Is this the fast I desire?

Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – is considered to be the holiest day in the Jewish Year. It is a day for reflection and deep introspection. A day to devote yourself to thinking about how you have strayed over the last year, to repent for what you have done wrong, and to commit yourself to being a better person in the coming year. Interestingly, the prayers and meditations on Yom Kippur can only repair the relationship between you and God or you and yourself. To repair a relationship with another person, you must apologize directly to them. Making the day even more significant is the fact that tradition teaches it is on this day that the book of life is sealed, and within it is written who shall live and who shall die over the next year. One’s merit is determined by the sincerity with which they do teshuvah.

Teshuvah translates roughly as repentance, but the concept is much more complicated. It is not merely about regret and contemplating one’s actions. Teshuvah is a turning towards the right – a true change of heart and character. If presented with the same situation in the future, you would do differently. It is a painful and difficult task to truly change oneself, but this is what teshuvah demands. And this is the charge to the Jewish people during the month of Elul and the high holy days, culminating on Yom Kippur. We are to change ourselves, alter the core of our persons, to become better people. On the most holy day of Yom Kippur, we do this by attending services all day, engaging in continuous self reflection and contemplation, and taking the day off of school and work.

And we fast. No food. No water. Nothing.

And this is where the problem lies. For me and dozens hundreds thousands of Jewish girls and woman who are struggling, recovering, or recovered from eating disorders. For us, fasting is not a way to think more deeply about justice, repentance, and what is right. On the contrary, it is a direct reversion back to some of the behaviors that we most wish to change about ourselves. At best, fasting is a painful reminder of a troubled relationship with food. At worst, it is a triggering experience that brings with it a return or increase of negative thoughts/behaviors.

The acknowledgement that fasting on Yom Kippur is a troublesome demand for those with eating disorders is receiving more attention. In 2012, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), the central authority for Jewish law within Conservative Judaism, released a responsa (ruling regarding religious law) titled The Non-Fasting Shaliah Tzibbur on Yom KippurThe overall objective of this responsa was to determine if it is ever permissable for someone who is not fasting on Yom Kippur to be the service leader. Embedded within this larger question is a discussion about which people are excluded from the commandment to fast. In fact, some people are not only permitted to eat, but they are commanded to do so if abstaining from food could cause them harm. For example, if one is ill and fasting could put them at increased physical risk. Within the responsa, the Rabbis note the application to those with eating disorders, stating “it may be dangerous for those who are in treatment for and recovery from eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia to engage in restrictive practices around food consumption.” It seems, then, that there is a green light of sorts permitting those affected by eating disorders to not fast on Yom Kippur.

Unfortunately, the decision is not quite that easy. At least for me. The weight of the decision not to fast feels too monumental. I fear I would be letting down my community, friends, coworkers, family – all of whom are fasting. I worry I am taking the easy way out, making excuses, separating myself from thousands of years of tradition. I worry that I’m ‘too weak’ to handle hunger, that I’m missing an opportunity that would be good for me, that I will regret whatever food I eat during the day….and this is when the eating disorder voice slips in.

And I know I should not fast. I should not fast because in between the meaningful introspection and solemn prayers, I would be obsessing about my next meal, considering how many calories I can eat at dinner that night, if my fast is sufficient to offset the extra calories eaten the night before, and wondering which of the five sizes of pants in my closet (the result of years of weight loss/gain) will fit me tomorrow. Rather than being a day of turning away from those things I wish to rid myself of, it becomes, instead, an invitation for them to reenter my life.

The purpose of the fast on Yom Kippur is not simply food deprivation. In Isaiah 58:5-7, part of the Haftorah reading on Yom Kippur, we read,
is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies?…No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock the 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.”

To me, this is a reaffirmation that lack of food is not the real point. And if fasting makes it all about the food (as is a temptation for someone with my history), then I am, in fact, missing out on the holiday’s true significance. Choosing not to fast is not an ‘easy way out’ or excuse at avoiding the discomfort of hunger. Rather, it is a way for me to access the true meaning and intent of Yom Kippur.

If you are interested in additional reading about the connection between eating disorders and Yom Kippur and the broader Jewish community, check out some of these articles/posts:

Fasting From Affliction: Reflecting on my Eating Disorder on Yom Kippur – on TC JewFolk
When Fasting is Not Teshuvah: Yom Kippur with Eating Disorders – from RitualWell
Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community – from My Jewish Learning
Eating Disorders, A Problem Among Orthodox Jews – from the Huffington Post
Rabbis Sound an Alarm Over Eating Disorders – from the New York Times

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