Celebrating Yom Kippur’s Fast With a Harm Reduction Approach

    On the evening of October 8, Jewish people who use drugs, especially those who have an addiction or dependency, are faced with the question of whether to observe a fast that would traditionally require them to abstain from these substances.

    Fasting for Yom Kippur usually requires refraining from bodily pleasures. While drugs that are used in both recreational and disordered ways can induce many forms of intoxication, harm reductionists and Jewish theologians alike argue that Yom Kippur—one of Judaism’s most important holidays, devoted to atoning for wrongs committed in the previous year—is above all about finding personal spiritual meaning while not jeopardizing one’s health.

    Exceptions to fasting are routinely made for people with illnesses, like diabetes. In the case of someone who lives with addiction or a substance use disorder, “you are obligated to preserve your health and not be stringent regarding fasting,” Rabbi Rachel Mivka, a professor of Jewish Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary, told Filter. “Jewish tradition has a broad mandate to prioritize health over ritual observance. Regarding fasting, if there is even a doubt that fasting might injure your health”—like the potentially-fatal symptoms of sudden withdrawal from heavy use of alcohol, opioids or even, occasionally, benzodiazepines—“you are released from the obligation.”

    “Fasting is a spiritual practice, and works only if it’s connecting us to the person we aspire to be in the world. If it has a detrimental effect, it’s not the right practice right now. That’s true for anyone,” added Rabbi Kerry Chaplin, a spiritual counselor at a Jewish addiction treatment center called Beit T’Shuvah.

    The potential shame of not participating in a religious fast could still pose problems for some. A “main” way to reduce potential harms for people caught in this bind could “be to decrease the shame around using on a fast day, so that use can be contained as much as possible, rather than a perpetual reaction to negative feelings about using,” Dr. Devora Reichman, a clinical psychologist who works in the harm reduction field, told Filter.

    Another harm reduction strategy to navigate fasting can be seen in the way some methadone clinics around the world dispense opioid substitution medication at later hours to accommodate daytime fasting. Many of these programs are actually designed for Muslims observing Ramadan, a month-long holiday of daytime fasting. One program in Malindi, Kenya that offers moonlight methadone” scheduling reflects this.

    Given that Yom Kippur is a single-day fast, cognitive and behavioral strategies could help a person who is interested in fasting figure out whether they are able to. These may include “mindfulness skills to help with delaying use throughout the day, realistic goals made beforehand to minimize/abstain from use, [and] an understanding that it will be difficult to abstain if using everyday,” said Dr. Reichman.

    Her suggestions could, in themselves, even support the religious aims of the holiday. “The real objective of Yom Kippur—and the Ten Days of Repentance that lead up to it—is to take honest account of one’s life, and take actions to help to fashion a life of at-one-ment, attunement to the human being God created us to be,” Mivka said. In the case of Reichman’s strategy, a person would turn inwards to manage their own desires and behaviors, and thereby better themselves in a way described by Mivka.

    Beyond just the holiday, Rabbi Chaplin suggests that Judaism “can be an important part” of managing one’s substance use. “Judaism is a religion of taking the next right action⁠— i.e., mitzvot⁠—and the next right action is essential to recovery.”

    The question of use “depends on what you’re trying to get out of your fast and Yom Kippur.”

    This religious process of “reflection,” as James Kawolsky, a Jewish harm reductionist from Philadelphia, described it to Filter, is an important consideration for Jewish people on Yom Kippur regarding the question of whether to use drugs. Kawolsky believes the question of use “depends on what you’re trying to get out of your fast and Yom Kippur.”

    “Some say it’s because that’s what God says to do,” he said. “Others think you should do it because it sets you apart as a Jew. It’s a way of identifying your Judaism openly—continuing my ancestors’ tradition. Others observe it because they find something meaningful in it.”

    From Kawolsky’s perspective, using drugs could obstruct or promote reflection—and that largely depends on “why you use drugs.” Some use them to cope; others turn to them when their prescription medicine is taken away from them; and many use them simply for their pleasurable experiences, among other reasons.

    If a Jewish person primarily uses drugs for pleasure, the holiday could be a time to abstain and take stock of their use. On the other hand, Kawolsky also understands that some might find the effects of psychedelics to enhance the process of self-reflection inherent to the holiday.

    Experts agree that Jewish religious practice and drug use do not have to be at odds. Instead, engaging successfully with either is about better understanding one’s own needs, desires and limits.

    Painting of a synagogue service on the eve of Yom Kippur; by Jakub Weinles via Wikimedia Commons

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