I was brought up with a perception of G‑d as an intimidating figure to be afraid of. I embraced Judaism, which I understood as seeing G‑d as more loving and forgiving, but I’ve noticed in Jewish sources references to G‑d as being something also to fear. This is conjuring up all the negative feelings toward religion from my childhood. Can you shed some light on this “fear of G‑d”?


I think this is a translation issue. The word “fear” conjures an image of something scary, like a haunted house, or a dark alley, or a parking cop. I understand why you would recoil from a religion that promotes fear. We should not feel about G‑d what we feel towards a bogeyman.

Indeed, there is a concept in Judaism called yir’at shamayim, translated as “fear of heaven.” But “fear” misses the true meaning of the word. A better word would be “respect.”

While love must be a primary motivating factor in our life, we also need a healthy dose of respect. The difference between love and respect is that when I love, I am preoccupied with my feelings toward you; when I respect, I am focusing on your presence rather than mine. Love is my desire to approach you. Respect is my deference to your otherness, your right to be who you are.

When you love someone but do not respect them, it ends up being all about you. The other is simply an object of your love; their opinion is not taken seriously, and they are not treated as a real being. Someone who loves their spouse but does not respect them never leaves space for the other to really exist. If you love your parents without respecting them, then you actually don’t have parents, just good buddies. A friend whom you don’t really respect is no more than a convenient accessory to keep you company when you are in the mood.

Respect means acknowledging someone else as being a valid and important being, to be listened to and honored. It means looking up to someone and realizing that there are things about the other person that we just have to accept, like it or not. Put simply, respect means taking someone else seriously.

So we love G‑d, we feel close and intimate with Him, but we also respect that He is G‑d, a real being, with expectations and demands. He is our parent whom we love, but He is also a king whom we must obey. It is this awe and respect that prevents us from thinking that G‑d is just an extension of our own ego, a being that we can bend and stretch to fit into our own image of Him.

Respect, not fear. There’s no bogeyman. Apart from parking cops, there’s nothing to be afraid of.