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Joshua Cypess
+ Your AuthorsArchive @JoshuaCypess PhD social scientist & Orthodox Rabbi. We're all in this together. He/him. #BlackLivesMatter #Steelers #Mets #Resist May. 16, 2021 10 min read

1/ #ReshetKeshet

I've been dwelling on the concept of 'fear' recently, specifically as it relates to my religious community and COVID, but it has application to all areas of morality as well as civic life.

2/ In Jewish ethics, we talk about being "Yirat Cheit" which translates into "Fearing Sin" and "Yirat Shamayim" which translates into "Fearing Heaven"

They are related but not equivalent. But fearing sin is the minimum to be considered reliably religious according to Jewish law.

3/ "Fear of Sin" generally means the lowest minimum acceptable level of religious observance because that kind of person doesn't buy into the ideology, doesn't understand the purpose of the system, but will still follow the rules before they fear the consequences.

4/ This definition of "yirat cheit" (fear for sin) has an inverse which is "desire for reward." A person who fears consequences of violating a negative commandment is functionally equivalent to the attitude that performs positive commandments in order to receive reward.

5/ A "yirat cheit" often has a #Literalist understanding of the world, of God, of the covenant. They will follow the rules to avoid bad things and receive good things.

As a philosopher, I may feel this attitude is a low level, but it's much better than the likely alternatives.

6/ "Sin fearers" who are told that their attitude is flawed, or even "incorrect," will often abandon the religious system for another one that will provide them with the existential comfort & the simple operant conditioning they psychologically need.

7/ I long for a solution to the dilemma of people whose emotional makeup requires a simplistic, and self-centered, view of the universe. But God made them this way and I need to accept that as a law of the land, as it were.

[And yes, I understand the full implications of that]

8/ Halakhah (Jewish Law) works best when the minimum levels of observance are maintained while encouraging higher levels of performance & aspiration.

What we call "din" vs. "lifnim m'shurat ha-din" - the "law" vs. "beyond the letter of the law"

9/ I can hope for people to operate beyond the letter of the law, but they can defend their behavior by saying that they are operating under "din."

In a lawful system, doing the minimum is fine. It keeps the system going, and ironically allows flexibility.

10/ Fearing sin is "din" - the law - and while I think it can often lead to violations of the spirit of law, so can denying the psychological needs of those who operate at that level.

Fear of sin is a good "fence" to avoid violations. It maintains a functioning system.

11/ A higher level is "Yirat Shamayim" - fear of God (literally "fear of Heaven" but that's a euphemism).

Some consider YS equivalent to "yirat cheit" (fear of sin) but I don't, because there's a difference between seeing God as a Divine Being vs. an unthinking natural force.

12/ Fearing sin & desiring reward are based on seeing God almost as an object not as a Being with independent intelligence (which fits the #Literalist mentality of seeing themselves as the only real person, & the world becomes one of I-It, not I-Thou)

13/ Fearing Sin sees God's system as one of divine forces that can be manipulated via behavior, especially prayer & ritual.

Those latter two - if performed without recognizing God as an independent intelligence - basically become incantations & magic.

14/ Sin-Fearing is a short push to becoming avoda-zara & it's concomitant cruelties born of egotism & self-indulgence, where people are reduced to objects.

God-fearing means recognizing the system is created by & actively maintained by a Divine Intelligence that cares & judges.

15/ By recognizing God as an active, benevolent force that allows human understanding in limited circumstances (through study of Revelation, which means Torah and science), one will reach a higher level of observance & understanding because of added detail and nuance.

16/ "Fearing God" can still be a lower level than what's often seen as the highest - "Love of God" - but some say this "fear" - if seen as Awe - is highest.

(See ch. 10 in Maimonides' laws of repentance for much of what I said:) 

17/ All of this is to detail why "fear" is a desired trait in Jewish ethics. Fear of doing the wrong thing, fearing of being wrong & thus violating the law or hurting another. These are necessary values & the lack thereof makes a person untrustworthy to follow the commandments.

18/ A person can be a "talmid-chacham" (possessing a high degree of knowledge of Torah) but Jewish law states that knowledge without fear of sin - which at it's minimum means fear of error, what happens if you're wrong? - the Torah is rendered meaningless. 

19/ I've taught my family that advice is only as valuable as the responsibility the person accepts for being wrong. If someone says "you can do X & be OK" what happens to them if you do X and are not OK?

Do they stand by their words? Do they care about error? Do they fear sin?

20/ Fear is so fundamental to Judaism that the group identified with extreme ritual observance are described "Hareidim" which means "those who tremble"

"Harada" is an extreme fear, more than ordinary "yirah" (And, yes, its like the "Quakers" or "Shakers") 

21/ I'm not endorsing being Hareidi; I'm 'Modern Orthodox' as an optimal ideology, not a compromise. I call being M.O. as operating on "God Mode" - it's hard, but it's best IMO.

