Reconstructing Yirat Shamayim

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Reconstructing Yirat Shamayim
Yaakov Bieler

Over the twenty-five years since the publication of Prof. Haym Soloveitchik’s essay, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” the countless times that I have assigned it to students and commended it to congregants, as well as directly taught its contents in various classes and lectures, indicates how I thought of the article as reflecting a meaningful description of what has occurred in Jewish life and thought.. While a number of responses were published at the time of the essay’s first appearance,1  the seventeen perspectives in TRADITION’s recent symposium offer cogent insights regarding how new challenges that could not have been easily anticipated a quarter-century ago by Soloveitchik, or anyone else for that matter, now clamor for our attention and analysis.

In the final section of “Rupture and Reconstruction” (98-103), Soloveitchik contends that not only the physical migration of Jews from Eastern Europe, but also the sea changes with which modernity and scientific thinking have effected their religious mindsets and those of their descendants, have engendered at least a significant diminution of Yirat Shamayim (fear or awe of Heaven) in observant Jews’ day-to-day existences. While Soloveitchik poses the question (albeit somewhat rhetorically) of whether the move from the Eastern European shtetl to the urban and suburban American city precipitated “a change in the sensed intimacy with God and the felt immediacy of His presence,” I have thought from early on, based upon my professional school and synogogue experiences, that this certainly was the case.

Some contend that Judaism with less or even no Yirat Shamayim, is the present reality, as evidenced by Jay Lefkowitz’ article, “The Rise of Social Orthodoxy: A Personal Account,” and therefore this state of affairs per force must be accepted and worked with by Jewish communal professionals.  The recent symposium authors examine this phenomenon, as well as its mirror trend, “Humra-zation” (ever-increasing stringencies in the practice of halakha), a topic also addressed at the time by Soloveitchik. In addition, the authors analyze manifestations of mysticism and “neo-Hasidism,” 2 as well as absolute devotion to the Zionist enterprise,3 as possible contemporary “substitutes” for Yirat Shamayim, within the mindset of even the most devoted practitioner.

And then there are those who assume (or, perhaps, wish) that something, as yet undetermined, will occur, as it seems to always have in the past, that will fill the vacuum left by the withering of Yirat Shamayim. 4

However, it seems to me that “reconstruction” per force must entail working to restore, at least to some degree, the ruptured Yirat Shamayim that has been lost.5 While such thoughts might be deemed too “old school” for some, I contend that Yirat Shamayim is so much “part and parcel” of the very essence of Judaism, (see  the various expressions in Shabbat 31a-b), that it cannot be dispensed with, regardless of the dictates of human history6 and the Jewish community’s present predilections and tendencies. In other words, I do not believe that a Judaism that lacks Yirat Shamayim can purport to actually be “Judaism.” To my mind, excising God from a devotional system, regardless of the degree to which belonging to a community may be considered desirable, is untenable. Consequently, it appears to me that attempting to redefine Judaism without Yirat Shamayim is tantamount to “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” 7

Granted, that as a result of living and being educated in an open society, entailing being exposed to modes of thinking that fly in the face of any past mindset that supported attributing to God the vagaries of life, it is nigh impossible for Modern Orthodox adults to regain a sense of heart-felt Yirat Shamayim. However, I optimistically believe that the “pendulum” can be swung in the opposite direction, and young people, who receive day school educations and attend synagogues that, rather than emphasize the dichotomy between contemporary Jewish and secular traditions, seek to approach and reconcile them in a sophisticated and relevant manner, can come to appreciate the spiritual dimension of Judaism. Whether inroads that may be made with younger generations will be mitigated by their families remains to be seen. While studies have shown that children often replicate the political, moral, and religious views of their forebearers, there have also been many instances where offspring have broken away from the attitudes of their parents.

Here are some initiatives for schools and shuls that I believe can, to some degree, restore the erosion of Yirat Shamayim in Judaism, first in younger Jews, who will mature and foster families of their own.

Day Schools

Mission Statement
Studies have shown that all organizations, particularly those with large staffs and broad constituencies, benefit when their goals and emphases are articulated, prominently displayed, and regularly revisited by shareholders of the group. It is understandable that various regulatory and evaluating bodies of educational institutions, Jewish day schools included, consider a school’s mission statement as part of their criteria for excellence. Yet, day schools often lack such a jointly developed statement that would allow those working in the school as well as the families that provide its student body, to be acquainted with the principles which the school purportedly emphasizes. Both the experience of developing a school’s mission statement as well as continually holding it up to scrutiny and evaluation on the part of all stakeholders heightens a sense of a school’s professionalism and commitment to ideas. Needless to say, in my view, the development of Yirat Shamayim should be a high priority for a Jewish day school, and this should be articulated in and communicated through the  mission statement.

