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How could one intellectually justify the basics? It seemed crucial to be intellectually responsible about something so important, indeed foundational to my life. Religion seemed spiritually and intellectually rich but philosophically burdensome. The summer before entering rabbinical school, I was teaching Talmud in a kollel, a special study group, at a summer camp operated by Yeshiva University. By day I worked intensely and with great enjoyment on Talmud; by evening, I worked over (and under and through), again and again, my theological doubts.
Despite some of the standard translations, it is far from clear why simply being frightened of God is supposed to be of great ethical value, or why such fright is so admirable as to be considered “the beginning of wisdom,” as we are told that yirah is in Psalms. That awe of heaven is a great virtue, or that it is the beginning of wisdom, is quite another matter. There is a passage in the Jewish morning liturgy to the effect that a person should always stand in yirah of heaven in private as well as in public.
Faith does n ot come into being out of nothing, inadvertently, unprepared, an unearned surprise. Faith is preceded by awe. Faith, to paraphrase Wittgenstein's remarks on understanding, is not the sort of thing that occurs in a flash. This is not to say-to continu e the parallel with Wittgenstein-that a datable occurrence cannot be the felt onset of faith, or of an increase or intensification of faith. To deny that faith can occur in a flash is rather to emphasize the antecedents, the long and difficult business of character developm ent.