COLUMBIA — Standing in a loose circle, a group of men and women recited a Muslim blessing, followed by a short Jewish prayer. Then, with little ceremony, they got down to the business of eating.
On a recent Saturday evening, about 60 members of the Jewish and Muslim communities made quick work of the vegetarian dishes on a heavily-laden setup in a small room in Gwynn Hall at MU, chatting like close friends as they snacked on dates, bagels and cream cheese, cupcakes, and curry and rice.
Although many of these people of differing faiths had never met before the evening’s potluck, they shared common ground in a spiritual ritual: fasting.
For the Jews in the group, the dinner was the culmination of 25 hours of fasting for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Their Muslim companions were ending another full day of abstaining from food and drink for the holy month of Ramadan, which ends Oct. 12.
Furqaan Sadiq, a member of the Muslim Student Organization and one of the organizers of the event, said food is always a good way to bring people together, and that the food was to break a daylong fast was even better. “We can’t eat during the day, so we pig out at night,” he said.
“Well, not literally pig out, of course!” said George Smith, eliciting a laugh from Sadiq, since neither Jews nor Muslims eat pork. Smith isa member of Boone Tikkun,
The annual interfaith break-the-fast event began in 2005 when Jews and Muslims noticed that their fasts sometimes fell in the same month. This year’s potluck was sponsored by the Muslim Student Organization, the Jewish Student Organization and Boone Tikkun.
Sadiq said that the event is important because Jews and Muslims are often thought about because of their differences. Breaking the fasts together, he said, is way to bridge those differences and help others “recognize the large similarities between our religions.”
Fasting is a ritual common to many major religions, whether it is simply giving up a particular food for a period of time, like some Christians do during Lent, or abstaining from all sustenance. The reasons for the fast can also vary, including monthlong fasts, such as Ramadan, to focus on God and spiritual matters and daylong fasts for social causes or purification.
Although certain fasts are part of specific holidays, all religions share a common basis for fasting, said Signe Cohen, assistant professor of Asian religions at MU. “Fasting serves a dual purpose: It induces a state of mind, a different state of consciousness, where people can get close to the divine,” she said. “And it serves to give us compassion by reminding us of those who are hungry all the time.”
Although the concept of fasting has been around for thousands of years, the ritual has become more popular recently as a spiritual tool. Scholars have given several theories for why fasting has found increasing support in modern American society.
Veronika Grimm, a lecturer at Yale University and author of “From Feasting to Fasting, the Evolution of a Sin,” notes that Christian fasting did not become popular or common until the Middle Ages, a time when food was plentiful and people were often able to overindulge. She said the increasing popularity of fasting may be a response to America’s abundant fast-food culture.
“We are a very wealthy country, where people have actually little worries about living day-to-day,” Grimm said. “Yet we somehow still feel unhappy. So we ask ourselves how to modify ourselves, and fasting is one answer. It is one thing you can do to yourself and feel that you are really expiating your sins.”
Other scholars point to the growing popularity of ancient traditional practices in American life, such as yoga, Gregorian chants or the use of labyrinths or incense.
Author and lecturer Gregg Easterbrook in “Fasting Chic?”, a piece published on beliefnet.com, noted that fasting is now prevalent among evangelical Christians, who were “not previously a fast-conscious group,” as a tool to promote social, political or religious causes. The late evangelical leader Bill Bright is credited with re-popularizing this ritual, calling it “the most powerful spiritual disciplines of all the Christian disciplines.”
Even among American Jews — where much concern has been focused on declining religiosity rates — fasting on Yom Kippur has increased slightly in popularity in the last 10 years, according to a report by Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College. In 2000, about 59 percent of American Jews fasted on Yom Kippur, up about 10 percentage points from 1990.
Cohen said the increase is partly because of the increasing polarization of American Jews between those who are not observant and those who increasingly use religious rituals as a way to stay connected to Judaism.
“America has made Judaism more of a religious thing than a cultural thing,” Cohen said.
Engaged Jews, he said, now “express their commitment through ritual such as fasting on Yom Kippur” because the view of Judaism as a secular affiliation that did not entail religious practice has disappeared over the years.
Kerry Hollander, executive director of Columbia’s Hillel Foundation, said that fasting on Yom Kippur is very important to her as an expression of faith. “When you fast, your body is purged of everything, and you’re ready to start again with life when you begin eating again,” she said. “Sustenance is the purpose of food, and using food in a spiritual context can give us spiritual sustenance.”
Hollander, who attended the interfaith break-the-fast event at Gwynn Hall on Sept. 22, said it’s interesting to think of fasting as a wider phenomenon among all people, instead of just a ritual for Jews.
“Every fast may be different in nature, but it’s all a matter of self-awareness,” she said. “You empty yourself of everything but thoughts of God. And maybe a few hunger pangs.”
As the event wound to an end, Jewish and Muslim participants — as well as a few non-Jewish and non-Muslim people who had come to take advantage of the free food and conversation — had full bellies along with a better understanding of their religious counterparts. The little food that was left over was donated to help feed people who fasted out of necessity instead of by choice.
Because Islamic and Jewish calendars are different, it will be about 30 years before Ramadan and Yom Kippur fall at the same time again. Nonetheless, said Stefani Engelstein, a member of Boone Tikkun and one of the organizers of the event, the Jewish and Muslim groups hope to be able to hold similar events in the future.
“It’s really too bad that we won’t have a fast at the same time anymore,” Engelstein said. “It’s been such a good event, but we’ll work something out to replace it. We have really been successful in building a strong network of people interested in these interfaith events.”