Monday, 8 December 2008

4. Fear of God

Standing in line waiting for a guard to check your bag so you can enter a sporting event, you’re almost guaranteed to hear someone say, “See this line? This line is the terrorists winning.” And if ever you’ve been stopped at the Canadian/American border, you’ve probably heard someone say, “I’m going to miss my meeting/party/concert/doctor’s appointment because of the terrorists—see how they get us?” Or at the airport, when the security officer informs someone that he can’t bring liquids onto the airplane, grumbling as he throws his water bottle into the garbage: “Another victory for the terrorists.” But could this really be the goal of terrorists, to reduce the consumption of Evian en route to Shanghai?

We get shots to prevent disease. These shots are often inconvenient and a little painful. But we do it because the disease is thought to be more inconvenient and more painful. We put on our seatbelts even though it is more comfortable to drive unrestrained. We exercise and control our eating habits even though it is challenging. We keep the music low, restrict our spending, and resist the temptation to stare at the sun. We do all this because we accept that there is cause and effect in this world and we’re weighing a minor nuisance now against a major calamity later. Wearing sunglasses is not a ‘victory for the sun.’ It is a personal choice in response to reality.

Why don’t we view terrorism as a natural disaster? Like a hurricane or a tornado, an act of terrorism occurs (according to our standards) without any discretion or moral compass. We don’t talk of wins and losses in regards to natural disasters—why do we talk of wins and losses in regards to terrorists? Isn’t that, in some way, legitimizing their efforts? Doesn’t that suggest that there is some comprehensible logic involved in their actions? But if we view terrorism as a completely irrational act of nature—predictable in the same sense that meteorologists can predict the weather but never understandable—won’t we already begin the process of dismantling their legitimacy?

Fear can be broken down into two categories: fear of that which we can affect and fear of that which we cannot affect. In the first category are such things as fear of driving carelessly, being unprepared for a test, or saying something foolish. The second category includes fear of being fooled, ridiculed or injured.

There is usually overlap between the two categories. For example, the fear of being robbed includes the fear of being careless (first category) and the fear of being overpowered (second category). Natural disasters cannot be prevented (second category) but their disastrous effects can hopefully be reduced with proper planning and care (first category). Since terrorists operate within a system that we cannot relate to, their actions fall under the second category of fear. As much as terrorists would like us to believe that we are responsible for the horrific acts that they perform, in reality we must see that there is as much human consciousness or conscience in their actions as in a tsunami. On the other hand, there are things that we can do to try to minimize the occurrence and effectiveness of terrorism—this falls within the first category of fear. In both these ways, terrorism is much like a natural disaster.

There may be precedent for this viewpoint in the gemara Taanit. The mishna on 19a states:

For these [the following] we cry out [and fast] in every place [not just in the place where the event occurred]: for windblasts; for [a severe drought]; for [certain severe types of] locusts; for dangerous animals; and for the sword; we cry out for these because they are travelling disasters.

This mishna includes “the sword” with natural disasters.

Of course, as we see from this mishna, those with faith in God often do not subscribe to the concept of ‘randomness.’ The gemara Taanit deals largely with what causes the behaviour of the rainfall, how our actions are responsible for wet or dry seasons, and what we can do to gain forgiveness from God so that there is rain in the proper time. Therefore, that which is often seen as beyond our control is placed within our control.

The old proverb goes: “If you can do something, why fear? If you can't do something, why fear?” And it’s true: if you can help reduce terrorism by disposing of your water bottle, so do it. Drive safely, wait in line, get your shots—don’t fear. You did what you could. And if you can’t do anything about it, what do you gain by worrying?

This works well as long as everything breaks down neatly into one of the two categories of fear listed above. But God doesn’t really fit into either category. He is certainly beyond our control, which would have Him in the second category. But we know that He responds to us, to our actions and to our prayers. He doesn't belong in the first category, though, because God is inherently incomprehensible and we will never really understand exactly how our actions affect His Will.

Fear of God is completely unique. We fear terrorists because they will not listen to reason—they are outside of our domain. God, on the other hand, works according to a perfect system. We, however, are unable to grasp that system. As we try to act according to God’s Will, we must take every step with fear. We will never know if the choices we make are right. It is specifically because we believe in a rational, responsive and merciful God that we believe fear is necessary. The obligation to fear God is the obligation to recognize that you do not know what God demands of you but, still, your actions will have consequences. That, to me, is incredibly frightening. If I was not obligated otherwise, I'd probably fling God back and forth between the two categories of fear so that I could always conclude, "Why fear?" The commandment to fear God forces me to view Him as eternally, paradoxically within my control and beyond my reach.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An interesting and insightful analysis.

Would you say that this perspective contradicts or complements Rambam's view of "yirah" as "awe" rather than "fear"? At first glance it seems your approach to yirah is more similar to the type of fear that Rambam terms a lower level of service; a fear that has to do with consequences, with punishment. However, one could also say that because the unique fear you describe results from God's uniqueness, it is in a way merely an understanding of that uniqueness, and therefore, in truth, a sort of palpable awe.