For Those Who Cannot Fast, Yom Kippur Should Still be Meaningful

September 24, 2020

By Rabbi Dov Linzer for The Jewish Forward

Yom Kippur is almost upon us. According to Torah law, the Jewish people are mandated to fast the entire day. This can be difficult enough for most people, but particularly so for those with eating disorders. Fasting itself is not just the issue. For them, Yom Kippur can be a triggering holiday that creates and worsens feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. What are they supposed to do on this holy day?

This question deserves to be asked every year, but it takes on particular poignancy now. In contrast to a packed synagogue with day-long prayers, this Yom Kippur will see many people staying home out of safety concerns, and others attending synagogue, in only small numbers and only for truncated periods of time. Many Jews who normally connect to the sanctity of the day and the powerful sense of community that it provides will struggle to feel a sense of religious meaning and belonging.

Now perhaps is the time to recognize that there are many in our community who don’t just feel pain and isolation this year, but rather on every single Yom Kippur.

It is easy to think that this is not a problem because we as a community have already addressed the needs of those with eating disorders. From a strictly rules-based point of view, Jewish tradition mandates that rituals and restrictions be overridden when there is the slightest risk of danger to a person’s life. Thus, Jews with eating disorders who seek religious guidance about this holiday are often told that they are permitted to eat food on Yom Kippur. Case closed — right?

But that’s simply not enough from a spiritual perspective. The permission to eat may address physical well-being, but it does not address emotional, mental, or spiritual well-being. For many Jews, eating on Yom Kippur feels like a violation of this holiest of days, regardless of the reasons and justifications. And on a day devoted to bringing the community together, Jews who are eating can feel deeply alone, disconnected and even guilty for doing what they must to stay healthy. These feelings can create an extra layer of stress and anxiety around what is often already for them a daily, complicated relationship with food.

Nobody deserves to be doubly afflicted on Yom Kippur. How can rabbis help Yom Kippur still feel meaningful and inclusive to those who are not fasting?

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