[Is Forgiveness possible without fasting?]
CW: Mental Wellness/illness, Fasting, Eating Disorders, Yom Kippur
Six years ago, I wrote an article about fasting on Yom Kippur. I was 35 weeks pregnant with my first child, and by some miracle, felt well enough to fast. That was the last — and only- time since the age of 12, that I have been able to fast without causing cascading negative effects to my mental and physical health.
When approaching this topic again this year, I wondered whether I should focus on the structure around fasting on Yom Kippur, or on my own experience as a person in recovery (forever) from mental illness and disordered eating. I chose to do a little bit of both. I preface this by saying that I am in no way a halachic or medical authority on this topic, and anyone struggling would do best to consult professionals. I simply offer the following: a cleared out space in the dusty window that this topic can be, and my own little face peering through it.
Where does Yom Kippur come from? It comes right after the story in the Torah, where Aharon’s sons are killed by G-d for coming into the Tent of Meeting without being summoned. G-d then instructs Aharon, via Moses, on how to create a yearly ritual of cleansing self, and the community. It is basically saying, you can’t show up in a sacred space at all times — there are limits, boundaries, structure.
For those who are curious — here is the text, in Vayikra (Leviticus) 16:
וְהָיְתָה לָכֶם לְחֻקַּת עוֹלָם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ תְּעַנּוּ אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם וְכׇל־מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ הָאֶזְרָח וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם׃
And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.
כִּי־בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה תִּטְהָרוּ׃
For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the LORD.
שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן הִיא לָכֶם וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם׃
It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; it is a law for all time
The Torah does not specifically tell us what “self-denial” is — in fact, in the Gemara (Yoma 74) comically asks ‘does this mean that we should sit in the hot sun, or the cold all day?’ It is later on, that this is clarified to include not eating as a form of self- denial.
One of the most perplexing struggles I have encountered around this topic — for myself and others — is the feeling of shame around not fasting. Let me be clear, in situations of physical, spiritual, even emotional peril- one may be exempt from fasting. These include, but are not limited to: pregnancy, physical illness, mental health challenges of all kinds, even instances of grief and bereavement. Still, the myriad of conversations I have been a part of around this topic are filled with the unspoken question:
“Am I not good enough because I can’t fast?”
“Can I fully be forgiven if I can’t fully follow the commandment to fast?”
In the piece six years ago, I wrote:
“In my world, everyone fasts on Yom Kippur. Even people I know who are not otherwise observant, fast on Yom Kippur. Every year since 2008, I have faced the holiday with an immense amount of shame around the fact that, again, I would not be allowed to fast. Ironically, the shame influenced my choice around how and when I ate so that I could still hide it from people who didn’t know — I ate in secret, while others were asleep or at services. Even though I am blessed with a supportive network of people, I still felt ashamed. I didn’t want to “burden” anyone with what I saw as my inability, again, to ‘get over this.’”
At that time,I was just starting on my journey of deeper understanding of Jewish observance, and a modern orthodox life. My perception that “everyone fasts on Yom Kippur” came from not having access to the conversations with people who don’t fast, or eat according to halachic and medical guidance — and the people who guide them. While that year, I did choose to fast — and was able to — I still felt desperately alone. Yom Kippur is a day of restriction — the state of which can lead us into deeper Teshuva — repentance, forgiveness — literally returning to a state of good standing. Yet, it is also a day for communities to come together and welcome forgiveness. Still, persons tiptoeing the line of exemptions, are often left to battle this question alone.
I come back to this piece of writing every year. I have tried, over the years, to figure out what confluence of factors came together to allow for that miracle. I found myself confused at the inverted correlation between my deepening observance, and still struggling with the fast. What I have come up with is that six years ago- the miracle itself — a pregnancy after more than a decade of illness that ravaged my mind and body. It was the most powerful energy in my body, and I benefited from it, as did my Teshuva.
One of the general principles of fasting on Yom Kippur is that those who suffer from mental health challenges are generally obligated in the Yom Kippur fast, which is a Torah obligation. However, if their mental state is such that their health is compromised by fasting, they become exempt. Still, however, if they choose to fast, this is considered a spiritual value. In other words, you don’t have to if you can’t — but if you can, you should. Forgive me, but I struggle to see the path to Teshuva in that statement. In the years where I felt that I was, perhaps, healthy enough to fast, the act itself sent me into a relapse of symptoms and disordered thinking that then, depending on the year, took me anywhere from days to weeks to recalibrate. The obligation to fast became a trigger, and one that no level of wellness was strong enough to hold off.
There was a lot of beauty on that day for me:
“This year, it was my choice. I felt an honesty and connection with my body as I listened and paid attention. I rested when I needed to. I had water. I fasted according to a framework that allowed me to participate and still tend to my health. I felt a sense of peace that allowed me to connect with my spiritual self and participate with my community. I found moments of clarity that enabled me to see where the path to teshuva, to my core self, can lead and just how much light it can truly hold.”
