Ramadan: Relentlessly Debilitating

If you live on my side of the green line and are not in thrall to “Jim Crow Zionism,” I am certain that you have noticed with sympathy how relentlessly debilitating the fast of Ramadan is to the local work force. Fasting day after day, week after week, for an entire month, without even a dispensation on the Friday day of rest, saps the faithful of more than just their energy. It all but drains them of their life force, leaving me to wonder how they manage to drag themselves through their daily routines knowing that tomorrow will be no different, tomorrow will be no better. And I do mean drag. During the month of Ramadan it would be unseemly to expect the famished faithful to accomplish anything beyond just making it through the routine drudgery of their daily lives.

For the uninitiated, it is probably useful to explain that Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. The other four pillars – unity, prayer, charity, and pilgrimage – all seem to be far more benign than the requirement to fast for an entire month. In fact, oddly and quite incongruously, the pilgrimage pillar, the ideal of going on the Haj to Mecca in the 12th month on Islam’s truncated lunar calendar, is not required, but only recommended. Why? Because the faith views travel as being too arduous for many of its adherents. Travel but not fasting? Go figure.

When I teach about Islam to students from Orthodox Jewish backgrounds, I often analogize the pillars of Islam to the major Jewish precepts highlighted in the Orthodox tradition. I tell my students that they ought to think about the five pillars of Islam the way Orthodox Jews think about the four “pillars” of halakhic Judaism – Shabbat, kashrut, tefilin, and taharat ha’mishpacha. Socially, these “pillars” define who is and who is not orthodox. And I drive the point home by noting that no one’s membership in the Orthodox community will be revoked if they sometimes, or even regularly, skip a mincha service, forget to wash and bench, or are lax — heaven forbid — in covering their hair with a hat or a wig.

In truth, of course, my analogy only has value as a didactic device. Substantively it is completely wrong headed. The four “pillars” of Orthodox Judaism signal nothing more than solidarity with a particular sub-group within the broader Jewish community. They attest to an affinity for a specific Jewish lifestyle and a willingness to put out in order to be counted among its loyalists. But in no sense do the four pillars validate the religious virtue of those who maintain these pillars and only these pillars. The minimalist orientation within Orthodox Judaism only confirms membership privileges; it does not vindicate an entire way of life.

How different are the pillars of Islam. Separately each of the five pillars projects the submission of the faithful to the faith. Taken together, they demonstrate that the ethos of Islam — living a life of kedusha, of unbounded dedication to the pursuit of sanctity — can supplant the appeal of normal human activity in the affairs of man. For this reason, each of the five pillars confronts an essential human drive. Belief in the unity of god neutralizes the appeal of individual thought. The obligation to pray five times a day at specific hours overwhelms the desire to sleep. Charity supersedes the search for financial security. The Haj confronts the finicky and the fearful. And Ramadan supplants the right to proper nourishment.

Perhaps, once upon a time, it was possible to imagine that the ethos of the faith was stronger than the physicality of the faithful. Maybe, back then, when the world was bucolic if not enchanted, it was indeed possible to function without ever sleeping for more than four hours at a time – such are the consequences of having to pray at a particular hour five times a day, each and every day – without ever thinking about life beyond the Hijaz, without eating from sunrise to sunset for an entire month.

But today, these demands are unseemly. In the modern world, where technology dominates nature and man’s physicality reigns supreme, Islam’s religious expectations border on the absurd. Those of us who live on this side of the green line know that this is the case from looking at the drawn and angry faces of the local work force during the endless days of Ramadan. And those who live on the other side of the green line have learned what we already knew from looking at the blood soaked pictures which capture the horrific violence perpetrated by the devotees of the faith against believers and non-believers alike, both during Ramadan and before and after Ramadan.

The ethos of modernity, so exquisitely captured by the ideals and principles of political correctness, prevents us from calling on Islam to sponsor a religious reformation. Indeed, in our current social and political context, even thinking about such a development as something to be desired amounts to a micro-aggression against our Muslim brothers. And it is for this reason that I refrained from entitling this inaugural essay of my blog “Ramadan’s Relentless Brutality.” But these genteel considerations do not alter the fundamental reality confronting Islam: Without a religious reformation that will align the principles of the faith with the realities of modernity, both the faith and the faithful are headed for a terrible and violent catastrophe.

About the Author
Avi Berkowitz teaches history at the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University, and serves as the Rabbi of the Minyan HaVatikim in the Rimon section of Efrat. He holds a PhD from Columbia University in International Relations, with a specialty in Middle East studies and received his Rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchick. Prior to coming on aliyah, he served as the rabbi of the Community Synagogue in Manhattan's East Village, taught history at the Ramaz Upper School, and was an adjunct Assistant Professor of political science and Middle East studies at CUNY