I was recently asked my opinion on is whether fasting on Yom Kippur 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. 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 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 relative of someone recovering from restrictive anorexia nervosa I have become educated in something I knew nothing about and I credit my relative 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 until what an eating disorder was until recently. Initially, I scratched my head with wonder as how is it possible that a Jewish child who has Jewish 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 someone’s lifer like a dybbuk, demon, devil, what have you.
So, if you ask me today whether fasting on Yom Kippur is important in contemporary times or not, I answer it depends. It is important and necessary to fast if you are healthy and show no signs of danger such as low blood sugar, DKA (ketones) dehydration, anorexia, etc. It is not ALLOWED 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. I am telling you to eat as a Rabbi who practices Jewish Law!! Think of it this way. The Torah was given to corporeal human beings to use their body to do practical and physical mitzvahs. If however, the mitzvah of fasting will possibly prevent you from doing other physical mitzvahs due to health issues, then the Torah forbids it and you must not fast.
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 leader, get yourself educated on matters of eating disorders. You will be glad that you did, as to save a life is to save a whole world.
Have a meaningful Yom Kippur and a great New Year.