Thursday, October 09, 2008

Why I don't fast on Yom Kippur

Millions of Jews around the world are fasting today, in observance of Yom Kippur. From sundown last night to sundown this evening, they will drink and eat nothing, in honor of the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar: the day your fate is sealed in the book of life for the coming year.

I am not fasting this year, or next year, or any other year. Not because I'm too gluttonous to give up food and drink for 24 hours. Not because I think it's irrelevant.

I'm not fasting because of what it means to be to be hungry, to be fed, and to be strong.

Let me tell you a story: My first Yom Kippur fast happened the year I turned 13--an adult for the purposes of Jewish law. I wanted to fast. I wanted to behave like an adult. I wanted to look pale and weak, to feel my stomach cave in toward my spine, to do my duty and sacrifice for the sake of holiness.

(If this sounds like the rhetoric of anorexia, well, keep reading.)

I made it through the night, the next morning, the next afternoon. Through hours of services, singing, breast-beating, and sermons. I was strong. I was proud. I was adult.

I was also very, very hungry.

In our house then, food was a kind of emotional currency. Food could be love or punishment; withholding of food could constitute either extreme. My mother was always dieting, which means that we ate, but always with the sense that we weren't really supposed to. The less you ate the better. Appetite was a bodily function that made you weak, and gluttonous, and fat. Appetite was to be squelched at every opportunity.

By 5 o'clock that Yom Kippur afternoon, I felt like I would faint if I didn't eat something. Anything. I left services and went around back, to the synagogue's playground (it was also an elementary school). I sat on the swing, went down the slide in my fancy new dress, and dug idly in the sandbox.

And that's where I found it: a half-eaten Milky Way bar. Someone had taken a few bites and then tossed it, wrapper and all, into the sandbox. It was food. It was my favorite candy bar. It was covered in sand and looked better than any food ever had to me.

I peeled the wrapper and took a bite of the uneaten side. I took another, and another, and soon had eaten the whole thing, sand and all. I felt guilty and ashamed. I was weak. I was unworthy.

I was also, later that night, sick as a dog, throwing up the candy bar and the break-the-fast meal we ate a few hours later. Retching and miserable, I had plenty of time to connect the dots: I had sinned, and I was being punished. Violently. Virulently. Righteously.

Fast-forward 35 years or so, to a night when my daughter Kitty was lying in the ICU, dying from anorexia. She was dying because she would not, could not eat. It took every ounce of determination and grief my husband and I had to help her start down the road to recovery.

That's when I connected the new set of dots: Not eating could kill you. Being hungry held no virtue. In the ultimate appetite sweepstakes, being hungry was the booby prize. You thought it was the goal, but really it was the punishment.

There have been plenty of times in my life since that Yom Kippur long ago when I have been hungry. But in the intervening years I've learned to honor my appetites--for food, for love, for compassion, for connection. This learning has changed my life.

And that's why I'll never again deliberately starve myself, for a day or for a month. There's far more virtue in learning to live with appetite and hunger than in shutting it down.


Cammy said...

I was raised Catholic, and for a few years I always looked forward to Lent because it gave me an "excuse" for restriction, I felt like it gave me justification for wanting my parents to stay off my back about eating for a few weeks. As I got older, though, I realized that there were much more meaningful ways that I could try to be virtuous than denying my physical needs. Instead of "giving something up" for Lent I would "take something on," making pledges to do some extra deed or service each day. I'm no longer religious, but I still do try to use the Lenten season as a time for reflection and (healthy) self-improvement.
That was a long spiel about me, sorry, the reason I wanted to comment was to thank you for pointing out that the truly important things, for ourselves, our family, our spirituality, all of the above, come from nurturing, not depriving ourselves.

Harriet said...

"The truly important things . . . come from nurturing, not depriving ourselves."

Well put, Cammy.

Eema-le said...

As a fellow non-fasting Jew, thank you for this post.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a powerful post. I am a Christian and also am recovered from disordered eating. I tend to avoid fasting because I sometimes find it triggering. A lot of Christian women I know go on "fasts" that are really restrictive crash diets. And I really like Cammy's idea of taking something on" rather than giving something up.

mary said...

I agree that taking on something is a kinder way to honor our beliefs. You've done your act of kindness by posting about this today! Seems that most of us have natural occurring sacrifices and suffering we do all the time and most of us fast every night during our rest time, hence the word break~fast. (or days for evening workers)
I was raised a catholic, to please a grandparent, but today I'd consider myself more spiritual than religious. I'll light a candle and send a prayer. I've made sacrifices and I suffer like everyone else so why fake it, or worse, invite it?
thank you for your story Harriet....really sand and all? I think you went beyond the 5 second on the floor rule but hey I never cared about that one anyway.

