The following was inspired by a conversation I had with my spouse Ross in the car one evening as we were driving home from visiting the kids. Ross asked me what Jewish tradition has to say on the subject of anxiety, and when I thought about it I realized that this is an extremely difficult question to answer.
The word in Hebrew which most closely approximates “anxiety” is חֲרָדָה. Derived from a verbal root which means to be excited or to tremble, the word is old enough to occur in the Babylonian Talmud, as in a passage where, discussing the derivation of the obligation to approach prayer with great solemnity, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi says:
מהכא השתחוו לה׳ בהדרת קדש אל תקרי בהדרת אלא בחרדת
– bT Berachot 30b.
Translation: It is derived from here – “Bow down to the LORD in the beauty of holiness (b’hadrat kodesh).” Don’t read it as “in the beauty of holiness,” but rather “in holy anxiety” (b’cherdat kodesh).
The phrase “holy anxiety” may sound strange to our ears, since we are accustomed to think of anxiety as something bad to be avoided, while holiness is something good to embrace. Especially for those of us who have ever suffered from serious anxiety (and I include myself in this camp), the idea of holiness may seem totally irreconcilable with the overwhelming tension of a mind constantly turning over and over within itself a thousand preminitions of disaster. And yet Jewish tradition’s attitude on this matter is both complex and ambiguous – recognizing it as a great source of the pain and suffering to which we human beings are subject, but nevertheless embracing it as a source of connection with God.
If proof were needed of the Jewish people’s long collective relationship with anxiety, we need go no farther than the book of Psalms, throughout which anxiety appears frequently as an oppressive presence for which the psalmist calls out to God for relief – as for example in Psalm 6:
Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I languish
Heal me, O LORD, for my bones shake with terror
My whole being is stricken with terror
While you, LORD – O, how long!
– Psalms 6:3-4
At the same time, the Bible’s statements regarding our proper existential attitude toward God often make use of language evocative of fear. The most common such phrase, yirat Elohim is probably best translated “fear of God” (also yirat shamayim, “fear of Heaven”). If this phrase sounds somewhat old-fashioned to our ears, it is perhaps because, anxious ourselves at the idea of “fear” in connection with the divine, we tend to prefer somewhat milder words such as “awe.” To bowdlerize the traditional language in this way, however, may have the effect of masking something important – and paradoxically positive – about the relationship between traditional Judaism and anxiety.
Anxiety is perhaps an unavoidable byproduct of the development of spiritual consciousness. As Mordecai Kaplan put it:
The more eager we are to shape human life in accordance with some ideal pattern of justice and cooperation, the more reasons we discover for being dissatisfied with ourselves, with our limitations, and with our environment.
– Mordecai Kaplan, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, p. 28
Where some traditions have attempted to deal with this issue by cultivating a sense of detachment from the world, Judaism has always tended to cultivate in its adherents an active engagement with the world and its problems. This activist orientation has necessitated a certain coming-to-terms with anxiety. The concern of religious Jews throughout the ages has generally not been with eliminating anxiety altogether, but rather with ensuring that anxiety is fixed on its proper objects, namely God and our fellow human beings.
To love God, the world, and each other, is to be concerned. To care is to recognize all the myriad varieties of harm that may befall that which is cared for – in other words to be anxious. In the face of personal anxiety – the overwhelming fear for the self which is the lot of most human beings since the dawn of time – the Torah encourages us to place our trust in God to ensure that everything will work out in the end. Not, as we might expect, to deliver us from anxiety altogether, but to elevate our anxiety from the profane to the spiritual.
This, then is the meaning of “holy anxiety”: That to each of us is issued the challenge to be more afraid of disappointing God than we are of being humiliated, harmed, or otherwise brought low by our fellow human beings. In the words of the psalmist:
In distress I called out to the LORD
The LORD answered me and brought me relief
The LORD is on my side,
I have no fear
What can man do to me?
– Psalms 118:5-6