By NOAM ZION
The Continental Congress issued a proclamation recommending "a day of publick humiliation, fasting, and prayer" be observed on July 20, 1775, and promulgated by George Washington:
The Honorable the Congress having recommended it to the United States to set apart Thursday the 6th of May next to be observed as a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer, to acknowledge the gracious interpositions of Providence; to deprecate [to pray or entreat that a present evil may be removed] deserved punishment for our Sins and Ingratitude, to unitedly implore the Protection of Heaven; Success to our Arms and the Arms of our Ally: The Commander in Chief enjoins a religious observance of said day and directs the Chaplains to prepare discourses proper for the occasion; strictly forbidding all recreations and unnecessary labor.
The Founding Fathers were true to their reading of the Bible utilizing religious fasts for this-worldly repentance and repair of society. So too Maimonides conceived ritual fast days as opportunities not only for communal spiritual revival but for judicial commissions of inquiry about corruption and the immediate elimination of the rule of wicked men of violence. The trigger for such a communitywide fast is the threat of oncoming disaster, such as drought or war. However, these are viewed not as inevitable natural disasters but as threatened punishments for the normative failures of Jewish communal life. The shofar is blown and repentance is called for, because:
If we do not cry out and blow the shofar of warning, people might say: What is happening is just the way of the world and this occurrence is only an accident. But that is a cruel way to respond and it causes us to hold fast to evil behaviors and it will lead to more and more calamities. (Laws of Fasts 1:3)
It is this denial of determinism, so characteristic of Maimonides that activates social soul-searching and reform. But beyond a sermon about our responsibility and our power to fix the world in an emergency, Maimonides also institutionalizes judicial initiatives.
On the day of the fast declared [by the leaders] on the community faced by troubles the court and the elders sit in session at the synagogue [literally, the house of communal gathering] to examine the behavior of the residents of the city. They remove obstacles that cause violations and they admonish, investigate and examine the corrupt criminals (baalei hamas) who are to be removed [from power] and they subjugate and shame the violent criminals (baalei zeroa) and so on.
From the middle of the day until the evening they read about the blessings and curses in the Torah [Deut. 27-28 which describes the horrific punishment of exile if Israel violates its covenant with God] …and they conclude with reading form the prophets appropriate for the impending calamity, and the last quarter of the day they pray, plead, they cry out and they confess their sins with all their might. (Laws of Fasts 1:17)
Maimonides’ model is drawn from the Talmudic practice of fasting in response to droughts and impending wars but its origins are Biblical. The Book of Jonah is perhaps the best example of national self-examination in response to a prophecy of impending destruction understood as a Divine punishment. The King of Nineveh himself calls for the fast to plead for mercy but only after his people purified themselves of their ill-gotten goods, of hamas (theft and robbery) (Jonah 3:5-10).
To understand how that model of fasting as national protest may function in a modern context, consider how the American Protestants were inspired by the Bible to proclaim national days of prayer to mobilize 1
the rank and file to repentance. These fasts were especially prevalent in wartime in the 18th-19th C. In their greatest national crisis, Abraham Lincoln, who viewed the suffering of the Civil War as a Divine punishment for the complicity of the North in the slavery of the South, agreed readily to the Congressional request for a day of prayer, fasting and humiliation on March 30, 1863.
Public introspection and protest have a role to play, but so do national commissions such as some parade examples from the State of Israel that have teeth to change policy and to remove wrongdoers. For example, in 1982 after the massacre of Palestinian civilians in Sabra and Shatilla neighborhoods by Christian Lebanese militias under the negligent eye of the Israeli occupation of Beirut, about 400,000 Israeli citizens protested, the government appointed the Kahan Commission headed by a Judge Kahan, and the commission recommended that the Defense Minister Ariel Sharon be held indirectly responsible and therefore excluded from further cabinet roles in overseeing the military.
Thirty years later in 2011, about 450,000 Israelis protested the lack of social justice in government budgeting that gave tax breaks and monopolies to the rich and made it impossible for the middle classes and working poor to make ends meet. The government appointed the Trachtenberg Commission and its recommendations were immediately approved by the very government against which the 450,000 had been protesting. While this emergency response to popular outrage does not solve systemic problems, it does show the workings of Maimonides’ conception of a mass fast day together with a judicial commission. 2
Maimonides has then a "secular" tikkun olam alongside his "religious" vision of the messianic regime of God as King of kings of kings whom all recognize. Both correspond to the goal of tikkun hanefesh and tikkun haguf, repairing or maintaining the soul/mind and the body, just as every human being has two forms of excellence – the perfection of the body on the way to perfection of the soul/mind (Guide to the Perplexed III 27). So alongside the spiritual health of the individual and the state, there is the health of the body and body politic as necessary preparations for spiritual perfection. The olam – the world – needs repair through political action.
1. National Days of Prayer were declared by Democratic President Truman and thereafter by Republican Presidents Reagan and both Presidents Bush. The first globally publicized "link of prayer" for peace from Jerusalem was in June, 1993 organized by Dan Mazar and the Jerusalem Christian Review, a Jerusalem-based archaeological journal.
2. In the 2010 drought in Israel the Chief Rabbinate called on synagogues to insert special prayers for rain, when the Holy Ark is opened to take out the Torah. And, the Rabbinate has declared Thursdays a day of fasting, prayer and repentance, asking God for rain.