My Word: Food for thought on Yom Kippur

I find it hard to swallow my disgust at the Yom Kippur lunch. The right to keep Yom Kippur is too precious to be distorted in this way.

 A TEL AVIV beach scene with Muslim women wearing full body coverings enjoying the Mediterranean (Illustrative).  (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
A TEL AVIV beach scene with Muslim women wearing full body coverings enjoying the Mediterranean (Illustrative).
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)

Darn. Just when I was in a positive mood suitable for the Jewish High Holy Day season, I read an article by The Jerusalem Post’s Zvika Klein that made me think unkindly and unforgiving thoughts. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth ahead of the Yom Kippur fast.

Klein last week reported that an American Jewish organization is organizing an “intentional Yom Kippur lunch meetup” on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

“GatherDC, a Jewish organization intended to connect Jews in their 20s and 30s in the capital area, has publicized that it is hosting three events on Yom Kippur, called ‘Alternative Yom Kippur’ events,” he noted. “One of these caused a stir on social media. Titled, ‘Intentional YK Lunch Meetup,’ the event is interested in attracting young Jews who aren’t fasting.”

I looked at the website this week. It was a feast that made my eyes sore. “This is an exploratory and interactive Yom Kippur experience led by GatherDC’s Community Rabbi, Ilana [Zietman]...” it said. “There is no fasting required to be considered a good Jew, no Hebrew required to 100% participate, and you don’t have to believe in God to be moved or inspired (although it’s cool if you do, too!).” Well, how cool is that? It left me stone cold.

 Gather DC Alternative Yom Kippur Advertisement (credit: Gather DC) Gather DC Alternative Yom Kippur Advertisement (credit: Gather DC)

“We know that there are many who do not fast on Yom Kippur for important physical and mental health reasons. This year, we’re experimenting with organizing a lunch meetup for those who would find it meaningful to gather with other people who also do not fast and engage in a Jewish ritual to honor the act of mindful eating and taking care of one’s body and spirit on this special day.”

Participants are invited to bring their own meals (or go out afterwards.) Kashrut, needless to say, was not mentioned.

The original report included a GatherDC quote that: “This is something that should be celebrated because Jewish tradition acknowledges that fasting is just one of several valid ways to observe the holiday.” That quote seemed to have disappeared. Perhaps they discovered via the social media backlash that they had bitten off more than they could chew.

Not fasting on Yom Kippur

There are, of course, many people who can’t fast on Yom Kippur for health reasons or mental health reasons – including pregnant women, people who need to swallow pills, those whose doctors rule it would be dangerous not to eat, and anorexics who fear that fasting one day would retrigger a pattern that would be hard to stop. This doesn’t mean they should intentionally celebrate their need to eat in public.

There are some things that even “cultural” Jews – the so-called “Jew-ish” rather than Jewish – keep as a redline. 

Every Jew knows that Yom Kippur is a fast day, just as they know that Seder night at the start of the Passover festival is a time for gathering and recalling the story of the Exodus, and that eating pork (and other pig products) is forbidden by Jewish law – and not just on Yom Kippur

Years ago I worked with a journalist who had been raised in an ultra-Orthodox family in Bnei Brak but had become staunchly secular. He nonetheless would not eat (especially in public) on Yom Kippur. And he recalled how surprised he had been during his first Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv after leaving the haredi world. He hadn’t realized that in Israel traffic throughout the Jewish sector comes to a halt except for emergency vehicles. 

This is a tradition, not a law, by the way. I’m among those who think that were there to be legislation banning driving on Yom Kippur (or mandating circumcision for boys) there would be a boomerang effect. People would go against the law “davka,” as we untranslatably say in Hebrew.

Over the generations, thousands of Jews have died unwilling to violate these basic Jewish precepts and traditions.

As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted in his commentary on Nitzavim, the Torah portion always read just ahead of Rosh Hashanah, “Jewish law is an ongoing training regime in willpower. Can you eat this and not that? Can you exercise spiritually three times a day? Can you rest one day in seven?... To be a Jew means not going with the flow, not doing what others do just because they are doing it... That is why, though few faiths are more demanding, most Jews at most times have stayed faithful to Judaism, living Jewish lives, building Jewish homes, and continuing the Jewish story.”

“Jewish law is an ongoing training regime in willpower. Can you eat this and not that? Can you exercise spiritually three times a day? Can you rest one day in seven?... To be a Jew means not going with the flow, not doing what others do just because they are doing it... That is why, though few faiths are more demanding, most Jews at most times have stayed faithful to Judaism, living Jewish lives, building Jewish homes, and continuing the Jewish story.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The role of religious laws in life and the Iran hijab protests

THE ROLE of religious laws in life has been on my mind recently. It’s not just the month of Tishrei holidays. I consider religion, all religions, to be a way of life. Extremist rules on either side are more than unpalatable. I was saddened by a Reuters story last week that at least 20 hotels in Muslim-majority Tunisia advertise that burkinis – the swimwear favored by many religious Muslim women, which leaves only the face, hands and feet exposed – are banned at their establishments. This is apparently an attempt to attract wealthier foreign tourists, particularly from France, as well as affluent, secular locals.

The topic of burkinis comes up periodically in the French Republic. France also has a ban on burkas in public places and hijabs and other religious symbols in state schools and in the civil service. As a friend pointed out: In the past women were told to cover up and are now being told they can’t cover up: “The only constant thing is that it is the men who are deciding what women should wear and how.”

I don’t favor a ban on either burkinis or the burka, just as I would object to suggestions that Jewish men and married women not be allowed to wear kippot and head-coverings in public.

And then you have the current events in Iran. The Islamic Republic is being rocked by riots following the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, from Iran’s Kurdish region, following her detention for “re-education” by “morality police.” Her offense was not having her hair sufficiently covered by her hijab, although no one seems to know the exact requirement. Dozens are reported to have died in the hijab protests. The obsession with modesty ends up being immoral.

Women around the world, including in Israel, have created videos of support for the brave Iranians who are burning their hijabs and cutting their hair (another ban) in public. The Israeli supporters include married Orthodox women who have their own hair covered, but that’s their choice – which is a huge difference.

I’m not a fan of CNN’s Christiane Amanpour but I figuratively took my hat off to her last week. Amanpour’s refusal to wear a headscarf resulted in Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s last-minute cancellation of an interview with her in New York where he was attending the United Nations General Assembly. The fact that tyrants like Raisi are on the UN guest list is also something worth considering and reconsidering. And one hopes that having invited him to the CNN studio, Amanpour and her team had prepared some hard-hitting questions, especially in view of the fact that Iran claims Amini died of natural causes when eyewitnesses say she was beaten. And I hazard a guess that part of the violence against Amini stemmed from her being from the Kurdish, Sunni, minority.

The hijab tyranny is not new. In 2019, for instance, Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was sentenced to 38 years in jail and 148 lashes for defending the right of women to appear in public without their heads covered. For some reason, travesties like this do not stop Western self-professed liberals from visiting and supporting the Iranian regime. I noted around the time a trip by ultra-feminist, so-called human-rights organization Code Pink to the Islamic Republic.

There is a difference between being offensive and committing an offense. I find it hard to swallow my disgust at the Yom Kippur lunch. The right to keep Yom Kippur is too precious to be distorted in this way. Judaism it ain’t. At the same time, I would fight for the right of Muslims to fast on Ramadan. As for the burkini ban on the one hand and Iran’s imposition of the hijab on the other – well, some things are simply wrong. That’s what shouldn’t be covered up. 

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