Ramadan and Yom Kippur: Why Afflict Ourselves By Fasting?

Jalal al-Din al-Rumi taught, “Ritual prayer can be different in every religion, but belief never changes” (Fihi Mafih). In the light of this insight I would like to share why I think of myself, especially during Ramadan, as a Reform Rabbi and a Muslim Jew.

Actually, I am a Muslim Jew, i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God, because I am a Reform Rabbi. As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Abraham – the first Muslim Jew, and I submit to the commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.

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. As Bukhari reported in a Hadith (Volume 3, Book 31, Number 145),

Narrated 'Abdullah: The Prophet fasted for days continuously; the people also did the same but it was difficult for them. So, the Prophet forbade them (to fast continuously for more than one day). They said, "But you fast without break”... The Prophet replied, "I am not like you, for I am provided with food and drink (by Allah).”

Reform Jews are the largest of the Jewish denominations in the US and Canada. In the UK, Reform Judaism is called Liberal Judaism. All Reform Jews would agree with this teaching of Prophet Muhammad.

I have been studying Islam for almost 55 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. Jews and Muslims are the two religious groups that most noticeably practice fasting. Muslims fast for the entire month of Ramadan, from first light until sundown, and Jews fast on days like Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and the 9th of Av (a day of mourning, much like the Shi’a observance of Ashura on the 10th of Muharram). The rules about fasting are very similar in both Jewish and Muslim law.

Many people may wonder: why should someone restrict their culinary pleasures? 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?

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. Meanwhile, the Torah decrees for Jews a day of fasting (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. Also for religious/spiritual reasons, both Jews and Muslims do not eat pork. Both religions teach us that what we do not eat may be even more important than what we do eat.

There are many ways fasting brings Jews and Muslims closer to God. First of all, 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. This feeling must lead to action. Fasting is never an end in itself; that's why it has so many different outcomes. But all the other outcomes are of no real moral value if compassion is not enlarged and extended through fasting. As the prophet Isaiah said, “The truth is that at the same time you fast, you pursue your own interests and oppress your workers. Your fasting makes you violent, and you quarrel and fight. The kind of fasting I want is this: remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor” (Isaiah 58:3-7).

Secondly, fasting on Yom Kippur serves as a form of penance for Jews as it does for Muslims when they fast during Ramadan. Abu Huraira narrated that the Prophet said: “Whoever observes fasts during the month of Ramadan out of sincere faith, hoping to attain Allah's rewards, then all his past sins will be forgiven” (Sahih Al-Bukhari Vol 1).

Though self-inflicted pain may alleviate some guilt, it is much better to reduce one's guilt by offsetting acts of righteousness to others. This is why contributing to charity is an important part of Yom Kippur and Ramadan. Indeed, Judaism teaches that fasting that doesn't increase compassion is ignored by God.

The concept of fasting as penance also helps us understand that our hunger-pains can be beneficial. Contemporary culture desires happiness above all else. Any pain or suffering is seen as unnecessary and indeed evil. Though we occasionally hear people echo values from the past – such as the notion that suffering can help one grow – many today seem to think that the primary goal in life is to always be happy and free of all discomfort.

The satisfaction one derives from the self-induced pain of fasting provides insight into a better way of reacting to the externally caused suffering we experience throughout life. Taking a pill is not always the best way to alleviate pain, especially if by doing so we allay the symptoms without reaching the root cause.

The third outcome of fasting is improved physical health. Of course, one 24-hour fast will not have any more effect than one day of exercise. Only prolonged and regular fasting promotes health. The annual fast on Yom Kippur can, however, awaken us to the importance of how much and how often we eat.

Since our society has problems with overabundance, fasting provides a good lesson in the virtue of denial. Health problems caused by overeating are among the most rapidly growing health problems in affluent Western countries. America’s consumer culture urges us to constantly over-indulge ourselves; now, even our children suffer from our bad behavioral models. About 17 percent of kids and teens in the US are obese, a figure that has more than tripled since the 1970s, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now a report in the New England Journal of Medicine lays out one of the consequences of all this excess weight: a corresponding increase in childhood diabetes.

