Pirke Avot, verse three: fear of Heaven

      7 Comments on Pirke Avot, verse three: fear of Heaven

Is it possible we can discuss the third verse in only three notes? Let’s see:

Antigonus of Socho received the tradition from Simeon the Just. He used to say, Be not like servants who minister to their master upon the condition of receiving a reward; but be like servants who minister to their master without the condition of receiving a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.

My first two notes were about Antigonus himself and about the servant-master metaphor, and now we come to the fear of Heaven. What is the fear of Heaven?

If we look at this saying as a triple, we can identify the first part as a negative injunction (be not like…) and the second as a positive injunction (be like…), and the third is—what? Remember the last triple was torah, avodah and g’milut chasadim. The first is the law, the second the ritual (yes, they could be other things, but bear with me for a minute), and the third is going beyond the strictures of the commandments, beyond even the traditional hedge that has been built up to safeguard the law, to something extra, done out of kindness. Here, then, we have a negative and a positive injunction that could be seen as encompassing the whole of your obligation: serve the Divine. And yet, it isn’t enough. There is something extra. And that, presumably, is the fear of Heaven.

But why fear? Is it fear of consequences? Is it possible that Antigonus is saying that we should serve the Divine not out of desire for a reward, but out of fear of Divine vengeance? Well, it is possible. But it certainly isn’t satisfying.

Here’s a thought from me: the use of Heaven as a sort of substitutive synonym (there is a word for this, but I can’t find it; it’s not a euphemism nor a dysphemism, but a use of one positive term for another positive but tabu term) is in common use in Rabbinic literature. Clearly we are meant to read fear of Heaven as fear of the Divine. But if I can borrow a bit of semiotic argument, these signs are not perfectly transparent transfers of meaning, but rather layer one meaning behind another. When we hear Heaven we understand it to mean the Divine, but we also understand it to mean Heaven, that is, the sky and its stars and planets and whatnot. Right?

So in the phrase fear of Heaven we can also read an allusion to a commonly understood fear of heights. If we think of the fear in Antigonus’esses statement to be a fear of that kind, those of us who experience it can relate it to a religious experience. The fear of heights isn’t so much a fear of falling (at least in my experience). It’s not even properly speaking a fear. It’s a panic, a rush of adrenaline, an altered state of consciousness, a moment outside ordinary understanding. It isn’t a pleasant experience, by any means. But it isn’t fear. It isn’t a rational assessment of the potential outcomes, or even a bargaining with the Divine. It’s more like what in Scripture (or Kierkegaard, I believe) would be called a trembling.

I think we have to lift the fear of heaven out of the metaphor of the servant and master, where the servant fears the master who could beat him or fire him or ruin his life in various ways. I think this fear, when it is felt, is what takes us out of those metaphors of the Divine, not only servant-master but parent-child, defendant-judge, subject-king, and even sheep-shepherd, and into a dim understanding of the vast gulf that separates us from the Divine, a glimmer of the smallness of individuality in the vastness of Creation. We can’t live that way all the time (or at least I can’t), and our tradition actually frowns on too much religions ecstasy as leading to a neglect of the Law.

Which, I hope, brings us around again. We should serve the Divine, not with an eye to a reward (either in this world or any other), but as a servant who does not think of a reward. How can we refrain from thinking of a reward? By letting the fear of Heaven come upon us. Not so much that we are unable to carry out the commandments, because the middle part of the triple makes it clear that we should do so, but enough that we can remind ourselves not to bargain with the Divine.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

7 thoughts on “Pirke Avot, verse three: fear of Heaven

  1. Matt Hulan

    Hm. Hm. I have thoughts, but they are formless and vague. They have to do with meditation and oneness, that the fear of Heaven can be a goad that may drive one to attempt to connect with the Divine. Furthermore, that gazing on its face can be blinding, but that blindness lends a perspective that the sighted do not have. What use is a blind servant?

    Forgive me, I’m brainstorming as I type, which will probably yield odd fruit.

