Fasting for the Faithless: A Non-Believer’s Guide to Yom Kippur

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By Sarah B

Tonight, I will begin a 25-hour fast for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of my year, and God has nothing to do with it.

I grew up going to an orthodox Jewish preschool, but my family has always practiced (very) reform Judaism. Being Jewish is the most important part of my identity, even though I have known for a long time that I do not believe in God.

Holiness without God seems like a glaring contradiction, especially considering that the very definition of the word “holy” according to dictionary.com is to be “dedicated or devoted to the service of God.” I embrace this contradiction every year on Yom Kippur, the Jewish “Day of Atonement” that follows Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah marks the official new year’s beginning, but is only the first of ten Days of Awe or Repentance. Yom Kippur is the tenth and final day to ask for forgiveness from loved ones and from God, hoping to earn the gift of another year of life. Fasting is the ultimate way in which we do our atoning. Unbeknownst to many people who are not Jewish, one’s fate for the year that Rosh Hashanah began is not actually sealed until the end of Yom Kippur.

Spirituality is just one of many ways in which one can connect with this holiday. A traditionally religious holiday can be just as sacred for non-religious reasons… and here are mine.

Belief in God should not be a requirement for observing Yom Kippur because it is not a requirement of Judaism itself. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, only 37 percent of Jews polled said they were “absolutely certain” in their belief in God.

Rabbi Debra Rappaport of Shir Tikvah synagogue in Minneapolis, Minnesota said in her Dec. 31 sermon, “Belief in a specific understanding of God is essential in some religions. For example, belief in Jesus is what makes someone Christian, belief in Allah is what makes someone Muslim. The same is not true of Jewish religious identity. In Judaism, think of a three-legged stool, held up by three distinct but connected ways to be Jewish: belonging, behaving, and believing.”

The belonging that Rabbi Rappaport refers to is the inheritance of community that comes with being culturally Jewish. Unlike other religions, Judaism is its own ethnicity, with shared history that is more than just religious. Basically, once a Jew, always a Jew.

What Rabbi Rappaport calls “behavior,” I would liken to living in accordance with certain Jewish principles and values. These values have some religious significance, but are quite non-religious in practice. “Moral courage, radical welcoming, [and] working toward a more just world” are the Jewish behaviors that Rabbi Rappaport cites as central to living Jewishly. One can choose to find faith-based inspiration for these behaviors, but there is nothing about them that is inherently religious.

Finally, we come to the more challenging part of Rabbi Rappaport’s Jewish definition: believing.

“The belief part isn’t just about God, and it’s certainly not about believing a literal reading of the Torah,” Rappaport explains. “It’s about believing that there is an inherent worth and meaning to what we’re doing here together, believing that Jewish life matters…”

So belief and investment in Judaism, even if it’s not in the spiritual part, is still belief. If I feel deeply connected to my culture and to holidays like Yom Kippur, it should not matter whether or not that connection is a religious one. Just as there is no one way to be Jewish, there is no one way to participate in Yom Kippur.

The sacredness of Yom Kippur for me is in the self-evaluation, genuine apology and reshaping that the holiday encourages. The self-evaluation is why I choose to fast on this day every year. Food is one of several distractions that we become unaware of in daily life. It is also one of the easiest, most instant and most detached forms of gratification and fulfillment.

For me, food is a solution to nearly every emotion. I am tired, so I eat; I am nervous, so I eat; I am devastated, ecstatic, confused, so I eat. French fries truly can be one night’s solution, but eating is never the only way to handle all of what I’m feeling. I eat because it because it is easy, it is always accessible and because it requires almost no thought or true emotional processing.

Fasting leaves me alone with the fears and questions that on every other day of the year, I swallow and banish to the pit of my stomach. That is a terrifying, yet holy experience. Some feel closer to God after fasting– I feel closer to myself.

Yom Kippur encourages apology for the sake of forgiveness, not only for appearance or out of obligation. Some feel that the most important forgiveness to ask for is God’s. I respect that belief, but have found in my own experience that praying to God for forgiveness is far less meaningful than asking it of the people in my life.

This is because it feels like a greater personal risk and sacrifice to apologize to a human than to a spirit whose face you never see, and whose answer you need not wait for. Praying to God always feels very low-stakes, because my admittance is silent and it is not as if God could really deny my apology. My sister, my mother, my best friend: these people have the power to grant or deny me forgiveness. The courage to ask them for it is hard to find, but deeply rewarding when unearthed.

MJ Gilbert, a member of Rabbi Rappaport’s congregation, gave a sermon last Yom Kippur quite similar to my argument in this article. “I am a deeply, resonantly, passionately, spiritual Jew who doesn’t believe in God, and I see this as not only not contradictory, but utterly uncontroversial,” she said. “The Mishnah (book that contextualizes Torah) supports the idea that our main task today is not to talk to God, but to each other for the real sins, the important ones, the ways I have failed and wronged, and not shown up, and hurt you, my friends, my family, my loved ones…” I whole-heartedly agree.

Repairing my relationship with myself and with others are important parts of Yom Kippur, but they involve looking backwards into the year that is ending. The most important part of this day for me is focusing on the year that Yom Kippur sets in motion. Which parts of myself do I want to nurture more this year? What kind of risks do I want to take more of? Where do I want to be, geographically and emotionally, next Yom Kippur? I let these questions guide me today and the days following Yom Kippur.

Jews who do not feel connected to God can still feel connected to this holy day. Find liberation in self-reflection, forgiveness in conversations with friends and family, and finally, find purpose in ending one year and looking to a new one. With or without God, every person can make this Yom Kippur their own kind of holy.

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