. Like the ancient Greeks, he makes his gods in his own image.[21] Ironically, unbridled Love of God can lead to Avodah Zarah.      
At the same time, a life based solely upon Fear of God is equally hazardous.[22] Yir'at HaShem fills the individual with the awareness 'that he is a small creature, lowly and obscure, endowed with slight and slender intelligence.' It creates a state of intellectual and religious paralysis. That paralysis can be a result of two, different thoughts. On the one hand, one might ask to what purpose are one's efforts to study and to grow, to endeavor to understand God, His Ways, His Universe, and His Providence since one will never fully 'arrive' (as it were)? Or, more ominously, 'standing in the presence of Him who is perfect in knowledge' an individual might simply conclude that he has no right to sally forth into the lists of knowledge. It's too presumptuous. It's too dangerous. In either case, mightn't it be better simply to learn Torah, keep the mitzvot, and not ask any questions?
Of course, Orthodox Judaism teaches that the Jew's main responsibility is to learn Torah and observe the mitzvot. The question is, however, what constitutes Torah and is observance confined to technical compliance? These subjects require a separate discussion.
Right now, we want to concentrate on the implications of a life based upon Yirat HaShem alone. Since such a life is characterized by a profound sense of personal inadequacy, it naturally leads to spiritual passivity and dependence. After all, if one can't find one's own way, there must be someone to lead you.
Let me be clear. The Teacher/Student relationship is a central element in Judaism. From the time of Moses on, one generation has passed its wisdom on to the next. Disciples are taught to revere their teachers. Indeed, reverence for one's teacher (and for all representatives of the living tradition of Torah) is derived from the reverence that we owe to God Himself. The Torah's mandate 'You shall fear the Lord, your God,' said R. Aqiva, includes Talmide Hakhamim.[23] Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the teacher to train his disciples, and to encourage them to develop into independent bearers of tradition (even if that led them to respectfully disagree with their teachers).[24] The Mishnah's statement, 'Raise up many students,' is frequently interpreted to mean that they should ultimately stand on their own two feet.[25]     
Of course, there is Jewish precedent for a more intensely dependent relationship. I am referring, of course, to the Rebbe-Hassid connection as it exists in Polish Hassidut. At its root, that relationship is rooted in the awareness on the Hassid's part that only the Rebbe or Tzaddiq is ultimately able to redeem the world through the Kabbalah of the Ari z'l. He, therefore, adheres to the Rebbe in order to be carried forward to redemption on his coat tails, as it were. Thus, Hassidut interpreted the prophetic declaration that 'the righteous (Tzaddiq) will live by his faith,'[26] to mean that 'the Tzaddiq gives life by his faith.'[27] The unique standing of the Rebbe, and the much remarked tendency by Hassidim to base personal decisions on his say so, is ultimately based on this belief. Nevertheless, even within Hassidut there was sharp criticism of this development. Both the schools of Chabad and Peshischa demanded that each individual cultivate his own, unique relationship with God. Thus, the Sefat Emet affirmed that the service of God, and the cultivation of holiness, depends upon the efforts of the individual.[28]   
Ultimately, though, a religious posture that is based on personal inadequacy is dangerous because the abdication of one's own will and independence makes the individual vulnerable to charismatic 'religious' leaders who promise a way out, a path to salvation.[29] Desperate to find a reliable guide, a person whose entire spiritual life is based on 'what is man that you are mindful of him, 'might find himself sacrificing his last shred of independence on the altar of a cult of personality. Even if the leader acts in the Name of God, the individual really serves and worships the leader. Thus, by abandoning his unique Tzalem E-lokim, by despairing of his ability to use his God-given skills to make his way to God (or by being terrified of them), he winds up worshipping Avodah Zarah.
The only way of avoiding the extremes, of not falling into the worship Avodah Zarah, is by affirming both sides of the equation; by cultivating equally, both Ahavat HaShem and Yirat HaShem.   
Broader Implications
            The dynamic that we've described here is not limited to the relationship between the Love and Fear of God. In fact, it underlies and unites the central components of Traditional Judaism: the relationship between Spirituality and Halakhah, the modality within which Talmud Torah should be pursued; the appropriate posture for Halakhic decision-making and the most responsible way for engaging outside cultural and ideological challenges. Indeed, I am convinced that many of the ills of Orthodoxy today are rooted in the abandonment of the dialectic that was meant to guide our lives. By choosing, or absolutizing, certain values over others, we are undermining (and besmirching) the Torah.
            An obvious, painful and explosive example of this lack of balance is provided in the extremes that have characterized Halakhic decision-making (Psaq Halakhah) in the past two or three decades. Obviously, the process of psaq is highly nuanced and every case is unique. Nevertheless, it's perfectly legitimate and credible to examine the methodological patterns of response that we find to contemporary questions, against a pattern that closely resembles that of Ahavah and Yir'ah. For our purposes, let's call it Courage (Gevurah) and Humility (Anavah).
            In our generation, the Torah is faced by problems and challenges unparalleled in our history. The Internet (and, especially, by social media), has led to the many and furious Halakhic debates they engender to enter the public sphere. As a result, Halakhic discussion been 'democratized.'[30] Myriad discussants, both learned and less than learned, volunteer their opinions as to what a specific ruling should be, on either legal or 'meta-halkhic' grounds.[31]