After reviewing data on 10-to-19-year-olds in five states (California, Colorado, Ohio, South Carolina, and Washington), researchers determined that 12.5 out of every 100,000 of the youth studied had a bona fide case of diabetes in 2011 and 2012 compared with nine cases per 100,000 youth in 2002 and 2003. The study authors found the incidence of Type 2 diabetes in this age group had risen by an average of 4.8 percent per year during the nine-year study period.

Thus, going without all food and drink, even water, on Yom Kippur and Ramadan challenges us to think about the benefits of the very important religious teaching, that less is more.

A fourth benefit of fasting, is that it can help us in our struggle against dependencies. We live in a consumer society. We are constantly bombarded by advertising telling us that we must have this or that to be healthy, happy, popular, or wise.

By fasting, we assert that we need not be totally dependent on external things, even such essentials as food. If our most basic need for food and drink can be suspended for twenty-four hours, how much more of the nonessentials might we cut out?

Judaism and Islam do not advocate asceticism as an end in itself. In fact, it is against Muslim and Jewish law to deny ourselves normal physical pleasures. But in our overheated consumer society it is necessary to periodically turn off the constant pressure to consume and to remind ourselves forcibly that “Man does not live by bread alone” (Deuteronomy 8:3).

Fifth, fasting is an exercise in willpower. 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 … all are more severe than the pains hunger produces. The reason it is so hard to fast is because it so easy to break your fast, since food is almost always in easy reach; all you have do is take a bite.

Thus, the key to fasting is the willpower to decide again and again not to eat or drink. Our society has increasingly become one of self-indulgence. We lack self-discipline. Fasting encourages discipline and urges us to use our will-power. When people exercise their willpower through fasting, they are affirming their self-control and celebrating mastery over themselves. We need to continually prove that we can do it, because we are aware of our frequent failures to be self-disciplined.

Sixth, fasting is good for the soul. It often serves as an aid for spiritual experiences. For most people, especially those who have not fasted regularly before, hunger pains are a distraction. People who are not by nature spiritual/emotional individuals will probably find that a one-day fast is insufficient to help induce an altered state of consciousness. Jews who have already fasted for Yom Kippur can simply extend the fast another twenty-four to thirty-six hours.

Muslims can select a night or two to fast in addition to their daily fast; preferably during the first two weeks of Ramadan, when the moon is waxing. Jews are prohibited to fast prior to Yom Kippur; eating a good meal prior to Yom Kippur Eve is a mitzvah (religious duty), because Judaism, like Islam, opposes excessive asceticism.

The seventh outcome of fasting is the performance of a mitzvah (religious duty), which is, after all, the one fundamental reason for fasting on Yom Kippur. We do not do mitzvoth (religious duties) in order to benefit ourselves, but because our duty as Jews requires that we do them. Fasting is a very personal mitzvah, 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 one’s fast can be any among a half-dozen forms of self-fulfillment. But simply knowing that I have done one of my duties as a faithful Jew is the most basic and primary outcome of all.

It is my hope that fasting is a first step toward the removal of the chains of self-oppression and narrow mindedness that enslave us, our neighbors, and our world! I hope the future holds years of shared fasting by Muslims and Jews, leading to a greater amount of understanding and respect through increased acceptance of religious pluralism. 

Fethullah Gülen points out that the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and some non-Abrahamic faiths (Hinduism) accept that there is only One source for all religions. All faiths pursue the same goal. Gülen states,

As a Muslim, I accept all Prophets and Books sent to different peoples throughout history, and regard belief in them as an essential principle of being Muslim. A Muslim is a true follower of Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, and all other Prophets. Not believing in one Prophet or Book means that one is not a Muslim.
Thus we acknowledge the oneness and basic unity of religion, which is a symphony of God's blessings and mercy, and the universality of belief in religion.

Gülen's description of universal religion as a symphony is an excellent illustration. One cannot have harmony if everyone plays the same notes; and one cannot have a symphony if everyone plays the same instruments.

Individual conductors and composers are different, but the source of musical creativity is One. According to a Hadith narrated by Abu Huraira, Prophet Muhammad said, The prophets are paternal brothers; their mothers are different, yet their religion is one (because they all have the same father)” (Bukhari, Book #55, Hadith #652).

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