Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven

In shul this morning, I came upon this passage from the Talmud: “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” It’s an arresting thought, on two grounds.

First, we tend to think of omnipotent power as causing fear, even terror. Yet the one thing, the Talmud says, that omnipotent power cannot determine is whether we are afraid of it.

Second, we tend to think of our fear as something we don’t control, as an automatic and instinctual response to some power or threat. Yet here is the Talmud suggesting that everything within us is out of our control—except for our fear.

As it happens, these two claims are similar to the arguments I’ve often tried to make about the politics of fear: that fear in politics does not reflect a simple, automatic, instinctive response to threats; that our sense of what is threatening in politics is mediated through our prior moral and political beliefs; that when it comes to the objects of our political fear, we have choices, our responses are not predetermined.

Fear is a serious constraint on our freedom, but it is also an opportunity for freedom, an occasion to exercise moral and political choice, to make a determination about whether to be afraid or, failing that, to make a determination about how we should respond to the object of our fear, whether to flinch, flee, or fight.


  1. Howard October 20, 2018 at 4:51 pm | #

    You make the Rabbis sound like a quorum of uplifting Stoics. Your point sounds sensible as the Rabbis dealt with creepier leaders than Trump

  2. Jim October 20, 2018 at 6:03 pm | #

    i completely agree that acquiescing to fear of the perceived omnipotent power is essentially useless and diseempowering, actually. But, at least as you have quoted it, it also at least implies that people have no larger agency over their fate because it has all been determined by heaven. (I am no expert on the Talmud so I am missing the wider context in which this statement, which is almost haiku like was couched.)

    The ancient Israelites certainly had agency, judging by what we know about their history but evidently believed it was because God was helping them.

  3. David Fitts October 21, 2018 at 2:56 pm | #

    I feel this sheds light on a fundamental component/problem of human existence. The “Rascal Sage” G.I. Gurdjieff, stated that the only “real” fear, was the instinctual fear of death or harm. All others, he said, were essentially delusions. The goal of the 4th Way work, was to reveal a person’s “chief feature,” a basic, unconscious fear that dominates one’s life until it is brought into the light of consciousness and worked on.
    Here is my prayer: I pray for the wisdom to know when fear is present. I pray for the courage to face it. I pray for the love to dissolve it.

  4. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant October 22, 2018 at 4:00 pm | #

    With a few minor tweaks, what you write about fear in politics applies very much to rage/anger in politics, so let me cut to the chase.

    Fear is what the Republicans want us to have of them; rage is what they are getting from us in return instead, especially from us Blacks and from a lotta women.

    Conservative White men seem to think that THEIR rage/anger is what it will take to make us cower before them… in fear of them.

    We the rest of us beg to f*cking differ.

    I have done canvassing/labor walks (I am a union member) for our congressional candidate Perry Gershon and applied my share of stamps to envelopes. I will continue to participate in those legitimate and supported civic activities that our current political system allows/maintains/encourages. I hope that this country’s future keeps these and others (like voter registration) as our options for the preservation and expansion of democracy in this nation. Buh-leeve me when I say that for all our sakes, it damn well better.

    Right now, I am reading “Rage Becomes Her” by Soraya Chemaly. I will next read Rebecca Traister’s “Good And Mad”.

    We are not fearful. Rather, we are pissed beyond all measure.


    And we intend to act on it.

    Buh-leeve me!

  5. Lichanos October 27, 2018 at 10:32 am | #

    “…fear in politics does not reflect a simple, automatic, instinctive response…”

    “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

    Viktor Frankl

  6. relstprof November 3, 2018 at 5:23 am | #

    When anxiety strikes up the music what can you do but dance? That, and vote.

    Omnipotence can be balanced by communicative relationality. There are covenants after all. Abstract power can be tempered by theological notions of promise (hope), compromise (Abraham’s dealings), and breaking (selah).

  7. Bert Rubash November 25, 2018 at 9:53 pm | #

    Where have all the Robins gone, long time passing?
    Where have all the Robins gone, long time ago?
    Where have all the Robins gone, long time passing?
    Gone to Facebook every one.
    When will they ever learn,
    When will they ever learn.

  8. Theo December 26, 2018 at 11:19 am | #

    Thank you for this. Have you dropped me from your listserv? I signed up again just now. Alternatively, Verizon could have marked you as spam and I missed it. Verizon is continually removing some of my listservs for left/progressive sites no matter how often I mark as not spam.
    Best wishes to you and your family.

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