If there’s one thing American Jews and Muslims have in common, it’s that they share a very similar relationship to corporeal forms of atonement. Roughly half of the American Muslim community fasts in the month of Ramadan. The same number of Jews fast on Yom Kippur. While some think this is a low number compared to worldwide statistics (some say about 80 percent of secular Israelis fast on Yom Kippur!!!), I think it is unbelievably high. And to be honest, I don’t understand why so many Jews fast.
The reason Jews have always fasted on Yom Kippur is because, for the most part, that’s what they’ve culturally grown up with. I try to have reasons for most of the rituals I perform, but this one is purely a result of how I was raised. I fast only because that’s what my father and mother did and continue to do, and what my sister and her husband do and their children will probably do.
Do I always follow what my parents do? No, of course not. I am just like most Jews; I pick and choose what things about my parents’ Judaism I like and what I don’t like. I fast because I am supposed to and that is the end of the story.
Yet, starving has never made the day a bit more meaningful for me. I get my meaning on Yom Kippur by closing my eyes and thinking about what matters most in my life.
Let me be clearer. I don’t care if it’s healthy, I don’t care if it makes me appreciate my food more, I don’t care if it is spiritually moving or not. There are people who have theories about how fasting makes them be more “mindful” of what they consume, but I don’t need starvation to teach me “mindfulness.” I don’t like emotional, physical or spiritual shock therapy. I don’t like fasting or any form of self-mutilation.
For most Jews, fasting on Yom Kippur is one of those big Jewish things that they saw their parents do and they think, somewhere in the back of their minds, they might go to hell if they don’t do. And no one wants to go to hell. I sure don’t.