I bring up Hareidim to prove my thesis about the value of 'fear.'

22/ Since I know fear is central to Jewish ethics, I know to reject any counter-argument that uses 'fear' as a slur. I'm told I need to fear. How can I be attacked for fearing consequences?

I fear sin. I also fear disease. I fear death. I'm commanded to! 

23/ Those in my community who decry people like me who fear COVID may even claim they are depending on God's miracles to protect them.

Ironically this is based on a simplistic ideology of 'fearing sin' because it believes in magic & childish reward/punishment.

24/ But I believe it's based more on toxic-masculinity which condemns & find contemptable both self-protection & thinking of others above oneself. They find fear a sign of weakness.

These people disguise their outside ideology - toxic masculinity - as inherent to God. It isn't.

25/ Before I came up with the conceptualization described above, I was stupefied by people who claim to fear sin but not (a) COVID or (b) being wrong.

Fear of Sin should come with a full ideology that includes fear of doing the wrong thing. Of having bad behavior, writ large.

26/ But fear of sin is not a true ideology for many, so it doesn't need internally consistency. If enough leaders cater to your egotism with their own self-centered perversion of scripture/legal codes, your selfishness gets defined as righteous.

27/ I fear sin & fear God. But that could just be from my personality of not wanting to hurt others, to recognize my responsibility to my fellow, to the community and ultimately to God.

Fear is the lowest level because it's the fundamental level for any rule-based-system.

28/ This is one reason why the recent CDC change has worried many of us because it seems to be rewarding the wrong behavior.

Why? Because it allows a system change with the wrong incentives. It requires me to trust my fellow. Yet this year has shown too many are untrustworthy.

29/ Fear of sin based on avoiding self-destructive consequences is flawed if the person doesn't care about their fellow being hurt. And COVID has shown me that a non-negligible number of my neighbors don't care if I live or die.

30/ And if they determine "sin" by purely temporal evidence in a neo-Calvinist way, i.e. if you survived COVID that ipso facto meant you were correct. If you're rich, you're virtuous etc.

So fear of sin breaks down if the person is toxically selfish.

31/ Sadly, I don't know how to root out this level of selfishness which is anti-God and ruins a religious system. I've tried to explain to my fellow rabbis that every proper system needs to have consequences people care about.

32/ But the same people who believe God will protect them from COVID if they're following the commandments, will not create a system that will punish someone who lies about being vaccinated. Because God can be depended on to both punish & protect invisibly.

33/ This, I believe, is why they care more about commandments between God & Humanity than interpersonal ones. Because their system is built on superstition and seeing God as an object: the laws become talismans. Behavior is a ritual & rituals are magic.

34/ In practical terms, I don't trust a system - whether it's a synagogue or the CDC - that doesn't built into its structure a mechanism of severe punishment for violating the core rules of trust that depend on following the ideology of the system not just the "rules"

35/ Meaning that I can accept people following laws based on fear of sin, but the system itself cannot be designed that way. I don't think God wants that either, BTW.

I guess I can't truly blame the CDC for not taking into account just how bad the RedHats have become.

36/ But our society is in a terrible spot right now, with 30-35% actively embracing fascism and conspiracy theories.

I often say you can't get angry at the weather, meaning: the weather is a given, accept the givens and work within that system.

37/ Right now, our society is filled with self-destructive & other-destructive people and I'm upset that they have been given another weapon to harm me.

And I will keep insisting that organizations enact procedures to punish those who lie about being vaccinated.

38/ Caring about cheating is a common refrain on my Twitter feed because it reflects a "fear of God" system rather than "fear of sin"

Cheating, if successful, violates the ideology of the rules but avoids the punishment of violating the rules.

39/ And while I know many people care only about fear of sin, the system itself can't be based only on that principle. Because before long the cheaters will pervert, abuse, and then destroy the system.

40/ Thus I believe we need to punish violators of the spirit of the rules, not just the letter of the rules.

The system must honor the spirit of the law and make it easier for those who follow the spirit as well. Otherwise, those people are actually punished for being right!

41/ I'll circle back to my initial point: fear is used as a slur by the toxic-masculinity which is at the heart of every power-lusting system. But my religion believes fear as a central value.

So if I'm criticized for being 'afraid,' I know it's coming from hypocrisy.

42/ A proper religious system depends on fear, not just fear of consequences, but fear of hurting others & hurting the system.

Moreover, there needs to be a fear of being wrong. Especially when mistakes have disproportionate consequences.

43/ Wearing a mask and keeping distant is onerous. But balanced against killing yourself or others? Jewish law is clear that we do everything possible to save human life.

See Rabbi Mayer Twersky over the past year about this. 

44/ I'll stop for now because it's erev yuntif. But I've said for decades now: to be righteous, you need an error-checking process for yourself. But that means you need to actually care about being wrong. Which ultimately means you need to *care*

You can follow @JoshuaCypess.


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