Living in a Culture of Fear: A Jewish Perspective

Article excerpt

The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, wrote of Abraham in 'fear and trembling'. I am writing this with a sense of panic and terror and so, as always in such a situation, will need to proceed very slowly, taking great care, step by step.

What is such fear about? I want to suggest that these feelings, or more accurately, some aspects of them, are inevitable in our human condition, that they are part of what has been called 'primary anxiety', which some see as inherent in our awareness of ourselves as mortal human beings.

Such fear can paralyse thinking and bring about irrational words and actions. It seems to me, for example, that neither the American-British 'war on terror', President Bush's crusade on the axes of evil, nor Israel's harsh military responses to suicide bombings, are carefully thought through. They are largely immediate, almost desperate, reactions to impotent feelings of fear or panic and now we are, at least in the western world, being acclimatised to an unending 'war on terror' and an assault on centuries of civil liberties. I want to suggest that our fears are misplaced.

We need, of course, to think carefully about words and language. Are we, for example, living, or partly living, in a culture of fear--or a climate of fear? 'Culture' raises more questions. 'Climate' seems somehow inevitable, like the weather (though we know even the weather is affected by our actions). Culture is something that is grown or cultivated. Is there, perhaps, some decision involved here? Perhaps, if it exists, a culture of fear is not natural but man made? In which case, why? Are the media and our politicians, and religious leaders, producing such a climate deliberately, or is it just happening--coming perhaps from their unconscious drives, produced without conscious awareness? Moreover, how far is fear the same as terror--or panic?

Some of the best descriptions of terror and living in fear that I know are found in the Bible. The first occurs in a section in Leviticus (26:26ff.):

   But if, nevertheless, you do not listen to me but act in opposition
   to me, I will act angrily against you and I myself will punish
   you--seven times for your sins. You shall eat the flesh of your
   sons and your daughters. I will destroy your hill-shrines and the
   places where you offer incense and I will heap your carcasses upon
   your lifeless idols and I will spurn you.

      I will lay your cities to ruin and destroy your sanctuaries and
   I will not accept the pleasant odour of your offerings. I will make
   desolate your land and the enemies who live in it shall be
   appalled. I will scatter you among the nations and I will pursue
   you with a naked sword. Your land shall become a desolation and
   your cities a ruin ... As for those of you who survive, I will cast
   a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. The
   sound of a falling leaf shall put them to flight. Fleeing as though
   from the sword, they shall fall though none pursue. With no-one
   chasing after them, they shall fall over one another as though
   before a sword. And you shall have no power to stand before your
   enemies but you will perish in the lands of your enemies.

This theme is developed still further in the section of curses in Deuteronomy, ending with the words:

   The Lord will scatter thee among all the peoples, from one end of
   the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods, wood
   and stone, whom neither you nor your ancestors have known.

      Yet even among those nations you shall have no respite, nor
   shall your foot find a place to rest. The Lord will give you there
   a trembling heart, and eyes that pine, and a despondent spirit.

      Your life shall hang in doubt before you and you shall live in
   fear, day and night, and have no security in your life.

   In the morning you shall say, 'If only it were evening! …