What Does It Mean, “To Fear God”?

A while back Linda and I toured the exhibit “Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time and Beauty” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, curated by Renny Pritikin and Lily Siegel. The exhibit explores the notion of yirah, awe or fear, which is one of the core concepts of Jewish theology, as it plays out in the work of 27 “artists, scientists, and creative thinkers.”

The concept of yirah is a troublesome one for many modern Jews. “Why would God want us to be afraid?” some ask. Sometimes our personal theologies develop in reaction to antisemitic notions of Judaism, statements that the “Old Testament” message is about fear while other books are messages of love. It’s understandable that in pointing out the ways in which the God of the Hebrew Bible is loving and caring, we down-pedal the fearsome. However, “fear” as a translation for yirah also falls a bit short; there is no tidy English translation for it.

Exodus 9 offers us a lovely juxtaposition to help us understand of the concept of yirah. Before sending the plague of hail upon the Egyptians, God sends Moses to warn Pharaoh and the people of Egypt that the plague is coming, and to get the servants and animals inside before it comes. Then some took heed of the warning, and some did not:

He that feared the word of the Eternal among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses, and he that did not pay attention to the word of the Eternal left his servants and his cattle in the field. – Exodus 9:20-21 (translation mine, very literal)

“He that feared” took the warning seriously. But “he that did not pay attention” left his people and animals in the fields to die. The parallel phrases suggest that another way to define yirah is “paying attention.”

Artists and scientists are in the business of paying attention. They see the world in very particular ways, and they call our attention to aspects of the world that we might otherwise miss. That’s what goes on in this remarkable exhibit at the CJM: artists and scientists invite us to see the world in all its grandeur and mystery, and to engage with it in awe.

If you are wondering what the title means, consider that in Jewish time, a calendric day begins at sundown: night begins the day. It is a fundamental Jewish idea, and it is also a way in which Judaism is out of step with most ordinary ways of perceiving time. For more on this idea, read Why is the Jewish Calendar so Weird?

Some of the objects in the exhibition are what you expect when you hear the word “art.” Some of them are not. What they all offer is a trip outside of ordinary reality by way of paying close attention: to the shape of a raindrop, to the sound of a pocket watch, to the idea of time, to the useful fiction of longitude. All, however, also point beyond themselves to the More we commonly call “God.” If you will be in San Francisco area anytime before Sept 20, go see this remarkable show.

Night Begins the Day was at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco until September 20, 2015.