I’ve always loved fast days. Maybe because feeling the dedication and mourning in my empty stomach makes my abstract faith feel suddenly very tangible, or maybe because I love breaking the fast at the end. Probably a little of both. And with two major and four minor fast days throughout the year, I’m given ample opportunity to practice this tradition. But several years ago I decided I was hungry for more fasting and I added to my calendar two new fast days, Holocaust Memorial Day and what I’ve termed the ‘Fast of Rabin,’ based on the Fast of Gedaliah, when we commemorate the devastating sixth-century BCE political assassination of one Jewish leader by another zealous Jew.
Friends of mine, especially those who’ve seen me down a pint of Ben and Jerry’s in one sitting, sometimes dismiss my new fasts as just another eccentricity. However, for me, dealing with these modern atrocities through ancient mourning practices is one of the ways that I keep my Judaism alive.
For of the many things I was blessed to learn at Levine Academy (Go Stallions), one of the most important was that Judaism is not an artifact on the shelf to be dusted off and looked at once a year during the High Holy Days. Rather, Judaism is a way of life; it informs what we wear and what we eat, where we live and how we treat one another. And like any other “lifestyle,” Judaism must adapt to the needs of the era.
Many progressive Jews are indeed quick to praise Judaism for its capacity to change with the times. And as a young, gay, religious man I certainly agree with the praise. However, a lot of the change that has been made to Judaism by our modern movements is “negative change”- or rather, the removal of practices, commandments, and texts that are deemed incompatible with modern life. And while negative change, when done with correct intentions and through proper channels, is important, it must be accompanied by even greater “positive change”- the addition of practices, commandments and texts that will keep Judaism compatible in the 21st century.
Luckily, our ancient faith is so complex and generative that rather than reinventing the wheel, positive change can come about simply by applying Judaism is new ways.
Among its endless blessings, including ones for seeing the wonders of nature and for every type of food and drink, is the shehecheyanu prayer. Traditionally recited on holidays, it’s meant for any and all momentous occasions in our lives. It’s one of my favorite prayers and I’ve said it upon graduating from high school, making Aliyah, drafting to the army, and when my best friend Mitch finished- for the first time in his life- watching all ten seasons of Friends, a masterpiece of American culture.
On Sukkot, as we gather in our decorated huts and commemorate our ancestors’ wandering through the desert, we are presented with an opportunity to also tell the stories of the millions of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrant workers who live without shelter every day. And it’s an opportunity to collect vital funds for those on our southern border who have fled violence in their countries of origin only to find that the gates of America are instead the bars of a prison. For what good is our sacred heritage if it does not inform our policy, if we do not live it every day of our lives?
Luckily, there is great evidence of positive change within mainstream Judaism. A favorite of mine, rather than removing references to our forefathers thereby stripping Judaism of its essential familial character, we’ve added our matriarchs and their stories to our daily prayers. And in the wake of the modern reestablishment of the State of Israel, a blessing for it was written and added, too.
Calling for the institution of two new fast days might seem like a lot. But by using the same ritual to mourn the Holocaust and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin as we do the destruction of the Temple, we affirm these tragedies and ensure that their commemoration lasts for eternity.
As a citizen in the modern State of Israel, I’m blessed to see Judaism come to life before my very eyes on a daily basis. This coming year, may the ways of our people enliven us and give us purpose. Shana Tova.