I was recently asked my opinion on is whether fasting on religious holidays is important these days or not. If you would have asked this question of me three years ago I would have responded completely different to the answer I now give.
In the past I would have responded with a gentle warm smile that “ I don’t have opinions on the Torah, I just follow the mandates of the Torah.” You see, in the Torah it states that you have to fast so we fast. The Code of Jewish Law advocates that this is incumbent upon every person over the age of majority, (meaning Bar/Bat Mitzvah around 12 or 13 years old). I probably would have added that “Please do not shoot the messenger, as I work in sales and marketing and not in management.”
Back to the present. My answer now about fasting would be “it depends.”
As your typical Rabbi I get asked all types of questions on Jewish Law and I answer them (when I can) according to the rule as stated in our Book of Codes. Nothing has changed in that regard. However, as a father of a child recovering from a restrictive eating disorder I have become educated in something I knew nothing about and I credit my daughter for giving me new insight.
Jewish law is very clear when it comes to health and safety that it comes first before anything and everything else. In other words, disregard the law if you need to, in order to save a potential life. Let’s take fasting on Yom Kippur as a “random” example. As stated above, the law is that if you are a Jewish person over the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah you must fast. However, if by fasting, you will (even) possibly endanger your life, then fasting is not allowed. Furthermore, if you do fast when told that you must not because of a possible danger, you have now transgressed a Jewish law. Which as a Rabbi, I can honestly tell you that you do not want to break laws especially on Yom Kippur!!
I had no clue what an eating disorder was until my daughter was stricken with this deadly disease. Initially, I scratched my head with wonder as how is it possible that one of my children who has my DNA embedded in them, could dislike food so much? In the words of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof “Absurd. Unheard of.” And then I learned and experienced the full wrath of this …… monster that overtook my daughter like a dybbuk, demon, devil, what have you.
Eating disorders, I have learned, cause overwhelming and often life-threatening fear around normal eating. It has also been part of my family’s learning that recovery from that fear requires the very thing that terrifies: normal eating, every day. Like insulin for someone with diabetes. Like antibiotics for an infection.
So, if you ask me today whether fasting on Yom Kippur is important in contemporary times or not, I answer it depends. It is ok to fast if you are healthy and show no signs of danger such as low blood sugar, dehydration, etc. It is not ok if this will run the risk of a relapse of an eating disorder or some other disorder that will prove to be deleterious to your health. It is not okay if you have restricted the day before Yom Kippur. It is not okay if you are using this holy day as an excuse to yourself or to others that it is ok to fast. If anything above sounds familiar, then I would say EAT WHAT YOU NEED TO EAT. I am telling you to eat not only as a human being and a father. I am telling you to eat as a Rabbi who practices Jewish Law!!
The same would hold true with all the charity fasts that the high school and college students raise money or awareness for. Think of it this way THIS PARTICULAR CAUSE MAY NOT BE YOUR MITZVAH. Choose another cause that you can put your heart and soul into. You do not have to be all things to all people. The charity organizer may or may not understand your hesitancy in fasting, but hey, it is not your problem. It is clearly not the right fit for you.
This philosophy would apply to non-Jewish religious fasts as well. Although I am not a scholar of comparative religions, I would find it hard to believe that you would be obligated to fast unless the Priest, Pastor, Deacon, Imam or Brother has no clue when you say that you have an eating disorder which is possible because I had absolutely no clue either.
It is because of this very ignorance (not due to anyone’s fault) that I write this short article. Please dear leaders, get yourself educated on matters of eating disorders. Consider me here to help. You will be glad that you did, as to save a life is to save a whole world.