Thursday, March 08, 2007

On Fasting and the Place of Judaism

This is a response to Michelle's problem with regard to her understanding spiritual development to be the primary concern in life, specifically vis a vis her reported dislike for fasting because it interferes with regular life:


Purposefully depriving your body of nourishment and hydration is generally unpleasant. If you did like it then you would probably be suffering from some mental disorder.

Personally, I can fast for a day pretty easily, so most times I don't mind it that much - but it's not something I look forward to either.

In any case, the point of fasting is not just to 'do your duty' as is the common poor conception, but as a means to change your way of thinking. It is to understand why you fast and to grow in character and spirituality (whatever that means exactly).

Too much of modern Judaism consists of doing what you think you have to and being 'covered' rather than looking beneath the surface and understanding the messages that underline the actions and traditional rituals. See Isaiah 58:5-6*. If all you accomplished from fasting was being hungry then you accomplished nothing.

Yes, Judaism interrupts regular life - often by design - but that doesn't mean regular life is not important. Having a job, a family, enjoying life - these are all important supporting beams for life that exist complementary with personal development. A good Jew is not a monk - he is a person who lives in the real world while remaining mindful of the lessons of Jewish tradition. And an interruption now and then helps make that possible.


* "5 [Sarcastically] Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? 6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?"

9 comments:

Miri said...

right. um also frequently in commemoration for stuff. like the three days the Jews fasted before Esther went to Achashveirosh. or, alternately, the Temple burning. stuff like that.

Orthoprax said...

Miri,

Yes, those are additional reasons. I had implied historical commemoration when I said 'understand why you fast.'

The goals do not conflict.

Orthoprax said...

In fact, I wrote this some time ago:

http://orthoprax.blogspot.com/2005/10/why-do-jews-fast.html

and this:

http://orthoprax.blogspot.com/2005/08/well-warranted-affliction.html

Miri said...

"understand why you fast" is a little vague as a reference to commemoration as it could mean, really, anything. but ok. I'm sure you've covered this topic thoroughly.

alex said...

Since Miri mentioned the commemoration of Esther's fast, I can add (like I did in a recent post) -- "What about Esther's fast itself?"

When you write: "..the point of fasting is ... as a means to change your way of thinking. It is to understand why you fast and to grow in character and spirituality (whatever that means exactly)." I think the purpose there was to get God to overturn a decree.

Oh, hey, I just clicked on the link you gave and found my old, similar, comment. (To which you replied, "fair enough")(Totally forgot about that, didn't we?)

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

The point you made is about repentance, that's fine, and no, I didn't forget - in fact I've accepted it and built on it. With a twist.

You may see fasting as a means to get on God's good side as if God is a being who'll come and intervene in human affairs. I don't see it that way. Fasting is a means to repent which leads to improved character and better behavior which will lead to the betterment of society at large. God doesn't react to human activity here, but is implicit in the details.

Hrafnkel said...

Fasting also needn't always be about religion. As one who is highly skeptical about those matters, when I fast on Jewish holidays, it is about solidarity with those people and personal improvement. So basically what Daniel said, without the repentance talk.

:-)

alex said...

"Fasting is a means to repent which leads to improved character and better behavior which will lead to the betterment of society at large."

I don't think that Esther thought that Haman would change his mind just because the Jews would have better behavior.

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

I don't disagree with you - directly. The point is, even mainstream rabbinic sources would explain the link between fasting and redemption as a means to change characters and hence _merit_ God's grace.

Fasting, as an act in itself, is not meaningful to anyone. And, in fact, Isaiah strongly condemned such fasts. See above.

The difference between Esther and I is simply that I don't think "God's grace" works that way. Though, even within the story, she wasn't fasting in order that Haman change his mind, but that she'd be able to get Achashveirosh on her side.


Hrafnkel,

"and personal improvement. So basically what Daniel said, without the repentance talk."

As I see it, repentance is just another word for personal improvement.