Fasting might seem a grim topic in the midst of the Orange County Fair, beach picnics and the start of the Olympic Games. But highly observant Jews took part last weekend in Tisha B'Av, a 25-hour fast from food and drink to mark the destruction of the first and second Jewish temples (in 586 B.C. and A.D. 70) and, secondarily, the many other misfortunes that have befallen the Jewish people, especially the Holocaust. The other 25-hour fast for Jews is the more familiar Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur on Sept. 26 this year.
However, Jews will not be alone this summer in observing a fast: Ramadan, the lunar month sun-up-to-sundown fast for Muslims began July 21.
While the Jewish calendar is lunar-solar (adding leap months periodically to keep the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur always in fall and Passover in spring), Islam's is completely lunar. Because it rotates around the solar calendar, this year's mid-summer Ramadan requires longer, hotter hours without food or drink. (Muslim law in most regions permits athletes competing in the Olympics to postpone their fasting.)
Fasting practices are less demanding in Christianity, mainly confined to Lent in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions and quite rare in Protestantism, though monks and nuns have a more rigorous fasting schedule.
Is fasting medieval, a vestige of a world of extreme penitence that today is largely viewed as irrelevant, even masochistic?
President Lincoln did not think so in 1863 when he issued a proclamation making April 30 "a day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer … to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness." With the Civil War ripping the country apart, prayer and fasting seemed a fitting response.
Congress in 1952 passed legislation declaring the first Thursday in May a National Day of Prayer, but with no mention of fasting.
Voluntary fasting might have contemporary relevance. We live in a world where 1 billion of its 7 billion inhabitants suffer from chronic hunger. What if every American were to skip one meal a month and contribute the monetary savings to a relief organization? Multiply that by 180 million and the gnawing hunger of a child somewhere — even in our own country — might be lessened.
Hunger is, in fact, a problem on some Native American reservations and among the homeless despite the inspiring efforts of soup kitchens such as Someone Cares in Costa Mesa.
Along with the philanthropic value of periodic fasting, there are spiritual benefits, in particular, a heightened awareness of our utter dependence on food and drink ("…give us this day our daily bread…"). We must eat and we must depend on a chain of individuals: farmers, grocers and cooks (think of our mothers' countless home-cooked meals).
Fasting should also fill us with gratitude for our immense bounty in this nation, for this rich soil which keeps on giving.
Finally, there are the health benefits of fasting in a country where obesity and type 2 diabetes, including among children, are at epidemic rates.
For most who read this column, fasting can wait for another day. But the wisdom of the practice should be taken seriously.
BENJAMIN J. HUBBARD is professor emeritus of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton and lives in Costa Mesa.