Progressively Speaking: Should Jews give up something up for Lent?

Progressively Speaking: Should Jews give up something up for Lent?

Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers offers a progressive view on a modern issue

Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers
Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers

When I was 14, a school friend asked what I was giving up for Lent. I said I didn’t give things up for Lent because I was Jewish. “What has that to do with it?’ she retorted.

I explained that Lent is a period that honours the experience of Jesus (not part of Judaism) when he was tested in the desert for 40 days and nights.

I was fascinated she didn’t know why she was giving things up – it was just a ritual, perhaps similar to the Christmas tree; connected to Easter chocolate, but not the resurrection.

Over the years I’ve heard many conversations about whether Jews should have Christmas trees.  This year, I noticed a new phenomenon: all over my Facebook feed on Shrove Tuesday, Jews, many active in their synagogues, Shomer Shabbat, kashrut-observing Jews, were going nuts for their pancakes.

Christian clergy friends tell me they see no problem with it. The Rev Patrick Morrow (a regular at Limmud), for example, described it as a custom: “minhag, not mitzvah. An Evangelical vicar explained that it was “part of British culture now”.

I don’t really mind when Jews decide to eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. What I do care about is whether we are able to rescue our own rituals from a similar slide into this ‘national habit’, rather than meaningful engagement.

Rather than giving things up for Lent, how can we make Pesach an opportunity for spiritual and personal cleansing, and not just a time of excessive eating, cleaning and spending?

Rather than being showered with gifts at Chanukah (and Christmas), how can it inspire us to make sure we send more light out into the world?

The doing parts of our Judaism are amazing educational tools, but I hope they don’t become empty meals, separated from the change they can bring to our lives and the world around us.


  • Debbie Young-Somers is community educator at Reform Judaism
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