Anonymous said...

I can see how people with disordered eating should have eating be a part of honoring the day, and their needs. But the fast certainly doesn't have to be about starvation--in the right mind-set (one that recognizes that weight loss isn't possible or desirable), the experience can be wonderful, and the body doesn't have to suffer--it is perfectly capable of going for over 24 hours without food without detriment (and there is evidence of health benefits as well). That being said, I'm glad you ate that candy bar--in such circumstances, where you were never allowed to really eat, letting yourself do that was an act of self-love. Fasting is only appropriate when done with a mind-set of abundance, not restriction--and for many people that abundance will be found in other acts of kindness.

Pamalamb said...

Thanks for writing on this topic Harriet.
As practicing Christians, we are often called to prayer and fasting. I always have a problem with the fasting part however...I don't want to anything that's going to cause me to obsess over food, and that's where I find fasting takes me. Not exactly spiritual, is it ;-)
That reminds me - I once heard a pastor talk about calling people to fasting and he said - "well, some of you have been wanting to diet anyway..." GASP!! I couldn't believe my ears!! How screwed up is that?
Thanks for letting me share.

Anonymous said...

Fasting is not the denial of hunger, it is more the symbol of it. Give something up that you need for some greater symbol of your self.

In this context, we consider the meaning of this greater symbol. Because we are told to? Because our body's suffering makes someone all mighty being happy? Laws, bibilical or not are made for the best of us. But what benefit is there here by now allowing us to do what we were created to do every day.

Thank you for your blog, it made me realize just how counterproductive it was for me to consider skipping lunch (I already had breakfast)

Anonymous said...

You can fast from things besides food. One year for Lent I gave up fiction. Nearly killed me. The funny thing is, I hardly read fiction at all, now.

Harriet said...


Sounds like a reading disorder to me.


Anonymous said...

I gave up reading for pleasure when I had an eating disorder. I was eager to have ways to engage in self-denial. Giving up reading was worse than starving; it made me know that I was REALLY sick.

Anonymous said...

this is a good post. this is an issue that i've struggled with too since recovering from my eating disorder and it really feels good to hear it talked about. i'm still not sure whether or not i'll follow the Church's rules next Lent but i'll definitely keep this post in mind when i'm thinking about it. Thanks so much
sarah-j :)

Anonymous said...

You look great. It must be because you're so smart : )

Harriet said...

Must be. :-)

Gwyneth said...

I greatly appreciate this post as fasting came up for some of my patients during Ramadan.

Just to clarify, given another post on this thread, there are no biological benefits to fasting for any human being. There is evidence that those who experience a sense of energized calm, reduced pain, emotional blunting and dissociation that provides in turn a sense of spiritual transcendence while fasting, are in fact on the restrictive eating disorder spectrum.

These sensations are neuronal genetic predispositions that likely allow for the individual to feel good enough to go foraging for food despite the physiological damage being sustained through starvation (Guisinger's work that Harriet Brown references in her book Brave Girl Eating). It's like a mind-mirage.

But physically, fasting decreases the immune system's ability to eliminate toxins; the drop in blood sugar levels leads to the breakdown of body tissue to pull the energy necessary to function (and in particular provide energy for the brain); and the by-products of tissue breakdown generate excess effort for both liver and kidneys.

As 15% of the population have congenital malformation of the kidneys (usually undetected and not a cause for health concerns under normal circumstances), it is possible that the strain of an extended fast could precipitate damage that may lead to kidney failure that might never have occurred without the additional stress placed on them through starvation.

Robert Sapolsky's body of research on the biology of religion posits that having partial penetrance of certain genetic traits bestowed advantages (schizotypal behaviors, or milder versions of OCD) in the development and expression of religion and faith in human culture (no, that does not translate as you have to be crazy to be religious).

Given that fasting is an interwoven expression of faith in most major religions, one can surmise that those on the restrictive eating disorder spectrum with milder facets of the disorder benefitted from the sensations of energized calm and focus that were heightened during a fast but were not so triggered by starvation as to be compelled to continue beyond the framework set out in the religious context.

Thankfully many spiritual leaders today are particularly sensitive to ensuring that those who cannot fast are not made to feel in any way removed or alienated from their religious community. But we can continue to get the word out.

Thanks again for this post.