Re-examining Our Relationship to Awe

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source and inspiration of all true art, science, and technology. 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.” 

—Albert Einstein

 

In his book Awestruck: How accepting 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 CIPP grad and a rabbi I would agree that this conclusion about our historical relation to awe was half-right. 

Yes, awe has for millennia been associated with, as also explored and enhanced by religion. The second half of this summary statement is inaccurate and misleading. Awe certainly does Refer 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. 

His chapter on awe contains many helpful tips. Born to Good: The Science and Practice of a Meaningful, Healthy 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 encourages, commands, and even commands awe. 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 emphasizes the awe that is associated with it. 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 the subsequent Jewish literature teach us to be 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). Kol Nidrei, the famous Yom Kippur eve prayer, cancels our vows because we are awestruck at the power of words, to both hurt and heal, when we reflect on 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. All of God’s attributes, including the power of goodness, beauty, and creativity, are vast. Accommodating to them is not—whether in the context of religion or psychology—about obeisance or obedience alone. While we all want to bow down in front of Majestic Mystery, there’s more to it 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. 

My goal is not understanding awe fully. It is to fully experience it. 

Religion and psychology have shown that experiences of awe increase connections and connectedness, kindness, generosity, happiness, and curiosity, among many other benefits and virtues. 

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.

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