The Yom Kippur fast is one of the most widely observed Jewish rituals, even among those who don’t regularly go to synagogue. Yet the practice of fasting evokes, for some people, many of the worst associations with religion: asceticism, self denial, fear of the body and its pleasures, and theologies of sin and guilt that many Jews find actively harmful to mental well-being.
Can the Yom Kippur fast be meaningful even without beliefs in reward and punishment, a judging God, and a sense of obligation? And if so, how?
One potentially useful approach can be found in the Bible, where fasting is often portrayed as a practice that works on the heart – as a mourning rite (II Samuel 1:12, 12:16-23), as part of revelation or prophecy (Exodus 34:28, I Samuel 28:20), as preparation for an important event (Judges 20:26, I Samuel 14:24, Esther 4:6), and as part of petitionary prayer (I Samuel 7:5, II Samuel 12) or repentance (Jonah 3:5, Jeremiah 36:9). There is also evidence of a little-discussed discipline of women voluntarily fasting (see Numbers 30:14 and the apocryphal Judith 8:6), and many later examples of fasting as a preparation for visions (Daniel 10:2 and elsewhere). And there are instances of fasting as, essentially, magic (Judges 20:26, Joel 1:14, Jonah 3:5-10).
In all these contexts, fasting is regarded for what it does to the individual, how it can function as, essentially, a spiritual practice. Only later did the effects of fasts became secondary to their historical or theological significance. For example, in fasts mentioned in the Book of Zechariah (and that were later made part of Jewish law), the emphasis is on the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, not the function of fasting itself.
A return to the earlier conceptions might help those for whom the dictates of Jewish law, or the theology of Yom Kippur, may be less compelling than the effects of fasting on body, heart, mind, and spirit. What are some of those effects?
First, fasting can bring about a strong sense of cleansing, or even catharsis. On a physical level, this may be a function of sweating out the garbage from industrialized food or a chemical-rich contemporary environment. On an emotional level, maybe it’s about cleansing the accumulated grime of ignored emotions, and getting some insight (often painful) into what lies beneath.
Second, fasting makes spiritual reflection and meditation easier. Denying the body food reduces the amount of energy available to the brain, and so it becomes increasingly difficult as the day wears on to think in the usual, linear ways. Often, the momentum of thought decreases and it becomes quite satisfying just to “be here now.”
This is similar to what meditation does: slowing down the train of thought so that it is possible to see the world more clearly. It’s no wonder then that fasting has been part of contemplative, prophetic, and even magical practices from the Bible to the present day. In a concentrated state, the mind can visit territories otherwise beyond our ken.
Third,on Yom Kippur in particular, these effects of fasting are enhanced by community, and by the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of people are doing this internal work at the same time as you are. This is true even though we don’t all agree about the day’s significance. After all, Jews have never agreed about anything; we have four new years and three names for the Passover holiday. Community is built by doing, not agreeing.
Finally, having a fixed date helps. If you only do a spiritual practice when you feel like doing it, is it really a spiritual discipline at all? Having the calendar date fixed enables the practice of fasting to act as a mirror on life as it is, not just life when you’re in the mood to do something spiritual. It comes whether you want it to or not. It takes religion beyond the ego.
Fast days can lead to places that are achingly beautiful: it’s possible to become, albeit temporarily, more loving, more accepting, and more grateful simply by changing the body’s biochemistry for a day. If nothing else, fasting can reveal how much the personality and identity that we’re so proud of is dependent on daily nourishment. Just one skipped meal, and look what happens to this supposedly self-sufficient ego!
As Isaiah famously said, fasting without heart is no guarantee of piety. But with intention and attention, it can lead to precisely the compassion the prophet demands.
Rabbi Jay Michaelson is the author of six books, including “The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path.” He holds a Ph.D from Hebrew University and a J.D. from Yale Law School, and is the legal affairs columnist at the Daily Beast.