What, When, How - Is the Fast that We Propose?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

In response to the Iraq crisis and the danger of war, The Shalom Center has been exploring with leaders of the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities the idea of a Multi-religious Call to a Fast for Peace.

We found strong support and assistance, and in a separate post you can see the Call and the names of its signers.

Perhaps in reverse of "logical" order, we will first suggest some practical steps that might go with the fast — What, When, How — and then explain why we have taken this approach.

WHAT do we mean by a fast? Traditionally, in Muslim practice for the whole month of Ramadan and in Jewish practice for fasts in times of impending calamity, refraining from eating or drinking from dawn to sunset of the day/s named.

But not just "not eating." On the fast day of Yom Kippur itself, Isaiah called out, on behalf of God:

What is the fast I demand of you? —
What is a day to press down your ego?
Is it bending down your head like a bulrush?
Sitting on sack-cloth and ashes?
This is the fast that I have chosen:
Break the handcuffs put on by wicked power;
Undo the yoke of heavy burden;
Let the oppressed go free.
Share your bread with the hungry;
Bring the homeless to your own house.
When you see the naked, clothe them;
Don't hide yourself; they are your flesh and blood!

This passage might well be added to the liturgy for calling a fast in this time of emergency.

And not just the reading. People might actually observe the fast —
They could commit themselves to "fast" from using gasoline perhaps one day a week or one day a month, thus symbolically and practically reducing dependence on the oil that is certainly one of the energies tugging toward war. (Jews who already refrain from driving on Shabbat might add one day.)

They could contribute money to various religiously rooted funds to feed and empower the poor and oppressed overseas — for examople, American Jewish World Service.

In many communities, congregations of Jews, Christians, and Muslims could arrange to meet together and listen deeply to each other in the face of war. At the end of Ramadan, Jews and Christian could bring to local mosques the food for celebrating the festive meal. (Be sure to make arrangements ahead of time, of course.)

Those who are fasting could gather at a Federal building or meet with a Member of Congress to urge that money slated for the war against Iraq be redirected to supplying poverty-stricken Iraqi and American children with desperately needed food and medicines, and to purchasing and destroying left-over Soviet nuclear weapons to keep them out of the hands of terrorists.

They could create a neighborhood teach-in about Iraq, and invite critics as well as supporters of the Bush Administration policies.

They could write the Attorney-General or visit the local Federal courthouse, demanding that those secretly imprisoned after 9/11 be named and allowed to consult a lawyer.

They could seek other ways to strengthen the fabric of grass-roots relations between peoples from around the world, instead of ripping them to shreds.

They could write a letter to their local religious, community, or general newspaper urging one or more of these possibilities.


For Muslims, the fast is in part defined by Ramadan: from dawn to dusk, no food.

For Jews, fasting from dawn to dusk on "Yom Kippur Katan," the little Yom Kippur, the day before the evening of Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) is a traditional practice.

This falls next on November 4, before Rosh Chodesh Kislev, the month of rededication of the Temple and therefore of each community's and person's own most holy places.

After that, the next such Yom Kippur Katan falls on Dec. 4.

And the daylight hours of the 10th of Tevet — Sunday December 15 — are also a traditional fast day because on that day the Babylonian Army first began its siege of Jerusalem. It is, in other words, a day of sadly remembering the beginning of a disastrous war. Most relevant!

There is also a strong Jewish tradition for communities to call a Ta'anit Tzibbur, a communal fast, in the face of calamity — drought, famine, epidemic, war. This can be called for any date a local community or congregation feels appropriate. There is a liturgy, outlined in the Talmud. (We will soon be sending a usable liturgy for Jewish communities.)

For Christians, such a fast can be connected with Advent or with any day that congregations decide.


We suggest this be proposed and discussed by local rabbis, ministers, priests, and imams, and by local congregants.

We suggest that where a ceremonial call to the fast is done, it be connected with one of the "Isaiah" actions mentioned above, and the media be invited so that the Call goes out to the broader public.


We approached this Call for two profound spiritual reasons:

Many religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions teach that all action should be taken only in an atmosphere of openness to God, Truth, Spirit.

— All the more and most especially, plans for violence and war, which inevitably shatter the Image of God in human beings, must never be rushed, and must be thoughtfully examined by the whole public.

The Fast we call for is one that includes reflection, learning, listening, and self-examination.

We believe that in the present atmosphere of growing religious fear and anger between different religious communities, inter-religious and multi-religious action is itself life-giving.

We at The Shalom Center, rooted in Judaism, also have a special concern about the stance of the organized American Jewish community as we face the risks of war.

Practically all the "official mainstream" Jewish organizations have taken one of two basic positions:

either strong support, from some groups, of the Bush Administration's insistence on war to remove Saddam Hussein, regardless of what inspections might show about weaponry in Iraq and despite the opposition of many countries;

or positions so carefully balanced in words that the result in action is inaction — not even action to oppose the unnuanced, imbalanced acts of the Bush Administration.

Yet we know that many many American Jews think the war planned by the present US government poses extreme dangers to Israel, to the Jewish community around the world, to American society, and to the planet itself. Many of us are concerned that enormous INsecurity and great danger may be produced by a war that begins in the name of "security."

To our knowledge, in the Jewish community only Tikkun magazine, "Break the Silence," local groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ, in NYC) and The Shalom Center have been taking the sort of action that would move America toward addressing the dangers of Iraqi weaponry by peaceful means.

We are deeply concerned by this failure of mainstream and official Jewish organizations to firmly oppose the reckless rush to a war that endangers Jews and Jewish values.

We believe that by working together, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, believers and skeptics, can make a great difference to our lives and futures.

Shalom, Arthur

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director
The Shalom Center (www.theshalomcenter.org)