[1] Hil. Avodah Zarah 1, 1. All citations are from I. Twersky, A Maimonides Reader, New Jersey: Behrman House 1972, 71.

[2] Ibid. 2.

[3] Twersky, 72. Earlier, Maimonides asserts that the adoration of images was actually begun during the 'monotheistic' stage of Avodah Zarah. Maimonides recaps some of these same points in his Introduction to the Commentary on the Mishnah (Part II), and in Guide for the Perplexed III, 29.

[4] See I. Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah), New Haven 1980, 225-226 and M. Kellner, Maimonides on the "Decline of the Generations" and the Nature of Rabbinic Authority, Albany 1996, 50-51.

[5] Hil. De'ot 2, 4. See Twersky, Introduction, 337-349.

[6] Hil. Yesode ha-Torah 2, 1; Hil. Avodah Zarah 2, 6; Hil. Tefillah 14, 10; and Hil. Shvu'ot 12, 11.

[7] Twersky, Maimonides Reader, 45-46 (with slight changes in the translation).

[8] I first heard this explanation in a Saturday Night lecture by the Rav, in the Winter of 1973/4. Its substance appears in J. Soloveitchik, Abraham's Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch, ed. D. Shatz et al., Jersey City 2008, 20-24. Recordings of the original presentation are available at:  The parallels between this interpretation and the Rav's discussions in The Lonely Man of Faith (and elsewhere) are lucidly discussed by Ziegler.

[9] In a private communication, Rabbi Prof. Bernard Septimus commented to me that in Deut. 28:58 the phrase 'honored and revered God' refers to God. In addition, according to Guide for the Perplexed 1,64 references to God’s 'name,' sometimes are to God Himself. Finally, Rambam interpreted the word 'honored' as referring to God's Creation, based upon verses such as Ps. 19, 2: 'The heavens declare the honor of God (kavod HaShem).'  

[10] Hil. Teshuvah 10, 10. I have translated according to the best manuscript of the Mishneh Torah (MS Oxford-Bodleian Huntington 80 fol. 93a), in light of Ibn Ezra's comment to Gen. 44, 18. The printed text reads: 'Love will be in accordance with the Knowledge.' (Rabbi Prof. Bernard Septimus pointed out to me the relationship between Ibn Ezra's comment and Rambam's formulation.)

[11] Abraham's Journey, 24.

[12] Bereshit Rabbah, 39:1.

