Ramadan And God’s Ongoing Tests – OpEd


In an ordinary year, almost one-third of Americans who die; would die from smoking, overeating and drinking, and physical inactivity. The lack of self-restraint so evident in much of modern life leads us first to pleasure-seeking, and then increasingly to self-induced suffering.

Millions of people spend billions of dollars on pills, diet books, and gym memberships but still lack the self-discipline to control themselves. In America, young people are leading the way in increasing self-indulgence.

We have largely lost the spiritual value of self-restraint that is so important in the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim traditions. That self-restraint was practiced throughout the year by following a restrictive diet, kosher for Jews and halal for Muslims, and by occasions of community fasting.

But why should people restrict their culinary pleasures in general and more outrageous, why should we afflict ourselves by fasting? Isn’t being happy the most important thing in life? Isn’t eating one of the most accessible pleasures we have? And why should Muslims abstain from all alcoholic drinks? 

Because a study of alcohol intake and brain structure of 36,678 healthy adults ages 40 to 69 years in the U.K. Biobank, who had data available as of September 2020 found that alcohol intake was negatively associated with global brain volume measures, regional gray matter volumes, and white matter microstructure, reported Reagan Wetherill, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, in Nature Communications.

The link was stronger with greater alcohol consumption. As drinking increased from one alcohol unit (about half a beer) a day to two units (a pint of beer or a glass of wine) in 50-year-olds, for example, brain changes were equivalent to the effect of aging 2 years. An increase from two alcohol units to three showed changes equivalent to aging 3.5 years. Associations remained even when heavy drinkers were removed from the analysis. 

So religions should restrict our pleasures of eating and drinking. That is why the Qur’an and the Torah decree days of fasting? (Leviticus 16:29, 23:27). For twenty-four hours on Yom Kippur, Jews (in good health) are supposed to afflict their souls by abstaining from eating or drinking anything; because what we do not eat may be even more important than what we do eat. All animals eat, but only humans choose to not eat some foods that are both nutritious and tasty. Some people do not eat meat for religious/ethical reasons.

Hindus do not eat beef and Jews and Muslims do not eat pork for religious/spiritual reasons. And on Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement, Jews do not eat or drink anything at all for twenty-four hours. Every year for the entire month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from first light until sundown, abstaining from food, drink, and marital relations.

But the last year was different; how can we understand this tragic past year? Buddhists and Hindus can blame the Covid-19 plague on bad Karma, but members of the Abrahamic religions face a greater theological challenge. 

The Swiss Muslim Academic Dr. Tariq Ramadan states: “The philosophy of fasting calls upon us to know ourselves, to master ourselves, and to discipline ourselves; the better to free ourselves. To fast is to identify our dependencies, and free ourselves from them.”

The Arabic word for fasting (Sawm) has a two-fold meaning as described in Qur’an and Hadith. The primary meaning of sawm is to hold back, to refrain, to abstain — the deeper mystical meaning is to rise beyond, to move past former limits. The Hebrew word for fasting (Tsom) has a similar double meaning.

In the USA the coronavirus has prompted almost two-thirds of American believers to feel that God is telling humanity to change how it lives according to a poll conducted by the University of Chicago Divinity School and The Associated Press which indicates many people are searching for deeper meaning in the devastating Covid-19 outbreak.

The poll found that 62% of Americans who believe in God feel strongly or somewhat strongly that the virus is a sign from God telling humanity to change. For example, Jassper Brodin, the boss of Ikea told the BBC “I actually think Covid is teaching us to take collective human challenges in a more serious and responsible way. Recycling will become ever more important in minimizing the impact consumption has on the planet. Ikea’s mattresses in the future cannot be based on virgin material.”

As a Rabbi I think the good news is that 26% of Americans polled say their sense of faith or spirituality has grown stronger as a result of the outbreak. Only 1% say their sense of faith or spirituality has weakened.

All of us are being tested personally as individuals; and as organic members of a nation, a society and even the whole of humanity. 

We are tested as individuals as the Qur’an states: “Indeed We shall put you to test; some with fear and hunger, and some with loss of wealth, lives, and offspring. And (Muhammad) conveys good tidings to those who are patient, who say, when inflicted by hardship, “Indeed we are of God and to Him shall we return;” upon them is the blessings of Allah and His mercy.” (2:155)

Trust in God is taught by the Quran: “Put your trust in Allah. Allah loves those that trust [in Him].” [Quran 3: 159] Notice that the actual text does not end [to Him]. If we take the text literally, it states “Allah loves those who trust.” which means believers themselves should learn to persevere; and never abandon optimism and hope in the future. 

‘And give good news to those who persevere, those who say, when a misfortune strikes them, Surely to Allah we belong, and surely to Him we will return, these are the ones on whom blessings from their Lord descend, and mercy, and these are the ones who are rightly guided’.
[Quran 2: 155-157]

And the Hebrew Bible states: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4)

And we are tested as nation, community or a society as God states: “So that I may test them, whether they will follow My law or not” (Torah Exodus 16:4) and “Remember the entire path along which the Lord your God led you these forty years in the desert, He sent hardships to test you.” (Torah Deuteronomy 8:2). 

“Or do you think that you will enter Paradise before Allah tests those of you who fought and (also) tests those who are patient [believers who suffer]? (Qur’an 3:142).

People who attended religious services at least once a week were significantly less likely to die from “deaths of despair,” including deaths related to suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol poisoning, according to new research led by Harvard Chan School of Public Health. The study showed that the association between service attendance and lower risk of deaths from despair was even stronger for women in the study than for men.

So Jews and Muslims who believe that God’s tests help those of us who live through great  challenges to become stronger; should always remember that anxious atheists and unbelievers die a hundred deaths; while faith-filled believers die only once. 

Both Islam and Judaism also teach that if the glass (and our life) is half full or half empty depends not on the glass or its contents; but on our religious perspectives. 

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

One thought on “Ramadan And God’s Ongoing Tests – OpEd

  • March 15, 2024 at 8:50 am

    Thank you … Ramadan Mubarak


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