When Fasting and Praying Becomes Distracting and Weighing

by Aaron Potek / September 6, 2017

Two years ago, I wrote about how American Jews tend to overemphasize fasting and synagogue on Yom Kippur – tools that help some people connect to the purpose of the day but for many others have the opposite effect. Often, fasting and formal prayer end up being a distraction. X number of hours until the fast is over. X number of pages until the service is over. X number of tiles on the ceiling of the synagogue.

Inspired by the desire to shift the focus toward the actual meaning of Yom Kippur, this year I’ll be leading an alternative Yom Kippur experience. My goal isn’t only to challenge people to reflect on why we do the things we do on Yom Kippur. It’s also to make Judaism more accessible by prioritizing personal meaning over uniform practice.

Of course, it’s not inherently either-or. With a lot of study, a traditional Yom Kippur practice can be very personally powerful. But the meaning that comes from these practices is not self-evident and doesn’t just happen experientially. Therefore, most Jews – who have not spent years learning Hebrew, exploring the background of the prayers, and studying the intention behind fasting – wind up choosing unfamiliar and unhelpful practices without realizing there is another option.

These practices – intended as means to an end – have become the end. The path, for many, has become a roadblock. Shouldn’t there be another option for people who still want to address the themes of the day?

Yet, I’ve received some pushback regarding this idea. Why do some Jews give so much weight to the means? My sense is that there are two main reasons.

The first is that there is something powerful about knowing that Jews across the world are all engaged in the same practice, like fasting or praying in synagogue. Acknowledging that shared practices don’t work for everyone potentially threatens this feeling of unity and peoplehood.

But engaging with the purpose of Yom Kippur does not need to threaten that experience of unity and peoplehood. In fact, that can become the new unifier. I believe it is equally powerful, if not more so, knowing that Jews across the world are all meaningfully reflecting on their lives – even if that reflection takes on a variety of different forms – doing what needs to be done to rectify their past mistakes and commit themselves to be better in the year ahead.

The second reason people may be afraid to let go of prayer and fasting is a fear of shedding what makes us uniquely Jewish. Without those practices, do we just become regular humans engaged in ordinary reflection?

But that represents a misunderstanding of what makes Judaism unique. While we do have unique practices, we also have a unique calendar, history, and culture with unique texts, perspectives, and wisdom. The void caused by letting go of a unique practice that isn’t working may be filled by another unique aspect of our identity that is more personally resonant.

Besides, what ultimately matters on Yom Kippur is not what makes us unique, but rather what makes us human. Highlighting the importance of having unique Jewish practices will distract us from the more fundamental human questions we should be asking ourselves on Yom Kippur. Questions like “Am I living the life I want to be living?” “How can I bring more love into the world?” and “Where have I messed up?”

What is Yom Kippur really about? I’m afraid we’ve spent too much time fasting and praying to properly explore this question. Will you find a personally meaningful answer at a beer garden? Maybe. Maybe not. But, if you’ve been to a bar more than you’ve been to a synagogue this past year, then it might not be a bad place to start.

Click here to sign up for GatherDC’s Alternative Yom Kippur on Saturday, September 30.

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