I do not like to fast. I mean, I get nervous if there’s no granola bar or other ready source of sustenance on my person at all times. Seriously.
When I do fast, success is more a matter of psychological than physical will power, less a matter of denying the urge to satiate my hunger than resigning myself to the fact that food is simply not an option, that hunger does not exist.
It’s a psychological feat I undertake only when religious obligation dictates it, so I find myself wondering if Ruth Messinger’s call on the Jewish community to Fast For Life in Darfur, is in keeping with Jewish tradition of the “public” fast.
The four fasts commonly observed by Orthodox Jews are Yom Kippur (in which we fast to purify ourselves and as a form of atonement), Tisha BA’v, The Fast of Esther (in which we commemorate Queen Esther’s and the Persian Jewish community’s 3 days of fasting in preparation for her tete-a-tete with Achashverosh in which she was to ask him to save her people), and Tzom Gedalia (another fast of mourning to commemorate the assassination of a Jewish Babylonian governor and the subsequent woes this tragedy led to for the Jewish people).
But is there a history of a fast like the one Messinger is undertaking, designed to raise awareness about an issue and to empathize with another community in need?
There are probably loads of Medieval fasts of which I’m unaware, however Messinger’s appeal appears to me to be unique for the following reasons:
1) The beneficiaries are non-Jews. I don’t know of any Jewish historical fast day, even temporary ones, which are for the well-being of non-Jews.
2) The religious efficacy of fast days is associated with repentance - that the Jews are being threatened due to a sin and fasting is part of the teshuva process. My understanding of Messinger is that it’s closer to an “awareness”/hunger strike type of fast than the traditional Jewish fast.
Rabbi Yuter urged me to consult the “Encyclopedia Judaica” for more examples of fast days that might “give a better idea of precedent,” but since I don’t have an “Encyclopedia Judaica” handy, I’ll leave the interested reader to do further research on the subject, or to offer dissenting points of view.
Ultimately, whether or not we decide to join the Fast For Life should probably have little if anything to do with whether it’s a typical Jewish fast or not, but, rather, with the effect we think it will have on raising awareness of the plight of Darfurians and on our own relationship to the suffering of others. But it’s worth thinking about what it means to fast as a Jewish community and whether or not the expansion of that tradition is appropriate.