The Place of Yirat Shamayim in Moral Development:
The Pedagogical Approach of the Maharal of Prague

Yael Wieselberg

Maharal, somewhat unusual amongst Jewish thinkers for his explicit interest in the field of Jewish education, has much to say about the primary importance of pedagogy. Throughout his writings, and Netivot Olam in particular, he explains that fear of heaven, rather than intellectualism, is the key to a genuine relationship with the heavenly realm. Famous for his rejection of abstract pilpul, Maharal suggests a paradigm for a very different kind of learning, based upon the values of Yirat Shamayim (fear of heaven) and Anavah (humility). Unlike contemporary academic dogma, Maharal argues that while Chochmah (wisdom) remains valuable where it leads to spirituality, it loses meaning the moment it disconnects from Yirat Shamayim. Teaching cannot therefore be circumscribed to fact or methodology; it needs the direction of Dveykut B'ashem, guiding the student towards a personal relationship with God.

Maharal posits a clear division between Chochmah, a term to be defined here as intellectual wisdom, and Torah. The distinction is between empiricist, this-worldly wisdom, and the enterprise of Torah, that which brings mankind to their ultimate tachlit (purpose) in the world to come. The first form of learning explains Maharal, remains solipsistic, concerned with factual knowledge that keeps man bound in his self-contained, earthly existence. And while there is value in the Chochmah Kllalit (general wisdom) that is able to provide insights into the nature and order of reality, secular, illusory wisdom remains unable to advance the Torah enterprise. Torah, on the other hand, with its unique teleology, constitutes the 'Lashon Hora'ah' (language of teaching) insofar as it 'shows' man the possibilities of another realm of existence. The language of pedagogy is at root, concerned with connecting the physical and the supernatural, an aspiration generated through yirah and anavah.

Illustrating the model, Maharal writes of an approach to Torah-learning founded upon a hierarchy of values: those of wisdom (chochmah), awe (yirah), and humility (anavah). For Maharal, wisdom appears as only the first rung on the value-scale, ascending towards yirah and peaking with anavah, the humble recognition of one's place in the world that aligns man with God. In different ways, fear of heaven and the pursuit of humility both contribute towards building the I-Thou relationship. Each express more Divine truth than barren intellectualism, viewed by Maharal as a limited, this-worldly phenomenon. Instead, he identifies anavah with dveykut, the bond with God that is the focus and purpose of all existence. The moment of humility in which we recognize our relationship with God also brings us to Him. And partly because it is informed by dveykut, Maharal's perspective on the Jewish value system is almost entirely governed by the principles of relationship. Beginning with the fundamental inter-relation of concepts, Maharal ultimately celebrates the union of man and God, the Torah, and the Jewish people. Behind each of these relationships is the dveykut paradigm, so that understanding its assumptions aids the education of both religiosity and reciprocity. Learning to view oneself in relation to the 'other', recognizing that one stands in eternal dialogue with God, other people, or the text, establishes a contextual framework that is built upon relationship. For Maharal, this awareness is central to the development of dveykut, the ultimate in moral development.


Download Article (MSWord 239K) Back to Journals 01 Bio

Copyright 2000-2010 ATID. All rights reserved.