Food Conference Fasting: Asara B’Tevet at the Hazon Food Conference

Editor’s note: The following guest post is by Rabbi Matt Carl. Rabbi Carl serves Congregation Mt Sinai in Brooklyn Heights and teaches and writes independently. His work and projects can be found at www.rabbimoshe.net.

My first Hazon Food Conference was a wonderful experience. Unable to make it due to scheduling for the last three, I was excited to participate this year, especially since my synagogue will be host to Hazon’s Avodah-AJWS CSA in Brooklyn. This year, I believe for the first time, the conference was held over a weekend that included Asara B’Tevet, a “minor fast” day. Yesterday was a strange experience, as the Food Conference ended with a very different relationship to food than it had the first three days.

I came to the conference with my own opinions and practices about the minor fasts. As a spiritual and contemplative practice, I am a big supporter of fasting on these days. As a Zionist and a realist, I question the practice in this era. That being said, I was quite interested to learn about the fasts from the perspectives of those teaching workshops at the conference. As Shabbat was ending, Rabbi Seth Mandel (the OU‘s head of shechita), Rabbi Ahud Sela (of Conservative congregation Temple Sinai in Los Angeles) and Julie Wolk (founding co-director of Wilderness Torah) presented a panel conversation on fasting, moderated by Dorothy Richman. Julie spoke of her experience on a vision quest and Rabbi Sela of his experience doing a “fast for Darfur,” while Rabbi Mandel spoke more generally of the role of fasting in Jewish spiritual life. Yesterday, during the fast, Rabbi Steve Greenberg taught “The Hunger Artist: Fasting as Body Cleansing” with Biblical, Rabbinic and contemporary texts on the experience, meaning and purpose of fasting.

The Hazon staff and volunteers had, of course, prepared for the fast and the challenges that it would present to a pluralistic group of Jews and foodies. There was a pre-dawn breakfast set up for anyone who wanted to eat before the fast began. I have no idea what it consisted of or who ate it because, after the amazing and exhausting Havdala and the dance party and Chai House (both wonderful) that went very late into the evening, I barely made it to Shaharit, let alone a breakfast only two or three hours after I went to bed. (Great as the conference was, it certainly challenged the normal definition of the term ‘vacation.’)

Breakfast and lunch were served as normal yesterday. Some would probably comment that this was inappropriate for a Jewish event. Had they not been served, of course, others would have remarked that it was coercion into particular Jewish practices and was particularly inappropriate for small children, those who may have been ill, etc, not to mention just people who don’t fast on that day. Besides, I imagine there were non-Jewish participants in the conference. The conference center was very good about packing up lunch for those fasters who wanted the meal for the ride home (the fast ends just after sunset–pretty early this time of year,) as lunch was the last scheduled event of the weekend.

I had wondered what a fast day at a Jewish food conference would look like. I’m still not really sure: there were many things going on and I couldn’t be at all of them. But in certain ways, I think it was indicative of the conference as a whole. All kinds of expressions of Judaism were present and active among the participants and this was evident among the fast workshops and practices. Some challenged the fast or fasts in general, some defended the practice and day, with seemingly no final answer or hurt feelings. Many ate, some fasted, some fasted half the day and some probably ate in private.

Regarding the fast, the schedule, programming, information in the program guide, words from the organizers and the overall vibe spoke volumes about an initiative that truly values Jewish pluralism. There seemed to me to be no religious coercion or expectations, while the traditions, practices and values of Judaism were taught, respected and engaged with seriously, maturely and compellingly. In fact, I can confidently say this about the conference as a whole. This year’s Asara B’Tevet could have been similar in kind to the famous one: senseless hatred and Jews sinning against Jews could have brought down an institution created to bring us all together, express our religion and sustainability goals, and slaughter animals. Instead, from my perspective, at least, it built us up and showed us what we should be capable of all year around and everywhere we go. While I wish there had been more talk about the role of a fast day davka at a food conference, I was pleased overall with the experience.

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik