I am not a very observant Jew.
Yes, I would say that my Jewish heritage is central to my identity, as are the teachings and spiritual practices I learned from the conservaform, Kabbalah-inspired rabbi and cantor who Bar Mitzvah-ed me.
But when it comes to observing Judaism -- in a sense other than, well, watching people walk to services on Friday night -- not so much. I celebrate the usual holidays at home with my family: Passover, Hanukkah. And I go to temple on the big ones, namely Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Yet for the last 11 years, even as my views on religion and spirituality have changed (as well as my views on a whole host of other things), I have fasted on Yom Kippur -- religiously, one might say, abstaining from food and drink from sundown to sundown for one day of the year.
Towards the beginning, the primary motivation for my fast was probably a sense of obligation and maybe of accomplishment. You are now a Bar Mitzvah, I said to my 13-year-old self. That means it's time for you to fast on the holiest Jewish holiday -- and that means you get to, also. They're not the most spiritual (or religiously pure) reasons for doing so, I'll admit.
But over the course of a decade, I've come to look upon my fast as a privilege -- a complex, deeply personal opportunity to reflect and to commit myself for the new year to actively determine who I want to be. And as I've looked towards this year's Yom Kippur fast, I've realized that there are several reasons I've come to view fasting as such an intimate, important experience.
The first is physical. I am not a particularly athletic person: I don't run marathons, I don't ski, I don't backpack through the woods. To be honest, I rarely ask my body to do anything particularly strenuous. And taking a day off from eating and drinking -- a whole 24 hours of abstention -- is certainly strenuous, so much so that those who are sick are not expected to fast in the tradition of Reform Judaism in which I was raised. For me, then, a Yom Kippur fast is a challenging journey that I get to take with my body: the physical feelings of prolonged hunger and then satiation are a testament to the incredible power of our souls' human vessels, and a reminder to me to be grateful for my health.
The second aspect of fasting that I value is mental. The Yom Kippur holiday is designed to channel the feelings of physical deprivation into a mental state of deep reflection, aided with the help of both prayer and meditation. It's an oversimplification -- albeit a useful one -- to describe this as a mind over matter experience; it's really more of a mind through matter experience, a heightened state of awareness that feels both focused and, in a way, very abstract. As the energy I normally expend to move, to work, to eat and to digest is redirected towards the mind, I find my sense of self -- of consciousness -- slip from something delineated by the limits of my body into something that searches out the possible limits of my mind. Not surprisingly, it's an incredibly expansive feeling.
Yet just as importantly, a Yom Kippur fast is not just about the individual. It's also about the individual's relationship to society. I look at this as the political aspect of the Yom Kippur fast. Yom Kippur reminds me that I have the opportunity to choose when I wish to be hungry, and that far too many must endure hunger unwillingly, forced to do so by circumstance and sociopolitical realities out of their control. Because of this, I see fasting as a privilege allotted me by the abundance of my life, and a reminder to work to free others from poverty and disadvantage.
And, of course, fasting is a deeply spiritual experience. There's something transporting about setting aside one day a year to eschew routine -- down to the very actions that keep us alive -- and step back from stress and obligations and busyness. For one day, all things can wait and the needs of the outside world can be made subservient to the seeking of inner peace and renewal.
I sometimes think that, as a species, we are too smart for our own good -- we remember too well. I certainly know that I do. Yom Kippur is a conscious act of demarcating what has been from what will be. And it is the fast that acts as the boundary between those two realms, stretching out like the silence between exhaling and inhaling.