Monday, July 22, 2013

Does Fasting Make Sense Today?

Rabbi Sonsino
When was the last time you fasted?

There are various reasons for which people fast. Some do it for medical purposes, like to get thinner. Others resort to it for a political or social cause, like a hunger strike in jail. And others do it with a religious motive, like many Jews on the Day of Atonement or Muslims during Ramadan or Catholics on Ash Wednesday. The question for me is whether or not religious fasting makes sense today. It is my impression that in the Jewish community the number of people who fast for religious reasons is progressively diminishing. I agree with their skepticism.

The custom of fasting as a religious ritual was well known in the ancient Near East. In fact, fasting and then consuming special foods were part of the Mesopotamian New Year Festival (Akitu). According to some scholars, fasting survived as a remnant of the ancient cult of the dead because of its connection with weeping and mourning.

Like many other religions, Judaism too knows about fasting, and mandates both major and minor fasts. A major fast goes from sunset to nightfall the next day and a minor fast is held from sunrise to sunset. The two major fast days of the Jewish calendar are The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and Tisha Beav (9th of Av, usually in July), which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples as well as other calamities that befell the Jewish people throughout the centuries.

The Bible mentions various fast days (each one called a tzom) that were observed either by individuals (e.g., King David fasted before the death of his child, II Sam. 12: 16), or the Jewish people at large (e.g., Ezra’s fast, 8: 21, before his return to Judah). Rabbinic law added a number of minor fasts (each one referred to as taanit), like the Fast of Esther (Taanit Esther, just before Purim) and the Fast of the First Born (Taanit bekhorot), observed just before Passover by firstborn males, commemorating the fact that they were saved from the plague of the firstborn in Egypt (Ex. 11:4-6).

Why do people turn to religious fasting? Our tradition provides various answers:  as a humbling experience (e.g., Ps. 35: 13); as an expression of mourning (e.g., Tisha Beav); as a way to propitiate the divine (e.g., Jonah 3:7); for atonement of sins (e.g., Yom Kippur), and even as a technique of divination (e.g., Moses at Mount Sinai, cf. BT Yoma 4b). None of these rationales works for me today.

The only thing that fasting accomplishes is hurting the body. This is self-punishment which does not benefit anyone. One cannot “afflict the soul”-another biblical expression for fasting (Lev. 23: 27)- without damaging the body. In fact, the ancient Rabbis forbade people from fasting if they are under age, or pregnant and even if they have a medical condition against it.

If the feelings I have during a fast day are pains and headaches due to the lack of food or drink, then the religious value of the occasion is severely diminished. I might as well concentrate on the message of the spiritual moment by keeping myself hydrated and nourished.

In the past, I never fasted on Tisha Beav, and do not expect to do it in the future,  even when this ancient memorial day progressively assumes a new and more acceptable meaning in our time, namely, the atonement due to vain hatred of the other. The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem took place in ancient antiquity and, even though I mourn the loss of life in ancient Judea, I do not pray for the rebuilding of the temple that would reestablish the sacrificial rituals, give legitimacy to the cast system that was prevalent then in the Jewish community by giving priority to priests over lay Israelites or by separating men from women. (We already have enough problems with the Haredim in Jerusalem who wish to deny women access to the Wall).

Would I continue to fast on Yom Kippur? In the past I always did. I expect that I will do it again in the future as long as I can tolerate it. But isn’t this a contradiction of what I have just been saying? Yes, of course. Then why would I continue to fast? You never heard the song, “tradition, tradition???!!!!.”

Rabbi R. Sonsino, Ph.D

July 21, 2013

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