As I mentioned at Rosh Hashanah, my family has come together to celebrate a Humanist High Holidays this year. For the last few years, we've spent the Days of Awe partly together and partly going separate ways as we traversed our own roads towards non-Zionist Jewish-inspired humanism.
This year we are ready to chart a new course: a holiday season of family connection. Of course, we know that there will always be time when we feel we are in different places on the journey, but it is a blessing to know that we are rowing together.
Many Jews who have left religious Judaism in every other way continue to refrain from work, go to the day-long synagogue services of the High Holidays, and participate in the 25-hour fast of Yom Kippur. Since both of the adults in the household have fasted for years (whether or not we believed, and whether or not we attended synagogue), we wondered how we would handle this question this year--at this time when we are trying so hard to reshape our traditions into something that feels true, feels honest, to us.
Although my family feels incredibly tied to many ritual aspects of Judaism, it is only through the study of traditional interpretation and (often) the reshaping of tradition to be in line with our own lights, that we practice anything. Some rituals remain almost exactly, with only the words changed. Some leave their echos as we transform the practice slightly, or significantly. Other rituals (such as the prohibition against shellfish, and the practice of infant circumcision) we have discarded almost completely.
I wondered, could the fast ever begin to feel authentic, real, and honest to us nonbelievers?
We tried to understand Talmudic understandings, the interpretations of Maimonides, the take of current orthodox leaders, the practice of the Reform movement, and everything else we could find. Two basic (and related) interpretations kept arising:
1. The fast is a way to make up for our sins of the past year. It is a way to take our dirty selves and purify ourselves. Some interpreters suggest that the purification process is about reconciling with God. Some stress the mild punishment of our bodies.
2. The fast, joined with other practices such as not bathing and not having sex and not brushing our teeth, emphasize separation from our corporal bodies. Yom Kippur is a time to separate from our animal selves and connect with our spiritual Godly selves. In some theorists' views, fasting shows that the nutrients we need come not from the dirty earth but from God. Others suggest that the symbolic flirtation with death which fasting represents forces us to focus on what "truly" matters.
I do not feel comfortable with the idea that our highest selves are somehow removed from our most physical, most HUMAN of selves. I turn away from religion because I believe that being human is, in fact, our highest calling.
After some soul searching, some arguing, and some personal pain, we decided that neither of us would fast this year.
But neither David nor I felt comfortable leaving all of the tradition, all of the meaning and lessons, behind.
We chose to eat the food of poverty instead. Every year as we have sat with our annual day of hunger, we've been acutely aware that others are not nourished as they ought to be. And for the vast majority of the world, even those who are not at all hungry do not consume the wide array of luxuries--and resources--that we do.
We packed lentils and barley for lunch. Throughout the morning as we awaited our picnic, we thought about how we would be reminded of the hardships of many people in this world of ours. We would feel gratitude in ways we don't always.
I was amazed at how delicious I found the grains and legumes, and how deeply fulfilled I was by that lunch. That simple meal goes forward with me into the new year.