Fasting From a Functional Perspective

Recovering the benefits of denial.

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Second, and related, is the aspect of humility in spiritual practice. Every year, I learn from the tradition, even if my relationship to it is no longer as orthodox as it once was. Perhaps I'll explore the social meaning of fasting--what depriving the body might have meant in a culture where food was not taken for granted. Or I'll ponder what it means that ignoring the needs of the body is, itself, a sign of mourning. Every year, there is something new.

Finally, I approach the five Temple-related fast days in the spirit of spiritual practice, and practice requires form. If we only do something when we feel like doing it, it isn't a practice. If you get up after ten minutes of meditation because you're not feeling like meditating, then, in a way, you're never meditating. The container is meant to be fixed, so that whatever transpires inside it can be as fluid, and open, as possible.

So I fast when the fast days fall. Sometimes, there is a wonderful congruence between observance and life. Other times, as when I recently observed Tisha B'Av while traveling through Norway, there isn't. Allowing the fast to proceed, whatever its shape, allows its effects to be seen in a variety of shapes and colors. It takes religion beyond the ego.

Admittedly, this functional orientation is rarely found today. Orthodox Jews fast because it is part of the halakhic system and has the mythic-historical basis. And most non-Orthodox Jews reject fasting for the same reasons. It does also take work; it's not as enjoyable as dancing on Friday nights. But it would be a shame to lose this universal, embodied spiritual practice simply because rationales for it have been lost.

Often I am "led" by fasts to places which are achingly beautiful. I find myself more loving, more accepting, more grateful. Sometimes I'm overwhelmed with humility, as I see how much the "I" that I'm so proud of is dependent on daily nourishment. Just one skipped meal, and look what happens to this supposedly self-sufficient ego!

Usually we encounter the fragility of life in tragic circumstances, but fasting provides us a similar experiential insight in a safer, quieter way. As Isaiah famously says, fasting without heart is no guarantee of piety. But with intention and attention, it can lead to precisely the compassion the prophet demands.

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Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson is a writer & teacher. He is a columnist for the Forward, the chief editor of Zeek, the executive director of Nehirim: GLBT Jewish Culture & Spirituality, and the author of God in Your Body. He is a Ph.D candidate in Jewish thought at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and holds a J.D. from Yale.