In North America and the U.K., Jews and Muslims are the two religious groups that most noticeably practice fasting. The rules about fasting are very similar in both Jewish and Muslim law. In honor of Ramadan I share my thoughts about the religious values of fasting.
I am a Reform Rabbi who has been studying Islam for over 60 years. I think it is vitally important for our generation to understand how much Islam and Judaism have in common. Fasting is one area where this commonality is very evident.
As a Reform Rabbi I believe that Jewish spiritual leaders should modify Jewish tradition as social and historical circumstances change and develop. I also believe we should not make religion difficult for people to practice.
These are lessons that prophet Muhammad taught 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century. Reform Jews are the largest of the Jewish denominations in the U.S. In the U.K..Reform Judaism is called Liberal Judaism.
Since there are several religious values involved in fasting; Muslims will see many similarities, and a few differences, in the following teachings from the Jewish tradition about restricting what and when we eat.
First of all, why should people restrict their culinary pleasures? More outrageous, why should we afflict ourselves by fasting? Don’t most people think that being happy is the most important thing? Isn’t eating one of the most accessible pleasures we have?
Why do Islam and Judaism restrict their adherents from the simple pleasure of food each year? For the entire month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from first light until sundown, abstaining from food, drink, and marital relations. The Qur’an says “Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint,” Qur’an 2:183.
And the Torah decrees a Yom Kippur-day of fasting for Jews (Leviticus 16:29, 23:27) when for twenty-four hours adult Jews (in good health) are supposed to afflict their souls by abstaining from eating, drinking and marital relations. Fasting differs from praying in the same way that hugging someone differs from talking to someone.
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. Jews and Muslims do not eat pork for religious/spiritual reasons.
When I fast I create an empty space in my body that would have been filled with food if I had eaten. This empty space helps me open myself to a personal religious experience. Fasting is nor magic. It is only an aid to help connect me to God. When my belly is full of food, and my life is full of things I have less room for God. Fasting is very different from starving. People do not choose to starve.
It is one of my religious obligations to help feed starving people. Fasting is my personal opportunity to feed my soul. Fasting results in many different outcomes that help bring us closer to God.
Thus, fasting teaches compassion. It is easy to talk about the world’s problem of hunger. We can feel sorry that millions of people go to bed hungry each day. But not until one can actually feel it in one’s own body is the impact truly there. Compassion based on empathy is much stronger and more consistent than compassion based on pity.
As Imam Sadiq said: “God made fasting compulsory so the poor and the rich would be equal, because the rich do not feel the pain of hunger to be able to understand and show mercy to the poor. Whenever the rich want something, it is available to them. But God wants His creation to be equal; for the rich to feel the pain of hunger so that rich people will be kind to the weak and show mercy to the poor”.
Also fasting is an exercise in will-power. Most people think they can’t fast because it’s too hard. But actually the discomfort of hunger pangs is relatively minor. A headache, muscle pains from too much exercise, and most certainly a toothache, are all more severe than the pains hunger produces. I have on occasion fasted for three days, and found that after the first twenty four hours the pain decreases slightly as the stomach becomes numb.
The reason it is so hard to fast is because it is so easy to break your fast, since food is almost always in easy reach; all you have to do is take a bite. Thus the key to fasting is the will power to decide again and again not to eat or drink. Our society has increasingly become one of self indulgence. Almost all humans lack self discipline.
Fasting for Jews and Muslims goes in direct opposition to the increasing “softness” in life. When people exercise their will-power to fast, they affirm their self-control and celebrate their mastery over themselves. We need continually to prove that we can master ourselves, because we are aware of our frequent failures to be self-disciplined.
Finally, fasting is a very personal, experiential offering with primarily personal consequences. Fasting on Yom Kippur is a personal offering to God, from each and every Jew who fasts. For over 100 generations Jews have fasted on this day. A personal act of fasting is part of the Jewish people’s covenant with God.
The principal reason to fast is to fulfill God’s commandment. The outcome of your fast can be any of a half dozen forms of self-fulfillment. But simply knowing that you have done one of your duties as a faithful Jew is the most basic and primary outcome of all.
May our fasting become a first step toward the removal of the chains of self- oppression and narrow mindedness that enslave us, our neighbors, and our world! May future years of shared fasting by Muslims and Jews lead to a greater amount of understanding and respect through increased acceptance of religious pluralism.
May we always be a part of those organizations and movements that are fully committed to contributing to world peace, and who are equally committed to respecting both our own religion and our neighbor’s.