A school’s primary responsibility is to present classes to its student body. Modern Orthodox  schools are expected to primarily offer courses of study in Judaic and general studies. Oftentimes, these subject areas are viewed as separate, and students are left with the impression that they are attending two separate educational enterprises housed under one roof. In lower grades, where subjects are not taught departmentally, nevertheless there are usually two separate teachers, one for Jewish  and another for general studies. The problem becomes only more exacerbated as the number of specialists teaching differentiated subject matters increases over the course of the upper grades. This dichotomy contributes to a weakening of Yirat Shamayim already at an early age, when students become aware, either explicitly or implicitly, that only general studies “count.”

Finding ways to integrate various subjects, either throughout the respective courses, or less comprehensively, by means of Yemai Iyun for various concerted periods of time, in effect addressing the “whole child,” would go far to sensitize students and faculty members to the totality of the school program, which typically only the student body have to engage with as a totality.

Professional Development
Research has demonstrated that the most effective professional development activities for a school’s administration and faculty entail concerted exposure and evaluation over time to ideas and concepts, rather than an annual day or two of listening to “talking heads.” If Yirat Shamayim were made into a priority for a school, this should be a theme that is presented, revisited, and reinforced on a concerted basis over the course of several years. All faculty members, both Jewish as well as secular studies teachers, must be engaged in order to attempt to assure not only cross-pollination, but also subject-matter over-all consistency.

Extra-curricular Activities
Assuming that the costs are not prohibitive, most Modern Orthodox day schools offer to their students a wide-ranging array of extra-curricular activities. These include: learning experiences, hesed outreach, elective office, publications such as newspapers and yearbooks, sports programs and competitions, debate, drama, art, music, etc. While sometimes day school faculty members lead these after-school groups, they often also involve individuals who are not directly part of the curricular program and therefore come to the school facility only part-time. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, such “specials” are usually not directly supervised by school administration. Yet it has been shown that these individuals, particularly when they are charismatic, can profoundly influence students, even to a greater extent than their daily teachers, or even their parents. Yirat Shamayim must be expected of these individuals and their programs, even if they happen not to be Jewish.


Ta’amei HaMitzvot (Reasons for the Commandments)
In my view, despite the significant increase in Torah-learning that has marked contemporary Jewry, 8 it is for the most part “soul-less” and devoid of spirituality.9 Torah study should at least partially contribute to an individual’s sense of awe and ultimate respect for the Divine and the law associated with Him. And while particular individuals may possess a powerful overview of the tradition and its contents regardless of what they happen to be studying at any given time, this is not the case with respect to the average Jewish individual, even if she or he is engaged in the daily Daf Yomi or some other form of ongoing Torah study. Greater familiarity with the details of ritual law will promote observance of that law, but it will not necessarily contribute to a sense of engagement with the foundations of Judaism and the belief in God. More attention ought to be paid and serious discussion engendered within the context of synagogue sermons and classes to the underlying principles of the religion. One way to do this is to concertedly study proposed reasons for the Commandments, not only in a historical sense—because what may have pertained hundreds of years ago may no longer be considered relevant today—but also how contemporary thought leaders approach why Jews are required to do what they do. Making the performance of Mitzvot more meaningful and relevant by pertinent study can promote Yirat Shamayim.

Tefilla (Prayer)
The most overt expression of religious feeling and deference to the Divine is engaging in prayer. Jewish law advocates that one not pray individually, but rather in a communal setting. However, this constitutes a “Catch-22” in the sense that per force, individuals with all sorts of personal agendas will join such prayer services. Even were a particular person committed to attempt to seriously grapple with establishing and furthering an ongoing relationship with the Divine via prayer, inevitably there will be others in attendance who either simply can’t relate to such a goal, or have no interest, for one reason or another, in pursuing it.

It seems to me that every prayer context, including shuls and schools, should set aside at least one venue in which there is a “no tolerance” policy regarding, conversation, walking in-and-out, coming late and/or leaving early, prayer leaders who are unprepared and incompetent, and bent upon drawing undue attention to themselves, and “down time” where inefficient conduct of services leads to congregants losing focus and consequently engaging in less than desirable behaviors. Music is a very spiritually empowering modality; however, to sing for the sake of singing rather than employing melodies that befit the prayers being recited, can prove to be counterproductive. It is too great a task to retool all prayer settings to become templates wherein Yirat Shamayim can be enhanced. However, by dedicating some spaces to such an enterprise we enable spiritually engaged individuals to be able to explore and even deepen their sense of Yirat Shamayim.

