NEW YORK — Even as rioters were arrested in the streets of Washington, a number of rabbis called for a different expression of dissapointment in the inauguration of President Donald Trump: The Jewish tradition of fasting.
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“I've been casting about for an appropriate reaction to the inauguration of a man who is being characterized as an ‘illegitimate’ president," Rabbi Burt Visotzky wrote to rabbinic colleagues this week. "Looking to my own Jewish history and customs in reaction to unfortunate political events I have decided to fast during the day in mourning for the state of our republic."
The practice of fasting has marked days of fear and disaster on the Jewish calendar throughout history. The Biblical Esther, for example, has her uncle Mordechai instruct the Jews of Susa to fast as soon as she learns of Hama’s evil plan to destroy the entire community. The Jewish people have always fasted in times of war.
It is based on that tradition that Visotzky and several other rabbis promoted the idea of fasting on President Trump’s inauguration day. Visotzky, a professor of Midrash at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, had the idea on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he told Haaretz by email.
A pair of rabbis set up a Facebook page and Twitter hash tag about the #Inauguration Fast, and a website. On it, people posted their reasons for fasting Friday.
“I am fasting to mark this moment as a time of national calamity, to stand with communities targeted by the new administration’s threatened policies, and to draw strength from religious practice for the hard work ahead,” wrote Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a San Francisco-area interfaith activist and innovator in the Jewish healing movement.
Ruth Messinger, the former Manhattan borough president who recently retired as president of the American Jewish World Service and now serves as its global ambassador, wrote that she fasted Friday “to call my own and others’ attention to our entry into a new and different and difficult time when we will all be required to be attentive, committed exemplars of moral courage.”
Rabbi Michael Adam Latz of the Minneapolis MN congregation Shir Tikvah was one of the rabbis who set up the Inauguration Fast social media.
Fasting is “purifying to help us prepare to do really important work. It’s a sign of wrongdoing or pain,” he told Haaretz. “It felt like a powerful moral response on a tragic day in American history.”
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, head of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, posted on her personal Facebook page her own reasons for fasting: “I fast because it is a way that people of faith call out to God,” she wrote. “Out of a sense of loneliness and longing for an America I thought I knew.to calm the fear that haunts my rest.” Schonfeld declined to speak with Haaretz, saying she didn’t want to say more about it.
Changes under President Trump began immediately after the inauguration, when pages devoted to LGBT rights, civil rights and climate change disappeared from the WhiteHouse.gov website.
“I didn’t think it could get much worse but it keeps getting worse,” Latz said.
“No where in any bible — Christian, the Torah or Koran — does it say ‘screw the poor, reject the immigrant.’ In Torah it says 36 times that we have to welcome the stranger. It says there should be one law for citizens and immigrants alike,” noted Latz. “This is not partisan. There are normal partisan debates we have in this country. But this is a singular moment in American history in which all decent people, regardless of political views, have to take a stance against his immoral conduct.”
On Saturday, Rabbi Shai Held of Machon Hadar will, along with Rabbi Joanna Samuels, kick off the Upper West Side of the New York City Women’s march with speeches delivered at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun.
“The road ahead of us will be long, and it will undoubtedly be rocky,” Held plans to say. He shared his notes with Haaretz in advance of the event. “Many of us are anxious and fearful. That is okay, and even appropriate. But we must be determined and resolute: We will not be bystanders. We will raise our voices; we will stand up and be counted.”
Some of the rabbis Haaretz spoke with looked beyond the inauguration and women’s marches this weekend.
“Obviously the march isn’t the end of it,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. She spoke with Haaretz from the Washington D.C. synagogue Sixth & I, where she was setting up for Shabbat dinner, religious services and learning the evening before the largest of the Womens Marches.
T’ruah is convening its network of 1,800 rabbis for training to commence in early February. It will include teaching them how to set up sanctuaries in their cities, for the undocumented immigrants and Muslims Trump has promised to go after during his presidency, said Jacobs.
“We want it to be clear that there is a rabbinic moral voice. This is the moment our voices need to be out there against policies attacking vulnerable minorities,” she said. “It’s very clear from the stories of Joseph and Esther, and thousands of years of Jewish history, that Jews have often believed if we ally ourselves with people in power we will be able to protect our communities. But as Joseph learned and Esther almost did, those alliances don’t save us in the long run.”
In recent days Trump has tweeted against everyone from Meryl Streep to Civil Rights legend Sen. John Lewis, noted Latz. “But after 46 JCCs and other Jewish institutions have had bomb threats against them, there has been not a single word from the Trump administration. Not even a tweet.”