Another year, another soapbox about fasting on Yom Kippur

Things Yom Kippur is:

  • The holiest day in the Jewish year
  • An opportunity to detach ourselves from the material world and focus on what really matters
  • The chance to contemplate our lives and commit to positive changes
  • A time when we confront difficult emotions and ideas with the comfort of our community and the support of our liturgy.

Things Yom Kippur isn’t:

  • A diet.

The picture above has been doing the rounds after it was posted by the group JewBelong (no comment here on what they’re doing- their aims are laudable, even if their branding is slightly cringeworthy). It touches at the complicated intersection between fasting and the wider connotations of food denial in a society where a toxic diet culture is prevalent.

For some people, fasting is a hugely positive experience, and they are able to harness the power of a fast as an opportunity to transcend the trappings of the physical world and to create space for reflection. For some people, fasting brings down their defences, opens them up to ideas, and marks the day as unique. That’s what fasting can be, but as the ad alludes to, that’s not always how fasting is seen.

Judaism is a powerful counter cultural force that celebrates life and holds the upholding of health at the heart of its tradition. When rituals run counter to that impulse, either because someone is unwell, or as in this case because their meaning is distorted, it’s our obligation as Jews to say something. Fasting on Yom Kippur is not a competition, there is no prize for being better at self-deprivation- whatever social pressure might suggest. There is no honour in ignoring your body’s needs. We should be further aware of just how damaging this kind of talk is for those in our communities who suffer from eating disorders (I’ve written more about that here), but this obligation doesn’t end there.

My favourite description of fasting comes from Isaiah 58:

Is such the fast I desire, A day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush And lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, A day when God is favourable? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin.

Fasting according to Isaiah is not enough unless it has an ethical foundation. We don’t fast for a looser waistband or because we live in a society that thinks consuming less food makes you a better person, but rather because this small and limited act of deprivation gives us pause to reflect and to enter back into the world, to eat, and then to act.