Leor Melamedov

Fasting without faith on Yom Kippur

The morning of Erev Yom Kippur, I woke up two hours before my alarm went off, and couldn’t fall back asleep. The inner dialogue went off instantly. What can I say — sometimes, biggish questions keep me up at night.

“Will I fast this year?”

“If so, why?”

I’ve fasted every year for as long as I can remember, but it’s always been an active decision. I mostly know the answer will be yes, I’ll fast. But in light of my fondness for shrimp and lack of Sabbath observance, it’s not completely a given.

There is also the question of who, or what, I am fasting for. As an agnostic who leans towards disbelief, I’m not too concerned about how observing this holiday, or any other, will affect my own personal fate. And as a single person living in secular Tel Aviv, I have no watchful eyes on me, no family pressure, no example to set, no appearances to keep up. Live and let live is the law of this town. (Some seculars take it even further, taking pleasure in dismissing and poking fun of every 3,000-year-old Jewish tradition they come across. I find that style of knee-jerk, unquestioned atheism as small-minded as its close counterpart — knee-jerk, unquestioned religiousness.)

Cracking open my eyes just enough to see the bluish dawn light stream through my window, an image of a beautiful crystal vase flashed across my mind. I imagined it being handed from one person to another with utmost care. From generation to generation. L’dor v’dor. Each set of hands that grasps the vase treats it like the precious object it is, careful not to drop it.

Metaphors are funny things: sometimes they’re planned, sometimes they arrive spontaneously when your mental guard is down. I immediately understood the vase signified Judaism, specifically the Jewish people.

Who am I to drop the vase after millennia of preservation?

I may have lost my faith in God, but I have not lost my faith in my people. In the past, in the present, and in the future of the Jews. If it wasn’t for these “silly” or “primitive” traditions to keep reminding us of who are are, we’d be lost. Just another lost ancient tribe, a paragraph in some history book.

It’s true: I cannot accept the connection between atonement and salvation, between goodness and continuation of life. Yosef Kirma, a newlywed who was murdered by terrorists in Jerusalem this week, was by all accounts a loved and righteous man — yet this did not seal him in the book of life. My uncle Avi Lalazar — an inspirational human being and devout Jew who wrapped himself with tefillin every morning — he was not inscribed in God’s book when he passed away last November. I guess God’s pen ran out of ink when it came to the Haitians and the Venezuelans; just open a newspaper and you’ll see.

This is what I believe, though I respect those who believe differently: Whether we live or die this year will be a result of our access to health care, our security situation, our age, our luck. A god who would purposely sentence good people to die prematurely due to their deeds would simply be cruel and nonsensical. Not to speak of all the unrepentant folks who still manage to lead long lives.

Fasting, confessing, and repenting can serve a useful function. To me, the activities of Yom Kippur signify Judaism’s value of individual reflection and self-improvement within a larger community, which is a positive thing to take part in. Any possible significance beyond that is beyond me.

We live, work, love, worship, discover, build, and lose all under an indifferent sky. But I don’t think that means we completely give up on the traditions that unite us.

Once we seculars get more comfortable with inconsistencies and apparent contradictions, both our own and our religion’s, we’ll be able to participate more meaningfully and whole-heartedly in Jewish rituals, or at least some of them — even in the absence of a higher power. It’s okay to pick and choose; it’s okay to wrestle with ideas, question traditions, question yourself for questioning the traditions, you name it! Just don’t be so quick to turn your back on everything before you’ve fully thought it through.

After all, we may be alone in the universe, but here on earth we’re in it together: fasting for 25 hours, trying to become better people, then stuffing our faces with kubbeh or kugel — preserving the things that don’t change with time. Holding onto the glass vase for another hundred, or thousand, or three thousand years. I’ll do my small part to keep it.

About the Author
Leor is a native New Yorker who made Aliyah to Israel in 2013, and found herself back in the US in the summer of 2024, when she moved with her husband and two boys to the Bay Area. Leor is a product marketing manager at a startup, and in her spare time a pro-Israel activist.
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