Fasting and Social Justice

The following is a “dvar torah” I presented during the Yom Kippur prayers at Kehillat Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem.

Last summer, in August, I hosted an iftar seminar and dinner at Mishkenot Sha’ananim  in Jerusalem, in cooperation with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, for Jews, Christians and Muslims in Israel. This was the second year that ICCI hosted such an event.

At the panel before the break-the-fast dinner (which Muslims call “iftar”), a kadi, a priest and a rabbi all talked about the connection of fasting to social consciousness. Two of the 3 speakers (the rabbi—who happens to be the rabbi of this synagogue and one of the co-chairpersons of ICCI– and the priest, who share the same Holy Book), referred to the prophet Isaiah in general and to the chapter we read this morning in particular, Chapter 57 (from what scholars call Second Isaiah).

This chapter is one of the most beautiful and powerful in all of prophetic literature. The Rabbis chose it for Yom Kippur because of its clear message about the purpose of fasting.  We read it every year at this time. Does it affect us? Does it transform or enhance or social consciousness? Does it move Us to action?

First of all, we need to ask: What is the problem? What is the issue that the prophet addresses? What’s wrong? Why is he so upset???

 58:1 God says to Isaiah: Cry with a full throat, do not hold back, let you voice resound like a shofar, declare to your people their transgression……

The prophet is consumed with a divine imperative. He must speak out. He needs to reprove his people, to let them know where they have gone wrong, with the goal that they will correct their ways.  Why? What bothers him so much?


Yes, they seek me daily,

As though eager to learn My ways,

As if they were a people that does what is right,

And has not forsaken the way of God.

They ask Me the right way,

 as though delighting in the nearness of God.

 When we fast, you say,

Why do you pay no heed?

Why, when we afflict ourselves,

Do  You take no notice?


Because on your fast day you pursue your own affairs,

While you oppress your workers!

Because you fasting leaders only to strike and discord,

While you strike with a cruel fist.

Such a way of fasting on this day

shall no help you to be heard on high!


What’s the problem?

The problem is the people think that just by praying and studying –or in Biblical days by sacrificing animals—that they have fulfilled their religious duty!

They think that the rituals are enough to earn them salvation, that just by fasting, God will forgive them and accept their repentance.  They don’t make the connection between the ritual side of Judaism and the social action side. There is a huge disconnect!

This drives Isaiah crazy. He is deeply disturbed by the fundamental misunderstanding of the people of true religion. They confuse the means with the end. The rituals are a means for ethical living. They are not an end in themselves!

Reform Judaism and Isaiah

Early Reform Judaism loved Isaiah and the other literary prophets (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, etc). Not because they were Zionists (early Reform Judaism—sometimes known as Classical Reform—was anti-nationalism!) but because they were Ethical Monotheists! They stressed ethics and social justice, more than ritual behavior.

One of the great mistakes of early Reform Judaism, however, was to misinterpret Isaiah (and other prophets) to say that they rejected rituals and only wanted us to perform good deeds and engage in social justice.

Indeed at the end of this very special haftarah, Isaiah issues a very clear call for observing the Shabbat.

See chapter 58:13-14. He wants the people to observe Shabbat!  But he is disturbed that the people don’t do it right. They perform the rituals but still pursue their own affairs. They don’t get the message. They are hypocrites!

Hypocrisy! This is what bothers Isaiah. Superficiality. Just doing the rituals to do them. Without understanding their underlying meaning and purpose. Mechanists. Perfoming rituals without kavannah.

Indeed, this was Reform Judaism’s great critique of Orthodoxy– from the beginning, until today.

In the early years, Reform Judaism replaced Rituals with Ethics. They went to the other extreme. Now there is more of a return to the original ideas of Isaiah (and the other classical prophets)—to balance rituals and ethics, to see how rituals and motivate us to ethical living and creating a just society.

In Israel Society today

We find this problem prevalent in Israeli Society today.

If you ask a Jew: are you dati? He will say: “yes, I observe Shabbat, fast on Yom Kippur, etc.” He or she generally won’t say: “I fast on Yom Kippur AND engage in Tikkun Olam!”  He makes a false dichotomy between observance of ritual and perfecting the world, as if they were unrelated.

(By the way, you can get the same answers from a Muslim: “I fast prayer 5 times a day, I fast on Ramadan, as if religion is only ritual, divorced from ethics!)

Isaiah wouldn’t like this. He would want us to observe Shabbat AND to repair the world, to fast on Yom Kippur and to pursue social justice. Both are part of our religious consciousness and our religious behavior!!

Unfortunately, we see in Israel all too often the opposite of this the link between a proper understanding of ritual observance and ethical behavior.

For example: the outrageous burning of a mosque in northernIsraelthis week, probably by so-called “religious extremists” (an oxymoron!). In a conversation about this with one of my daughters this week, she asked me: “Abba—how could a religious Jew do this during the Ten Days of Repentance?” I responded by saying that this is exactly the kind of fasting and repentance that Isaiah abhorred!! It’s impossible. It is a distortion or a desecration of the Word of God!

We need to return to the original vision of the state ofIsrael, as enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, which was conscious of our prophetic tradition:

“The state ofIsraelwill be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets ofIsrael; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to ALL its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…..”

What is the proper religious meaning of the fast?

Isaiah 58: 6-9  – read these verses.

If the fast doesn’t motivate you to fight injustice, then it is not a proper fast!

If the fast doesn’t catalyze you to share your bread with the hungry, to clothe the poor, to provide the needy with housing !!,  to bring freedom to the oppressed, then you have missed the point of the fast!! Then your fasting is an empty ritual, a mechanical act, a meaningless gesture.

This is the essence of our fast on Yom Kippur, as it should be for Muslims when the fast on Ramadan or for Christians when they fast on lent.

It should be obvious, but we forget. We are creatures of habit, so we miss the mark.

This is why we read Isaiah every year on Yom Kippur.

This is why we read him all summer long, for 7 weeks of Consolation after Tisha B’Av.

To remind ourselves –again and again—that our prayers are not sufficient, that prayer alone won’t bring us a just society, that study of Torah is necessary but not sufficient, if we want a just society  FOR ALL OF OUR CITIZENS, if we seek peaceful coexistence between us and our neighbors. Prayer and study without tikkun olam is insufficient!

To reset our consciousness –especially those of us that have the privilege of living in restored Jerusalem—that Jerusalem must become IR HATZEDEK,  a beacon of justice, for all who live here, and for the rest of the world, which is watching us every day, every minute

This ought to be self-evident, but it is not. This is why we gather on Yom Kippur bclal—to read Torah and to recite liturgy which will stir us to action, to repair the world.  We can no longer retain passive.

As we read over and over again in the special Amidah of these Yamim Noraim: “Ha-El Hakodesh nikdash b’tzekekah”—the Holy God is sanctified by acts of righteousness, by our acts, not just by our prayers and by our leaning.

If we heed the words of Isaiah and the prayers that we recite, we can create a just society, right here, right now, inJerusalem, and inIsraelb’clal. Reciting prayers, hearing the shofar, fasting alone and then going home and doing nothing will no longer suffice. We all must do our part to make this a more humane, just society.

This is the true meaning of fasting on Yom Kippur, in the spirit of Isaiah.

Kein Y’hi Ratzon.


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