Shiurim and Divrei Torah
All too often, sermons and classes deal with arcane topics, which, while of some interest due to the high level of erudition and technical brilliance of the presenter, nevertheless fail to challenge attendees to consider how they might improve their spiritual lives and overall conduct.10 Presenters of these learning opportunities need to think about choosing topics employing critical thinking that are values-driven and will engage and challenge those in attendance to live more spiritually. At a talk to rabbinical students and their mentors, R. Norman Lamm once summarized the heightened sense of responsibility that individuals giving shiurim and divrei Torah in a communal setting should maintain: “For some of the people listening to you, this is their only exposure to Torah for the entire week. It is up to you to make this experience worthwhile for them.”

Realizing that those in the congregation expect, either consciously or even unconsciously to be approached from such a perspective should significantly determine what transpires during sermon and shiur times and promote Yirat Shamayim.

Social Action
Contemporary Jews, particularly those who are younger and have participated in Hillel while on the college campus, often evaluate their religious experience in terms of the degree to which they are “living” their Judaism, putting into practice ideals which they have been  inspired to pursue. Many of these individuals have come to believe that the commandments between “man and fellow man”  are of equal importance to the rituals incumbent on an individual in service of God (bein adam la-Makom). They evaluate their experience of Yirat Shamayim in the synagogue arena through the prism of how it impacts and reinforces that belief. Hesed programs should not only constitute an afterthought of a synagogue’s activities and involve only a small percentage of its population, but rather should serve as a primary focal point of religious activity and involve the overwhelming majority of those who consider themselves active members of the institution. Participation in regular “paying forward with kindness” activities taking place throughout the calendar year, involving both Jews and non-Jews, should be deemed as important to the synagogue’s mission and a measure of its success, equal to attendance at communal prayer and Torah classes.

Communal Shabbat Meals and Programs
One of the means by which the members of a community can get to know one another, and develop a sense of unity, particularly in a large congregation made up of different age cohorts and socio-economic levels, is by means of eating together. Whereas practically every synagogue sponsors a regular Kiddush following the main services on Shabbat, were this type of experience expanded to include as many additional settings and opportunities as possible, the benefits to everyone’s religious experience would be profound. Granted, preparing for and cleaning up after a large community can be onerous, but the burden can be diminished were rotations of responsibilities put into place that allow for different individuals to be “on duty” at different times. An additional benefit for participating in such groups is the extra esprit de corps that is created when people are called upon to work for their fellow community members. When the group as a whole is actively engaged in doing things for one another and sharing food, singing, and divrei Torah it is inevitable that a heightened sense of mutual responsibility and devotion both to one’s fellow man as well as God and Jewish tradition will result in true Yirat Shamayim.

The above are just a few recommendations for Jewish day schools and synagogues to encourage a refocusing upon the centrality of Yirat Shamayim. I hope that they contribute to sparking a meaningful and ultimately practical conversation.

Rabbi Yaakov Bieler has worked in various capacities in day schools and synagogues in New York City and Silver Spring, and writes and speaks widely on aspects of Modern Orthodoxy. Many of his essays can be read at Rayanot Yaakov and on his personal blog.

[Published on January 27, 2020]

  1. Responses included Hillel Goldberg, “Responding to ‘Rupture and Reconstruction’,” and Mark Steiner, “The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy: Another View,” both of which appeared in TRADITION 31:2 (Winter 1997); Isaac Chavel, “On Haym Soloveitchik’s ‘Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodox Society’: A Response,” The Torah U-Madda Journal 7 (1997), and Soloveitchik’s reply to Chavel in the same issue. 
  2. Fischer, 40; Muskin, 79-80 [references are to individual symposium authors, whose contributions can found be here]. 
  3. Berger, 8 fn. 3; Fischer 40; Saiman, 92-100. 
  4. Strauchler, 111.
  5. See Korobkin’s distinction, 66. 
  6. See Strauchler on Charles Taylor, 108-9. 
  7. See Norman Lamm’s classic essay “Faith and Doubt,” TRADITION 9:1-2 (1962), particularly his concluding section. 
  8. E.g., Barash, 5. 
  9. E.g., Barash, 5. 
  10. E.g., Muskin, 79. 

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