“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”
In his book Awestruck: How Embracing Wonder Can Make You Happier, Healthier, and More Connected, Jonah Paquette summarizes research on the origins of awe this way: “Early notions of awe were almost universally associated with religion, pertaining to our relationship to God or the gods, and were often associated with fearsomeness and punishment.”
As a rabbi and a CIPP graduate, I would say that this conclusion about our historical relationship to awe is half right.
Yes, awe, for millennia, has been associated with, as well as explored and enhanced by, religion. However, the second half of the summary statement is incomplete and misleading. Awe certainly does pertain to the human-Divine relationship in the understanding of world religions, but awe for God is not genuine or holy if it does not also inspire awe for God’s creations, including nature and people. And while some awe of God is associated with trembling, reverence, and even fear or punishment, much of it is associated with beauty, admiration for those creations, and a sense of both humility and empowerment, because we were made in the image of the Divine.
In his chapter on awe in Born to Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, the influential researcher Dacher Keltner writes: “Early in human history awe was reserved for feelings toward divine beings.” In terms of the Hebrew Bible, this is the opposite of what religion teaches. The Bible reports, encourages, and even commands awe for people, such as one’s parents (Leviticus 19:3), Moses and Joshua (Joshua 4:14), and King Solomon (I Kings 3:28). The Bible also underscores the awe that is lastingly associated with places where one encounters the Divine, oneself, and, often, one’s community. Examples include awe of a holy sanctuary (e.g., 19:30, 26:2) and Jacob’s awe based on his sense of connection (literally, via a ladder) between the Infinite and Everlasting God of Heaven and himself, a lonely runaway, sleeping outdoors on an unremarkable patch of land here on earth. Based on his experience, Jacob calls that place Beth El, meaning House of God (Genesis 28:19)—a name it retains today.
The Bible and subsequent Jewish literature instruct us to hold our own words in awe, including but not only when taking oaths in God’s name. “Life and death are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). The famous prayer of Yom Kippur eve, Kol Nidrei, cancels our vows, because we are awestruck by the power of words to both hurt and heal when we contemplate our lives during the Days of Awe.
According to both Proverbs (13:13) and Psalms (111:10), awe is the beginning of wisdom—not the beginning of submission based on fear. Awe should—and, based on studies conducted by Keltner and others at Berkeley, does—enlighten us to improve our behavior.
Positive psychologists define awe, in part, as an “awareness of vastness” and “accommodation to that awareness.” This means that—subtly or dramatically—one’s identity, perspective, speech, and/or behavior changes based on encountering that which is vast.
God is vast. The power of goodness, the beauty of nature, and the creativity of human beings are all vast as well. Accommodating to them is not—whether in the context of religion or psychology—about obeisance or obedience alone. Although we all tend to want to bend a knee in the face of Majestic Mystery, there is more to awe than that. There is the Mystery that awe points to, which, by definition, cannot be fully elucidated or explained—not by psychology or biology, not by spirituality or religion.
The goal, to my mind, is not to fully understand awe. The goal is to fully experience it.
I invite you to join me for a 5-Day Awe Challenge, beginning today, Wednesday, September 1, by subscribing to my e-newsletter at RabbiDebra.com.
For those celebrating the Jewish High Holidays—which are also called the Days of Awe—may this holiday season be filled not only with that singular emotion but also with repentance, forgiveness, and joy.
Rabbi Debra Orenstein
Rabbi Debra Orenstein, CiPP, brings the meaning and relevance of the Jewish spiritual tradition to diverse audiences. Named by the Jewish Daily Forward as “one of America’s most inspiring rabbis,” she has been a keynote speaker at hundreds of venues, including houses of worship, the Chautauqua Institution, and Christian, Jewish, and interfaith conferences. For 20 years, Rabbi Debra taught at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Today, she is an instructor at the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York and the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, New Jersey. Rabbi Debra is the author of eight books, including the Lifecycles series. The main focus of her justice work is ending slavery and promoting freedom. A seventh-generation rabbi, she is also an alumna of the first entering class at the Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School to include women. Visit RabbiDebra.com to learn more and download resources.