Post Ramadan Thoughts on Healthier and Holier Fasting

Fasting on Ramadan and Yom Kippur have never been more important than in our COVID-19 pandemic anxiety filled and 'steadily getting fatter' world.

We all know the dangers of COVID-19, but few people appreciate the dangers of everyday indulgence in overeating. In 2015, more than 645 million men and women were obese (a body mass index of 30 or higher). That is up 700% from 105 million in 1975.

Researchers who analyzed four decades of height and weight data for more than 19 million adults, and then calculated global rates based on population data found that on average, people worldwide are gaining about 1.5 kilograms or almost 3.5 pounds per decade.

"Over the past 40 years, we have changed from a world in which underweight prevalence was more than double that of obesity, to one in which more people are obese than underweight," said Majid Ezzati, a professor of public health at Imperial College London.

Americans spend billions of dollars on pills, diet books, and gym memberships, but lack the self -discipline to restrain themselves from overeating. Young people are leading the way in increasing self-indulgence. In majority of states (30 of 50) the percentage of overweight or obese children is now at or above 30%.

In our consumer driven cultural, we have largely lost the spiritual value of self-restraint that is so important in the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim tradition. Self-restraint will be the single biggest factor influencing life expectancy in the 21st century. With self-restraint, most people will have a good chance to live into their 80's or 90's. However, indulgent pleasure seeking and lack of self-restraint will increasingly cut short the lives of tens of millions of people.

The idea that people, even thin people, should restrict their culinary pleasures sounds outrageous to our 21st century ears. Dieting is hard enough. Why should we torture and afflict ourselves by fasting? Don't most people think that being happy is the most important thing? Isn't eating one of the most accessible pleasures we have? Why should religions restrict our pleasures?

For example, every year for the entire the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, abstaining from food and drink. The Qur'an says, "Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint.” Qur'an (2:183).

And the Torah decree a day of total denial of food and drink for every Jewish adult (Leviticus 16:29, 23:27). For twenty-four hours Jews (over age 12 and in good health) are supposed to afflict their souls by abstaining from eating or drinking anything at all.

What is the Torah and the Qur'an trying to teach us by decreeing the importance of fasting? What spiritual benefits occur when we fast?

The Qur’an states the lesson of Yom Kippur and Ramadan very clearly; “that you may (learn) self-restraint.”  What we do not eat may be even more important than what we do eat. All animals eat, but only humans choose to not eat some foods that are both nutritious and tasty. Many people do not eat meat for religious/ethical reasons.

Fasting as a religious discipline is good for both our bodies and our souls. In addition to fasting, joining together to praise God is healthy for today’s frequently distraught and anxious minds.

Anxiety disorders are the most common type of psychiatric illness, yet researchers know very little about factors associated with recovery. A University of Toronto study last year investigated three levels of recovery in a large, representative sample of more than 2,000 Canadians with a history of generalized anxiety disorder.

The study reports that 72% of Canadians with a history of generalized anxiety disorder  have been free of the mental health condition for at least one year. Overall, 40% were in a state of excellent mental health, and almost 60% had no other mental illness or addiction issues, such as suicidal thoughts, substance dependence, a major depressive disorder, or a bipolar disorder, in the past year, said Esme Fuller-Thomson, lead author of the study.

"This research provides a very hopeful message for individuals struggling with anxiety, their families, and health professionals. Our findings suggest that full recovery is possible, even among those who have suffered for many years with the disorder," she says.

Individuals who had at least one person in their lives who provided them with a sense of emotional security and well-being were three times more likely to be in excellent mental health than those without a confidant. In addition, those who turned to their religious beliefs to cope with everyday difficulties had 36% higher odds of excellent mental health than those who did not have spiritual coping.

“Other researchers have also found a strong link between recovery from mental illness and belief in a higher power [a non-sectarian academic term for God]” reports Fuller-Thomson.

Also, greater spirituality among stroke survivors was strongly linked to better quality of life for them and their caregivers who may also feel depressed, according to new research published May 26, 2020 in an American Heart Association journal.

And in any case, fasting on Yom Kippur serves as a form of moral penance for Jews as it does for Muslims on Ramadan. Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah's Apostle said, "Whoever observes fasts during the month of Ramadan out of sincere faith, hoping to attain Allah's rewards, then all his past sins will be forgiven." (Sahih Al-Bukhari Vol. 1).

But although self-inflicted pain may alleviate guilt, it is much better to reduce one's guilt by offsetting acts of righteousness to others. This is why contributing to charity is an important part of Yom Kippur and Ramadan. Indeed, Judaism teaches that fasting that doesn't increase compassion, is ignored by God.

As Prophet Muhammad said, "Whoever does not give up deceitful speech and evil actions, Allah is not in need of his leaving eating his food and drink." (Bukhari Vol.3, 31, #127)

Allen S. Maller is an ordained Reform Rabbi who retired in 2006 after 39 years as the Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His web site is: Rabbi Maller blogs in the Times of Israel. His book ‘Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi's Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism’ (31 articles previously published by Islamic web sites) is for sale ($15) on Amazon.

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