Ask the Rabbi:May a protester go on a hunger strike?

Supporters of hunger strikes say Jewish law allows people to take certain risks to better their fortunes. Are they right?

Hunger strike protesters (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Hunger strike protesters
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
 In my previous column, I discussed the propriety of force-feeding, following the public debate over how to stop the hunger strike of imprisoned Palestinian terrorists. In this column, I’ll consider whether it’s permissible for a Jew to go on a hunger strike.
Last week, some parents of pediatric cancer patients at Hadassah-University Medical Center went on a hunger strike to draw attention to the ongoing crisis at the hospital. This followed the hunger strike of aguna Tzviya Gordetski, who unsuccessfully lobbied for the Knesset to pass a controversial bill that might help her, and the 2016 hunger strike of Jewish extremist Meir Ettinger, who protested his administrative detention.
This tactic of nonviolent resistance or protest is used globally to apply pressure in achieving a political, social or economic goal. As James Vernon has documented, it became prominent in the early 20th century through protests of British suffragettes and unemployed workers as well as Irish and Indian nationalists. Famous hunger strikers included Mahatma Gandhi, who undertook 17 fasts, and Bobby Sands, who died along with nine others in the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike.
Hunger strikers will usually take minimal liquids but avoid solid foods. Healthy individuals can avoid negative consequences for two to three days, but after that the body begins to consume muscle protein to produce glucose.
This process can lead to serious neurological, cognitive and physiological problems after two weeks, and can lead to severe and permanent health issues, especially if the strike exceeds one month.
Each body reacts differently to these dire conditions, and sometimes in unpredictable way, making the entire situation quite precarious.
Twentieth-century Jewish history has also featured hunger strikers, including Natan Sharansky, who fasted over 200 days during his extended detention in the Gulag, and the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn, who protested the confiscation of his religious items during his 1927 imprisonment in Leningrad. Both sides of the Israeli political spectrum have utilized this tactic, with leftist Abie Nathan protesting settlements in 1978 and 1991, and right-wingers such as Rabbi Yaakov Medan protesting weapons transfers to Palestinians under the Oslo Accords.
Most prominently, this tactic was used before Israel’s independence by Jewish prisoners detained by British authorities. Communists, Revisionists and Mapai members alike used this tactic to protest their imprisonment, many times with success.
One well-known example was Wolfgang von Weisl, who went on a hunger strike in 1946 in the Latrun Prison.
Less known is that at roughly the same time, the prominent rabbinic scholar Yehuda Leib Fishman (Maimon) also went on a short hunger strike at the same location. This is somewhat surprising because the rabbinic leadership during this period was strongly against this tactic. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, for example, successfully implored two famous Revisionist figures, Vladimir Jabotinsky (in 1920) and Abba Ahimeir (in 1934), to end their hunger strikes. Regarding both cases, he explicitly stated that such drastic action was against Jewish law.
In later years, rabbis Aryeh Levin and Ben-Zion Uziel would visit Jewish prisoners to comfort them while beseeching them to end such protests.
This position was affirmed by many scholars, including rabbis Shlomo Z. Auerbach, Yitzhak Weiss and Hayyim D. Halevi, who prohibited doctors from using this tactic during their extended hospital strike in 1983.
As Rabbi Yehuda Zoldan has explained, their basic argument is that Jewish law prohibits one from taking unnecessary action that may harm oneself. The Talmud derives this principle from several biblical notions, including the prohibition against wasteful behavior (bal tash’hit), suicide and, most interestingly, the case of the Nazirite, at whose abstinence vows some talmudic sages looked askance.
That source surprised some commentators, however, since the Talmud elsewhere records positions that condone the Nazirite, provided that he can physically handle the necessary asceticism. Additionally, some talmudic passages praise (and certainly permit) private, individual fasts as one form of repentance in reaction to sin or tragedy.
Yet when one examines talmudic- era fasting, one sees great caution about preventing unhealthy consequences.
Emergency communal fasts, for example, are done on a Monday-Thursday-Monday rotation since, as Maimonides notes, the community cannot withstand consecutive fasts.
For this reason, we do not demand of people to fast two days around Yom Kippur or Tisha Be’av, even though one can make a legal argument to do so. Most importantly, the Talmud rules that should a person take an oath to fast for three consecutive days, we order them to stop immediately, even under the threat of corporal punishment.
Supporters of hunger strikes retort that the Halacha does allow people to take certain risks to better their fortunes.
Most decisors, for example, allow plastic surgery to improve one’s looks, and taking on dangerous jobs, as in the cases of structural iron and steel workers, even though such activities involve limited risks. The sages asserted that risks that the multitude engages in with equanimity remain permissible, citing the verse that “God protects the foolish.”
The point of hunger strikes, of course, is that we don’t take them lightly, which likely makes them too risky for the Halacha to permit them. Yet proponents argue that, especially in a controlled, supervised environment, the risks are tolerable.
Moreover, for great causes for which we regularly put our lives at stake, such as the settlement and security of our homeland, sometimes one needs to live on the edge.
That said, even the few who defend such tactics admit that this tool must be used sparingly. It’s hard to justify using such an extreme measure for anything less than an acute national cause. Even then, the Halacha tends to shun such tactics, as the goal of building up a nation is to preserve the lives of its citizens.
The writer, author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates, directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute and is a presidential scholar at Bar-Ilan University Law School.