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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Which is more powerful: love or fear? / Sotah 27b & 31a

Which is more powerful and lasting: love or fear? A corollary question: do you keep Jewish traditions because of other people or because of God? And if because of God, is it out of love or fear?

For many Jews, living Jewishly is about family, community, ethnicity, and history. Jewish traditions, rituals, and practices emanate from their relationships with other people (present and past). For others, it is a direct response to their relationship with God. They do what they do either because they love God, or because they fear God.

Curiously, the mishnah in Sotah 27b asks about a Gentile and what lay at the root of his loyalty and commitment to God: they ask about none other than Job. R Yehoshua b. Hyrcanus attributes Job’s service to God to his love for God. R. Yochanan b. Zakkai, however, as R. Yehoshua tells us, taught that Job served God out of fear.
On that day R. Yehoshua b. Hyrcanus expounded: Job only served the Holy One Blessed be God out of love, as it is said, Though he slay me yet will I wait for him (Job 13:15). And should it still be in doubt whether the meaning is “I will wait for him” or “I will not wait,” there is another text to declare, until I die I will not put away my integrity from me (Job 27:5). This teaches that what he did he did out of love. R. Yehoshua [ben Chananiah] said: Who will remove the dust from our eyes, R. Yochanan b. Zakkai, since you have been expounding all my life that Job only served the Omnipresent out of fear, as it is said, that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil (Job 1:1). Did not Yehoshua, the student of your student, teach that what he did was from love?
The gemara on Sotah 31a discusses this mishnah. R. Meir draws a parallel between Abraham and Job to conclude that both served God out of love, rather than fear. He doesn’t suggest what the difference is between serving God out of love or out of fear, however. R. Shimon b. Eleazar, however, declares that serving God out of love is superior to serving God out of fear because the attachment forged by love lasts through many more generations.
It has been taught: R. Meir says: It is declared of Job one who feared God (Job 1:1) and it is declared of Abraham you fear God (Genesis 22:12). Just as “fearing God” in the case of Abraham indicates from love, so “fearing God” in the case of Job indicates from love. Whence do we have it in connection with Abraham himself [that he was motivated by love]? As it is written: The seed of Abraham who loved Me (Isaiah 49:8). What difference is there between one who acts from love and one who acts from fear? The difference is explained in this teaching: R. Shimon b. Eleazar says: Greater is he who acts from love than he who acts from fear, because with the latter [the merit] remains effective for a thousand generations but with the former it remains effective for two thousand generations… (Sotah 31a)
I would have thought that had he said that love evokes a strong bond than fear in the lifetime of one individual would have been interesting enough. Love inspires behavior for the sake of the relationship, to bind the two parties more tightly, to express appreciation, to bring pleasure. Throughout the ages, Jews have engaged in mitzvot (commandments) to feel God’s presence more keenly in their lives, to express their appreciation for God’s blessings, and to fulfill obligations they believed would please God (from the earliest sacrifices whose rei’ach ni’cho-ach – pleasing odor – was understood to please God). Fear also inspires behavior, largely to avoid negative repercussions and punishment. Love draws one in, but the urge to serve out of fear evaporates as soon as the perceived threat is withdrawn. I have always considered the religious claim that God desires our fear peculiar and misguided, and most likely designed for manipulation of people by those who promulgate such ideas. If God is a punishing God, God is also an immorally capricious God, because punishment is meted out arbitrarily and unjustly. Job recognized this (not the job of the first and last chapters of his book, but the real Job of the poetic dialogues that comprise the vast majority of The Book of Job.

R. Shimon b. Eleazar makes quite a different point, however. He tells us that love that induces the bond of attachment and the desire to serve lasts for many more generations. This approach to Judaism – positive, warm, loving, affirming, joyful –is attractive from generation to generation. This attitude toward Judaism opens the door to creativity and innovation, celebrating each generation’s encounter with the Covenant and role in redefining it for their own lives.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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