Until last year, I fasted on every Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, the most serious holy day of the year. I even read the Torah portion from Leviticus 19 for many, many years in synagogue. Then last year, I found myself in Avignon, France, surrounded by the French, their art, culture, and of course, wine and cuisine. I didn’t want to be a seeming “ascetic” while my friends and hosts luxuriated in their amazing market findings. It could have been perceived as rude (I know that wouldn’t really be the case), or at best weird (more likely). And I wanted to eat. And I didn’t feel any deep down moral objection. Even though I planned on fasting, and I brought a Machzor (a prayer book) with me, it didn’t feel wrong to eat. No guilt.
So this year, back in Israel, I’ve decided I want to eat again. Not being abroad, though, this is a much bigger decision. One that has to be justified. Proved. You’ve got to have a prepared, “I’m an atheist,” or, “I believe in the spirit of it all, but I’m not religious and don’t feel it necessary to deprive myself,” etc, etc, etc. Many people, secular people, do fast…but they also don’t go to synagogue and they sit around in their AC and watch TV and movies all day. Not too difficult. Which is what fasting is more or less intended to be. Not that fasting is torture. I’ve been told many interpretations over the years on why we fast. The most common is that we deprive the body of all luxury so it can focus on the task at hand, namely, repenting before god, apologizing for any and all sins committed, knowingly or unknowingly.
Another interesting explanation is that on this day we should act as though we are dead — not dead, dead, but that we are weakening ourselves, humbling ourselves before god, wearing white robes and no leather, humble clothes, like Jewish funeral shrouds — and in the States at my temple, at least, we ran a food drive. People were encouraged to donate at least the equivalent of what they would have eaten in that day they fasted. All of this so that we can ensure we’ll be written up in the book of life for another year — asking god to keep death away for another year.
I’m fine with food drives. I champion food drives. I’m fine with introspection, of analyzing my own behavior. Improving myself. And certainly, most certainly, apologizing to PEOPLE in my life for having offended or mistreated them. But I don’t have a relationship with god. I just don’t. I also believe that good behavior comes from within, and if people do good deeds to look favorably in the eyes of god, they’re missing the intention of it all. Guilt. Shame. Incentive. I believe in goodness for its own sake because it is simply the right thing to do.
I am proud of being Jewish, but I don’t believe that I have to pray in a specified way because that’s the way it is. I believe I am a good Jew, in my behavior, in the way I live my life. I believe in holiness. I think I have been a good emissary of my people (I have been the first Jew many people have ever met, and goodness knows I have saved our reputation on more than one occasion). I just don’t attribute that to god. Fasting can be an important method of introspection, whether religiously or more meditatively. I think that I am skipping the fast this year because I have decided I do not need to fast when I am told. That I MUST fast as a symbol of being Jewish. That’s an Americanism. Going to shul because that is the way to maintain community.
Not so in Israel where secular holidays are religious holidays, where eating matzah on Passover is a national tradition, like Americans eating turkey on Thanksgiving. Many olim, immigrants to Israel, often observe that it’s easier to be a Jew here…and hence…they become more lazy than they ever were back home. Everything’s in Hebrew, the biblical language. Biblical references are thrown about like Shakespearian references would be in Western literature. Everyone understands the holidays. They structure our year. Kids have a bible study class every year from the age of 6 until graduation, whether secular or religious. But because of that, you don’t have to try so hard. I’ve certainly succumbed to that.
On the other hand, living in Israel has freed me in many ways. Before, I felt a duty to express my Judaism when living abroad. I’m still a Jew, and I never hide this fact when traveling abroad. It is an important part of what made me, me. But my real deep-down beliefs have surfaced much more easily here. Relaxing the Jewish fervor, not being in a minority group anymore, I am finally comfortable with expressing my dissatisfaction with certain aspects of Judaism. I don’t have to put on a face, trying to “accept” interpretations to make my following of certain rituals logical to me. I had been interested in different meditation techniques for years, but I believe that I avoided any sort of exploration because I thought it would be seen as disloyal. So many Jews marry outside the faith, we’re disappearing, we’re forgetting — what responsibilities on our shoulders! Keepers of the faith. Keepers of our special nation.
No more. For me, I am beginning to understand that it more important to be a good person than a good Jew. These things are not contradictory, but at this point, I am finding that the Jewish definition is limiting.
Tomorrow, I am co-hosting a sci-fi marathon. All 14 episodes of Firefly followed by the sequel film, Serenity. Like the world of Star Trek, in many ways this brilliantly imagined series examines the human condition and celebrates compassion in the midst of a difficult, violent, and unjust world. I’ll be making pizza from scratch. I’m content with my decisions.