From February 13 to 15, 2017, the Taube Family Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Jerusalem hosted the inter-religious and international workshop, "Fasting and Identity in Jewish and Christian Liturgy." Funded by HUC-JIR and the German Fritz Thyssen-Foundation, the workshop welcomed approximately 25 Jewish and Christian scholars from Europe and Israel, many of whom are liturgists who specialize in religious rituals and customs in Judaism and Christianity, to come together to read texts about fasting.
The workshop culminated in a public evening with 150 guests—students and colleagues from academic and religious institutions in Jerusalem—to listen to a sequence of short lectures on the topic of fasting and identity, including “Memorializing Disaster: The Ninth of Av and Jewish Identity” with Rabbi Ruth Langer, Ph.D., HUC-JIR/Cincinnati '86/94, “Fasting, Identity, and Demarcation: The Case of Early Christian Pascha” with Dr. Harald Buchinger, "Synagogue Music for Fast Days” with Professor Eli Schleifer, and “Fasting on Shabbat as a Spiritual Rest” with Professor Yisrael Yuval.
Workshop organizers Rabbi Dalia Marx, Ph.D., HUC-JIR/Jerusalem '02, Associate Professor of Liturgy and Midrash at HUC-JIR/Jerusalem, and Professor Clemens Leonhard, the University of Munster, Germany, share:
Fasting belongs to a category of religious practices which are sufficiently ambiguous in order to absorb meanings assigned to it by practitioners as well as observers. And at the same time, eating as well as the abstention from food can be staged as (or combined with) public performances that point to identifying and belonging to certain groups. Eating while others fast and fasting while others eat (or analogous practices concerning the consumption of or abstention from certain categories of food and beverages) thus demarcate boundaries and manifest the position of individuals vis-à-vis these boundaries. The workshop was especially devoted to the study of the role of liturgies and rituals in these processes.
People who live in areas with mixed religious or denominational affiliation experience this phenomenon on a daily basis. Fasting may be accompanied and thus highlighted by means of the performance of rituals. Not only in the twenty-first century, but also in other eras of the history of Judaism and Christianity, fasts and liturgies structured religious life and served to provide groups with distinctive profiles. Thus, the Christian celebration of Easter emerged in the second century, when adherents of Jesus marked the very time when Jews celebrated Passover, and did so by the conspicuous abstention from any food. Apparently, early Christians used to start the celebration of their festival in the night, after the Jewish celebration had come to an end. A few decades later, another development led to the abolition of this opposition to Judaism. Christians structured the celebration of Easter as mirror of the New Testament passion narratives. Thus they moved it from the evening of the fourteenth of Nissan to the night between a Saturday and a Sunday, the time in which the Gospels allocate Christ’s resurrection. This move strongly deemphasized the originally anti-Jewish thrust of the festival.
The group also studied the ancient and enigmatic statements of the early second century text of the “Teaching of the Apostles” which commands Christians to fast on other days than the “hypocrites” – a term that does not, apparently, revile Judaism, although the negated practice faintly resembles notions that are also visible in Tannaitic texts. In a similar vein, the group also read texts of the rabbinic sages who collected and interpreted rules governing fast days which shaped important identity markers of Judaism. As witnesses standing the intersection between fasts and rituals, magical texts as well as medieval Jewish calendars were discussed. The workshop members considered the intricate relationship between the pagan and later Christian rejection of the observation of the Sabbath that was conspicuously conceptualized as a day of fasting. The discussions also tapped the repertoire of medieval and early modern Jewish liturgical poetry for fast days. In some very rare cases, these texts betray an awareness of Christianity or reject it in an unequivocal way. We addressed lists of personal and communal fast days due to catastrophes experienced by Jewish communities.
Thus, the range of interest included texts from late antiquity until instances of present day prayer-book reform in Judaism as well as Protestantism. In fact, the most contemporary fast day addressed was a Ta'anit, declared by some American rabbis to protest against the inauguration of the U.S. President Donald Trump. During the workshop, we corresponded with the rabbi who organized this fast.
The workshop profited greatly from the openness, hospitality, and generosity of HUC-JIR/Jerusalem. This institution provides a formidable framework for the scholarly exchange as well as the personal encounter of Jewish and Christian colleagues engaged in the research of Judaism and Christianity. Thus, the members of the group are looking forward to being reconvened in Jerusalem in two years time.