The Righteous Fast: Nation of Islam, Mormon, Jewish, and Christian Perspectives

AHA Session 10
Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Fairfield Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Amy Bentley, New York University
R. Marie Griffith, Washington University, St. Louis

Session Abstract

This panel explores how people fast by examining four religious groups: 16th Century Christians and 20th Century Nation of Islam Muslims, Mormons, and Jews. Our comparative approach brings to light both continuities and key differences among religious groups as each interprets anew an ancient practice. For each group, fasting represents a personal and communal appeal to God. Adherence to distinctive community fasting norms determines the efficacy of the fast. Each group also believes that how one fasts determines the efficacy of the fast, and each fasts differently from the others. We analyze how each of the four groups has practiced, interpreted, and concluded the fast. This comparative discussion of fasting will interest historians of U.S. Religion, Food and Religion, Judaism, Mormonism, the Nation of Islam, and the Reformation.

A cloud of meanings surrounds the ancient practice of fasting. In the Hebrew Bible, fasting required total abstention from food by a community or an individual. Whole communities fasted in times of imminent danger as a way to avert God’s wrath. Often referred to as public humiliation, fasting was among the ancient Hebrews a way to express contrition and repentance when the threat of war, epidemic disease or other disaster befell the community. People in mourning would also fast. Ken Albala will discuss the 16th Century revival of a more ancient form of fasting, how theologians among Catholic, Protestant and Radical denominations interpreted the practice of public fasting and their anxiety to engage the community in a Biblical fast.

Among those who fast in the 20th century, practitioners often appeal to science to justify a spiritual practice, merging divine and secular authorities. Fasting also represents a blurring of temporal and spiritual concerns because it highlights the spiritual aspects of temporal experience. Fasting is seen to promote health, a temporal concern, but at the same time it facilitates the development of discipline, the control of spirit over body, and the moral strength that comes from obeying God’s laws. Among modern religious groups fasting does not represent utter rejection of the body. Voluntary hunger makes many people acutely aware of their bodies and grateful for their customary access to nourishment. Participants become more aware of what they eat, and how what they eat makes them feel. For those who inhabit modern lands of plenty, fasting increases an awareness of human vulnerability and fosters a sense of reliance on God.

Kate Holbrook shows how fasting represents a confluence of temporal and spiritual among Mormons and Nation of Islam Muslims.  Both communities use scientific evidence to prove the divine source of their fasting laws, and also to show their chosen-ness as God’s people.  Nora Rubel will review Jewish advice on breaking the fast and what fasting has come to mean for American Jews over the past century.  The contemporary Yom Kippur fast often entails renewing commitment to the fasting community instead of renewing commitment to God.  Breaking the fast has also become an important aspect of Yom Kippur and requires increasingly elaborate preparations.

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