Day One: Should I Fast For Yom Kippur?

I am not a faster. Forget going a whole day without eating—it’s hard for me to go more than a few hours without a snack. Fasting wasn’t a tradition in my home. Neither were bat mitzvahs. And it was a … Read More

By / September 18, 2007

I am not a faster. Forget going a whole day without eating—it’s hard for me to go more than a few hours without a snack. Fasting wasn’t a tradition in my home. Neither were bat mitzvahs. And it was a small miracle in my family when a Passover Seder lasted more than 20 minutes; we wanted to get to the meal. But despite past irreverence, I did once go all 24 hours of Yom Kippur without eating so much as a cracker. It was for a boy. I knew he observed the high holidays, so I went to services hoping that even if we couldn’t make out, we could at least discuss how hungry we were. But I did not want to fast this year because of someone else, or just because I was Jewish, even if I enjoyed the dramatics of synagogue and the reward of the break-fast on an empty stomach. I wanted to see if I could find an intention for fasting, or if it would remain an empty ritual. Could I get anything spiritual out of it? Would it change me, physically or otherwise? I wasn’t sure I’d be able to separate my fast from the more superficial reasons women give up food— dieting and its more sinister cousin, anorexia. Since I’m not very religious, a day of fasting is probably the biggest commitment I’ll make to Judaism all year. If I can’t find a good reason to do it, then why should I bother with any other element of Jewish ritual? Why consider myself Jewish at all? With the holidays approaching, I’m going to spend the next week looking for answers to these questions. I’ll talk to rabbis, of course, but I also want to consult people who won’t give me the same reasons for fasting that you hear in synagogue. A doctor will be able to tell me about the physical aspects of the fast. An expert on eating disorders should shed light on the body issues that go along with a day of self-denial. And a normal Jewish woman, someone who has thought long and hard about the rituals of eating and fasting, will help me figure out how to make the choice for myself. Rabbi Leonard Gordon of Philadelphia’s Germantown Jewish Centre, a Conservative synagogue that also houses a Reconstructionist congregation, seemed like a good blend of old and new school, and was happy to talk in the benign avuncular way I imagine rabbis are always happy to talk. On the phone, I asked what abstinence—from food, from sex—had to do with atonement.
Gordon explained that Leviticus, Chapter 16, Verse 31, says, “You shall practice self-denial,” or “You shall afflict your souls.” I honestly could not see how this was different from Judaism’s other 364 days of self-affliction and guilt, but Gordon explained that the point of fasting isn’t self-punishment; it’s to remind yourself that you have control over your body. The difficult part of the fast, Gordon went on, is focusing not on your hunger, but on your soul. I’m wary of a body/soul separation to begin with, and I also have trouble engaging in any spiritually infused language. However, while I may not ascribe to biblical creed, I do like the idea of being able to exercise self-control. So far, the religious rationale for fasting sounded good, but I still lacked a sense of cleansing or atonement that is supposedly crucial to the holiday. I emailed Alan Flam, a rabbi I’d known peripherally in college, to find out whether I could expect anything spiritual from the fast. Not that I was looking for a quick fix to make up for 22 years of disbelief, but I did want to know: If I made the fast more than an exercise, if I did it right, would the day feel special? What he wrote back was not a prescription for spirituality but a suggestion for making the day different by avoiding the ordinary, necessary activities of quotidian life. I found it beautiful:

“Yom Kippur is the only time on the Jewish calendar that we seek to renew our inner spiritual connection through pulling away from the physical, outer world…. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg [co-founder of the Jewish Life Network] suggests that Yom Kippur is a structured encounter with death. Only by confronting issues of our mortality can we engage in the work of transformation that Yom Kippur demands. Fasting is a way of bringing us closer to a death-like state.”

That made sense to me. When you spend a whole day hyperaware of how much living you cannot participate in, you’re forced to stop thinking about the usual neuroses surrounding food and sex and other indulgences—all those things that should matter less as you approach death. Fasting should clear your head of all this anxiety. (Well, that—or make things so much worse.) I still don’t understand what exactly is “transformed” when we deny ourselves food and water. Do we make ourselves ill? Is sickness necessary for transformation? Talking to a doctor would ground my decision in health and science which—no surprise here—I find a lot easier to believe than religion. Next page: Four out of five doctors agree: Judaism needs more Gatorade.

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