Fearing God is a basic element of the religious life. The problem is what it connotes. Are we really meant to be frightened of God and live our lives in constant dread? Is this what “fear” really is?
The question was addressed frequently over the centuries by the Jewish commentators and thinkers. There is a cleavage of opinion as to whether yirah means “fear” or “awe”. In rabbinic thinking, yirah in the sense of fear denotes fear of being punished by God and it is part of the concept of reward and punishment.
But doing the right thing out of fear of punishment, or for the sake of reward, was recognised as inferior to doing the right thing out of love for God. Antigonos of Socho laid down the rule that one should not be like a servant who ministers to the master for the sake of receiving a reward (Avot 1:3).
There are two kinds of yirah, said Abraham ibn Da’ud: “fear of harm” and “awe of greatness” (Emunah Ramah 100). Joseph Albo made a similar distinction between yirah as fear of harm and yirah as awareness of human littleness compared with God (Ikkarim 3:31-33).
The difference between fear and awe is spelled out by the Zohar, which distinguishes between “evil fear” and “holy fear”. “Evil”, i.e. lower-level, yirah is fear of punishment either in this world or the World to Come. Holy fear is awe of the Divine majesty, which is linked with selfless love of God (Zohar 1:11b-12a).
Chassidic teaching also distinguishes between lower and higher types of fear, though the moralistic Mussar movement gave new emphasis to fear of punishment as a motivation for correct behaviour.