I believe every word I wrote then, and yet — it is not a feeling I have been able to find again. With each year that passes, I get stronger in my recovery, and find myself battling disordered thoughts less and less often. Still — even with the tremendous work that I do to rewire my brain, heal trauma, and live with presence and awareness — these thoughts occasionally still come in. They look like: feeling constricted by the clothes I wear, even though I’ve worn them without issue before; doubting whether I can actually try a dessert — even though I’ve tried many desserts for years; many days where my meals look identical — just so I don’t have to think about it. They also look like: spending too much time looking at parts of my body in the mirror; feeling overwhelmed for no tangible reason, other than my brain is firing on an old circuit; and still — that longing to fill the lacuna within me — the one that will never be filled.
Yet, I wonder now, as I have every year — is teshuva possible without fasting?
Am I betraying G-d by not fully restricting?
Can I forgive myself when I have struggled to survive every year for 20 years?
Regardless of whether I fast or not, I cry every Yom Kippur in services — namely, at the recitation of G-d’s 13 attributes of mercy. My tears fall in a mixture of gratitude and a plea — almost a begging — that this year, I can finally live free of fear, shame, and re-emerging trauma.
The 13 Attributes of Mercy are based on two verses in Exodus: “The Lord! The Lord! God, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to anger and Abundant in Kindness and Truth, Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, Forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error, and Who Cleanses (but does not cleanse completely, recalling the iniquity of parents upon children and grandchildren, to the third and fourth generations)” (Exodus 34:6–7).
Something about there being a divine, higher power that can help guide towards forgiveness — no matter what — uplifts me from a place of doubt, shame, and confusion. In that brief moment, when we read this — I get it. Yes, I can find Teshuva even if I don’t fast. That moment is usually very brief; when I return to my thoughts on life — it all seeps back in: the fear, the doubt, the shame, the distorted image of self. I know this to be true for many who struggle with mental illness, and especially on this day.
Every year, I look at different Rabbinic responsa around the question of someone with a history of eating disorders needing to fast on Yom Kippur. While many of my own personal spiritual guides have told me “no, if you even feel that you are in danger — the answer is no” or even “A person with a history of eating disorders should never fast — they are considered in constant peril.” Even with “permission,” I still find myself doubting, questioning, and wondering If I need to keep things a secret. It is a schism between the part of me that has always wanted to “just be normal” and the part of me that has come to peace, put in years of work for recovery, grieved years and relationships lost to illness, and now finds gratitude in the smallest moments.
You reading this, the many who have these conversations, and I know that mental illness does not need to look like mental illness. One can appear fully functional, happy, healthy — and in reality, be far from it. In preparing to write this piece, I revisited old journals I’ve kept at different stages of recovery. A recurring theme in them is: being told that I am doing well, when internally I am crumbling. Some are from not too long ago.
The crux of the issue is: dissonance. Our outside lived experience of this day — and of life in general — is in huge contradiction to our internal world. Why must we pretend that we are fasting? Why do we say that we are okay when we aren’t? Why do we need this to be just like everyone else for us, when it isn’t? I take a deep breath during the reading of the 13 attributes of mercy, but then I hold it in until the day is done.
I propose, as we prepare for this day, that if we are not fasting for whatever reason — or even if we need to make adjustments to our practice — that we focus on easing that dissonance. Even if we are fasting, and we feel like we need to adjust during the day — that dissonance can exist. Forgiveness can seep into the tiniest cracks, and expand to heal scars with golden edges. It can fill voids with warmth, and it can release tension — even decades old. The struggle on Yom Kippur, to find reconciliation within our own selves, with our loved ones, with G-d is hard enough, let us not make it harder by punishing ourselves for taking care of ourselves. If you can fast — great. If you can’t — also great.
Actually, really, and truly. If we see this love of self as a divine act, then it is not an issue of “it would be preferable if you fasted, but we get why you don’t.” It becomes “we support you putting your continued existence as a priority, and welcome you into the community as you are.” This is how it should be, and this is how I choose to see it this year. I offer myself as a welcoming space for anyone who is struggling with this day. You do not need to hold shame, and you do not need to keep your self-care a secret.
There is no shame in showing yourself love, in choosing another path. Spiritual fulfillment need not come from the letter of the law, but rather from enough structure so that spirit can be upheld with strength and dignity. Spiritually, we can all soar when we allow ourselves to be as we are, without judgement, and without fear. We are welcomed to the community as we are, atone as we are, and forgiven as we are. In fact, keeping yourself alive and whole — mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually — is a mitzvah greater than all, even on Yom Kippur.
September 14, 2021