Thursday, September 20, 2007

Yom Kippur (Months)

For more teachings on Yom Kippur and Teshuvah, see below, archives for September 2006.

“Is This the Fast I Have Chosen?”

What is the object of fasting? Let me begin with an unexpected perspective: On the evening before Rosh Hashanah, I participated in a panel discussion on the approach to fasting in the three Western monotheistic religions—Islam, Judaism and Christianity. On one level, I was struck by the similarity in certain of the patterns among these very different religions: all three have thirty to forty-day annual periods of intensified spirituality, involving certain practices of abstinence and fasting and focusing on the soul: Ramadan; Elul + Days of Awe; and Lent. There are similar social patterns as well: in both Judaism and Islam, it is customary to make the breaking of the fast into a social occasion, typically involving many neighbors and friends beyond the immediate family circle. At one point, too, the Muslim speaker, Dr. Mustapha Abu Sway of el-Quds University, quoted a Sufi saying that could have come from a Hasidic rebbe: that when one fasts without spiritual consciousness, one is not fasting, but simply not eating.

But an interesting tension within the traditions quickly became apparent. The Catholic spokesman, Dr Bernard Sabella, spoke of the ethical component of fasting, on which both I and the Muslim spokesman commented (see below), carrying it one step further by asking a sharp question: how many people see the Other, the member of the other religious-ethnic community, as “their neighbor”? How many of us see the human face of the Palestinian or, for the Arab, of the Israeli living a few miles away? How many at least feel empathy and understanding for the suffering, pain and travail they may undergo?

At this point a young Greek Orthodox priest joined the discussion, saying that, if one accepts the reality of demons and devils, the only way to wage war against them is by breaking their power through humbling the body—i.e., by fasting. He invoked the verse in Psalms 51:19, “God’s offerings are a broken spirit,” as “clearly” referring to fasting. He went on to note that, in his church, fasting and abstinence are observed, not only during the “Great” Lent, but also during the “minor” Lent before Christmas, two weeks of abstinence in the summertime, every Wednesday and Fridays—and that, moreover, one broke the fast at nightfall on bread, water, and a bit of fruits and nuts. No flesh, no fish, no fowl, no eggs, no dairy products, no oil (except on Saturdays and Sundays); certainly none of the delicacies customarily consumed by Muslims after Ramadan, or the cakes, fish and whatnot on which many of us will doubtless break fast after Yom Kippur.

After my initial shock at hearing a real live person (one many several decades younger than myself!) saying these things, I realized that the spirit of rigor and abstinence (some might say, a paradoxical kind of pride in one’s humility and fortitude in waging such spiritual battles) is still very much alive, certainly among the Greek Orthodox.

But to return to our own tradition: within Judaism, as in human religious life in general, there are two almost diametrically opposed approaches to the question: what is the purpose of fasting? On the one hand, fasting may be viewed—particularly by those influenced by modern rationalism and/or secular-humanistic ways of thinking—as no more than a catalyst for the really important tasks: ethical introspection, leading to moral reform, and ending in the individual recommitting himself to ethical behavior in the human world. And indeed, one need go no further than the haftarah read on Yom Kippur morning to find texts supporting this view: “Is this the fast I have chosen?” thunders the prophet Isaiah. “To bow your head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes… [while] quarreling and fighting and hitting with a wicked fist…” Rather, it ought to be a day when one will “loosen the bonds of wickedness… let the oppressed go free, break every yoke, share your bread with the hungry…” (Isa 58:3-7). Similarly, when the prophet Zechariah was asked by the people who returned to Zion whether they should continue to “weep and abstain during the fifth month, as we have done these many years” (Zech 7:3)—i.e., to observe the fast of Tisha b’Av—he did not answer their question directly, but gave a long, roundabout answer: engage in righteous judgments, act with mercy and compassion, do not oppress the widow, orphan and stranger, etc. —and only thereafter did he answer their query, almost as an aside (8:18-19). Rambam also stresses that, alongside heartfelt public prayer and crying out to God, public fast days were marked by the leaders of the town delivering severe warnings to known miscreants and men of violence (Ta’aniyot 1.17; cf. my blog, 17th of Tammuz (Rambam), in archives for July 2006). In this view, any fast which does not lead to inner change, to caring for those less fortunate than oneself, is seen as morally, spiritually, religiously, and ethically pointless.