[13] Rabbi Soloveitchik frequently remarked that Judaism does not subscribe to the Greek doctrine of 'the excluded middle,' according to which something cannot be both 'a' and 'not-a.' Multiple values and identities can inhere to the same person, and the same thing. For a brief summary, see R. Ziegler, Majesty and Humility: The Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Jerusalem 2012, 407-408. See, also, W. Wurzburger, 'Integrating Opposing Values into the Service of God,' God is Proof Enough, New York 2000, 104-108.

[14] Though I will use the word 'idolatry' here, it really does not comprehend the wide range of implications suggested by Avodah Zarah. Indeed, I subscribe to the working definition of the latter that was proposed by Professor David Berger, to wit, 'the formal recognition or worship as God of an entity that is in fact not God.' Cf. D. Berger, The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference, London 2001, 156.

[15] Rav Soloveitchik used to describe this as ‘Torah in the widest sense of the term.’ The question of the interaction of Torah and general culture is much too broad to discuss here. In the interim, see J. Schacter (ed.), Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration? Northvale 1997.              Concerning Maimonides, see Guide for the Perplexed, Introduction and I, 71; Hil. Yesode ha-Torah 4, 13 and Hil. Talmud Torah 1, 12; and Twersky, Introduction, ch. VI.    

[16] Hokhmah, or 'wisdom,' is Rambam's code word for all of the so-called 'secular' disciplines, especially Philosophy.

[17] Hil. Teshuvah 10, 3 (Twersky, Maimonides Reader, 84). The phrase ' when sitting down or rising up,' obviously invokes the verse from Qeri'at Shema (Deut. 6,7): 'And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.' In this way, Maimonides further reinforces the connection between 'Love of God,' and Torah Study (which is already found in Qeri'at Shema).      

[18] Cf. Derashot ha-RaN, ed. L. Feldman, Jerusalem 1977, Drush 4 (55) and Sefer ha-Iqqarim 2, 30. See also Sefer ha-Kuzari 2, 30.

[19] Job 37, 16.

[20] I don't think it's a coincidence, that Stephen Hawking ends his book, A Brief History of Time (New York 1988) with the famous assertion (which created a huge stir at the time): '"If we do discover a theory of would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would truly know the mind of God"(135). In any event, there is a deep irony in such sentiments. After all, prima facie, they appear to contradict the conditional nature of human knowledge that is the basis of the scientific method. This point, though, requires separate treatment.

[21] E. Hamilton, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, New York 1942, 8. In this connection, the contemporary cult of celebrity comes to mind.

[22] This is a theme that Rav Soloveitchik frequently discussed. See, inter alia, Days of Deliverance: Essays on Purim and Hanukkah, ed. E. Clark, J. Wolowelsky and R. Ziegler, New Jersey 2007, 30-39.

[23] Deut. 10, 20 cited in Pesahim 22b.

[24] Cf. Baba Bathra 131a.

[25] Avot 1, 1.

[26] Habb. 2, 4.

[27] Maqor Hayyim, Ba'al Shem Tov, Lodz 1938 no.103.

[28] Sefat Emet, Bamidbar, Beha'alotkha 1873.

[29] This is one of the reasons behind opposition to Hassidut. On the other hand, Rav Soloveitchik used to stress that this is not just a Jewish problem. It is a universal human challenge. All too often, he observed, people seek salvation in authoritarianism of different kinds; following a strong, charismatic leader. See Days of Deliverance, ibid.
Obviously, this point has direct implications for the doctrine of Da'at Torah. We will, however, address it in a different context.

[30] This discussion, inevitably, raises the question of authority and who has a right to an opinion in halakhic discourse. This question, though, needs to be discussed separately.

[31] 'Meta-Halakhah' is one of the most unfortunate, and abused, neologisms to enter Jewish discourse. Once, it referred to spiritual content that informs observance, but does not impact the rendering of Halakhic decisions. This was the way it was used by Profs. Isadore Twersky and Jacob Katz ז"ל. More recently, its exact definition is usually obscure and frequently subjective.