    The Divine (my Divine, anyway) needs people who are not her servants, just as surely as she needs those who are her servants, or she would not have had those experiences; if she is to transcend herself, then she needs it all. Hm.

    Another thing with fear of Heaven, I see that phrase in Christianity as tied in with awe, rather than with terror. I think that the use of the fear-terror connection has historically led to Christianity’s more horrific abuses, whereas the fear-awe connection can lead to ecstatic conversions. I’m not convinced those are a good thing, but I’ll allow them their miracles if they allow me my martyrs.

    I don’t know. I don’t know.


  2. Anonymous

    Yup, I think of “fear” as being “reverence” or “awe” rather than fear in the sense of being afraid of monsters. Let the reverence for heaven be upon you.

    but I like your concept of the ecstasy of heaven, too. That’s definitely more catchy. Do this not for a reward, but just because. Because Heaven is cool.

  3. Dan P

    there is a word for this, but I can’t find it; it’s not a euphemism nor a dysphemism, but a use of one positive term for another positive but tabu term

    Synecdoche? Or is that not quite it?

    In any case, the “fear of heaven” or “fear of the LORD” phrase evokes, to me, something akin-but-opposed to Lovecraft’s incomprehensible horrors that destroy the will — with the crucial difference being that it isn’t horror but awe, and that the destruction of will leads not to gibbering madness but to devotion and service.

  4. Michael

    Don’t serve God in the hope of an earthly reward; serve God without seeking an earthly reward; focus on Heaven.

    Don’t serve God in the hope of an earthly reward; serve God without seeking an earthly reward; then Heaven will be your reward.

  5. Michael

    This feels like a very forced triple to me this morning. Antigonus used to say, “I’m not paying you, so shut up.” When pressed, he’d say “I work for God, so when you work for me, you work for God.” Then he’d beat me. Antigonus was a really sucky boss.

    The third part of the triple is one of those out-of-nowhere statements that HR tosses in to justify some new policy. It’s the distraction, the shift of attention, the closing down of questioning or discussion.

    The “and” at the start of the third part can mean “then” — sequential conjunction indicating a causal or temporal relationship. But it’s barely a triple at all, if you read it that way. Last night, “fear” seemed to me clearly ironic — Heaven is not feared as a reward, so Antigonus is saying then there’s nothing to fear.

    Then he’d beat me.

  6. Vardibidian

    The problem with thinking of fear of Heaven as being awe or reverence is that it Antigonus didn’t say awe or reverence; he said fear. So I’m reluctant to say that he meant reverence. I would be happy to say (as Michael does this morning) that the statement, or at least the last part of the triple, should be rejected (or at least viewed skeptically). But I want to distinguish between disagreeing with Antigonus on the one hand and the other construing Antigonus as saying what we can agree with, even if it isn’t what he said.

    I suppose it could be claimed that reverence and awe are sufficiently connected with fear that it’s an acceptable translation, but then we’re back to needing that connotation of fear that is in the original. Or so it seems to me. I wasn’t altogether happy with stretching fear of Heaven to connect to fear of heights rather than fright or dread, but at least I am able to defend it on the grounds that we do call it fear. Although, as I say, I’m still not altogether happy with it.

    However! I have had another idea. I can take fear of Heaven more literally even than fear of the Divine, to encompass fear of what contract law calls acts of Gd. Bear with me: the triple now reads something like

    • Don’t be like a servant who serves a master because of the reward because your relationship with the Divine should not be mercenary; don’t bargain with the Divine
    • Do be like a servant who serves a master without expectation of a reward because your obligation to serve the Divine is boundless, and is connected to the Creation rather than to any human idea of theodicy, and
    • Let the fear of Heaven be upon you because you could get struck by lightning tomorrow, whether you do good or not, so even if you do get what seems like material reward, don’t count on it lasting or take it as some affirmation of your service.

    The triple now rejects the idea of reward both prospectively and retrospectively, while maintaining at its center the idea of serving the Divine. I think it’s plausible that this triple is close to what Antigonus meant, while also making sense as a statement to YHB in this time and culture.




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