On the other hand, there is a position which emphasizes a spiritual, even metaphysical dimension to fasting. By denying the body, one transcends one’s biological nature and attempts, so to speak, to live on a purely spiritual plane, like one of the angelic hosts. This is perceived as a valuable spiritual exercise in its own right. Thus, Sefer ha-Hinukh, attributed to R. Aharon of Barcelona, describes the rationale for fasting on Yom Kippur as follows:

Through God’s mercies to His creatures He fixed one day of the year to atone for all their sins, coupled with repentance… therefore we are commanded to fast on this day. For eating and drinking and other sensual pleasures arouse matter to be drawn after its desires and to sin. And it hampers the form of the intellective soul from seeing the truth, which is the service of God and His good and sweet instruction to those who have awareness. And it is not fitting that a servant come for judgment before his master with a soul darkened and confused due to eating and drinking and the thoughts of material things that are within it. For a person is judged according to his acts at that hour. Therefore it is preferable that he strengthen his intellective soul and humble the material things before it on that great day, so that he may be deserving and ready to receive its atonement, and that it not by blocked by the screen of desire. (Mitzvat Aseh §278; Emor, §16)

We find here a clear dichotomy, so to speak, between the world of spirit and that of matter; that, at least on this holy day, one behave in a fashion enabling one to transcend the corporeal plane on which we ordinarily live, and give ourselves over entirely to the spirit.

Which one, then, is the correct path? The way of engaged ethical action in the world, or the way of piety, of withdrawal (whether to a hermitage or a yeshiva), of self–purification through a strict regimen.

I’ve been working recently on a translation project relating to Martin Buber, who represents, paradoxical as the term may sound, a kind of “secular religious humanism”—that is, an approach ultimately informed by a deep sense of the presence of “The Eternal Thou,” but in which things like prayer and ritual play no role. In principle, one’s connection with God is expressed through life in this world in accordance with a certain kind of consciousness and way of relating to the other—be it human, beast, ecosphere, or God.

All this connects to another question. Yom Kippur has a tremendous power over Jews—including many who are distant from the synagogue and from other Jewish activities all year long. From whence does this great power derive? Some see it is a kind of minimal act of symbolic identification with the Jewish collectivity, but it seems to me that it goes far beyond that. The entire experience: the fasting, the confession of sin, the gathering together in the synagogue, the solemn strains of the ancient melodies of Kol Nidrei and Ha-Melekh—somehow have a cathartic effect on the soul, even for those Jews who seem far away.

But is all this merely a psychological trick? I tend not to view it so. There is something in the soul that cries out for that which is beyond the rational, the utilitarian, the clear and “scientific” and explainable—in short, all those things that the modernist approach, with its self-confident belief in man’s mastery of all things, seems to do so well. Perhaps my Greek Orthodox priest wasn’t so far off the mark when he spoke of “demons and devils”—albeit understood metaphorically. There are depths within the soul, within the unconscious, within the imagination (whatever term you care to use), which go way beyond the simple, practical, functional understanding of human life and human needs. And there are horrors within the world—including the horrendous and unexpected side-effects of human mastery and power and intellect—that threaten to destroy us all. There is a place within is that feels alienated from God, that seeks meaning, that seeks not only societal reform, but some kind of personal wholeness and harmony with what we call God.

To return to the polarities I invoked in my Rosh Hashanah teaching: there is teshuvah and there is kaparah (see also the lead piece in my blog for Yom Kippur: “Atonement, Repentance, and What Is In Between”). Teshuvah, in the narrower sense, may be interpreted as ethical renewal: a process of review of ones character that even the secular humanist can agree with. But there is another dimension addressed on Yom Kippur, that goes deeper: that of kaparah, atonement, of purifying oneself before God. Of declaring a kind of moral bankruptcy, of admitting that one is not all-powerful. I make mistakes; I do not even really understand myself and my motivations for doing what I do. I may make bad decisions, in the mistaken certainty that I have considered every aspect of this decision from all sides. But five, ten, twenty years may pass, and suddenly my eyes are opened, and certain things are obvious to me about my past actions to which I was oblivious then. Perhaps I could not possibly have seen them in “real time.” (Perhaps this is the significance of the verse in our Rosh Hashanah reading: vayifkah elohim et eineha, God opened Hagar’s eyes [Gen 21:19]. Previously she had only seen sand and dunes, and thought she had no option but to stoically accept her son’s inevitable death; suddenly, she was able to perceive the well in the desert, which would solve her dilemma). Kaparah means reconciliation with God, a certain kind of purity, in a way we hardly understand.

In the end, the high road of Judaism has always been the “unifying of opposites.” Not to bifurcate purity–transcendence–God-relation vs. being in the world, ethical tikkun, etc., but to unify both. To be active in the world, in a way informed by purity and holiness.


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