Is Drunkenness on Purim a No-No?
03/17/11
Special to the Jewish Week
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Q - In an age where addiction is so widespread, is it ethical to promote drunkenness on Purim?

A. No it is not.

I am no teetotaler, but when children and young adults are being bombarded with commercials glorifying alcohol consumption, it is irresponsible for religious and moral leaders to hitch a ride on that wagon. Regrettably, I've heard of some rabbis on college campuses who promote underage drinking. Those rabbis should be arrested and barred from contact with young people forever.

If you don't agree with me, ask the parents of Avi Schaefer, a Brown freshman with a promising future as a promoter of coexistence on campus, who was killed by a drunk driver last year.

Making merry is one thing, but binge drinking seems to be de rigueur at this time of year, what with the confluence of Purim, St Paddy's Day, Mardi Gras and Spring Break. We're all thrilled to at last be freed of winter's icy shackles, but that doesn't call for a cold tall one - take a walk instead!

You can blame the sage Rava for Purim excesses. In the Talmud, (Megilla 7b) he is quoted as stating that a person must get drunk on Purim so as not to be able to distinguish between "Cursed be Haman and Blessed be Mordechai."

This flies against a strong opposition to drunkenness found throughout Jewish history, from the stories of Noah, Lot and Nadav and Avihu, Aarons' sons killed in a flash fire after they entered the sacred precinct supposedly inebriated. Plus, at a time when teen drinking has reached epidemic proportions (fully a quarter of high school seniors report recent binge drinking) and someone is killed by a drunk driver, on average, every 40 minutes, we face challenges that Rava could never have imagined.

In a responsum on the matter, Rabbi David Golinkin goes to great lengths to demonstrate how later sages and commentators tried to water down that Tamudic comment to the point where it is impossible to distinguish Rava from the Church Lady. Maimonides assumes that we should drink just enough to gently fall asleep. Others like Rabbi Menachem Hameiri who, being from Provence, undoubtedly knew his wine, stated, "We are NOT commanded to get drunk…for we were not commanded to engage in debauchery and foolishness, but to have heartfelt joy which will lead to the love of God and to gratitude for the miracle that was performed for us."

There are lots of ways to explore the blurry boundaries between good and evil and Purim is a good time to do that. The cantor in my congregation has the last name Mordecai and he is playing Haman in our Purim play. The resulting confusion will enable us to fulfill Rava's dictum without imbibing a single drop.

The Meiri brings up a good point for us to ponder. Do we need to be smashed in order to have a good time? Has our idea of the good life become one long beer commercial?

So raise a glass - or two - on Purim, if you are over 21, that is. But no more. Then, with clear heads, we can teach our kids the wholesome lessons of Purim - how to take revenge on our enemies and eat pastries (along with charity, of course).

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read more Hammerman on Ethics here.  Read his blog here

 

 

 

Last Update:

03/24/2011 - 08:52

Comments

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman constantly misses the mark -- both in terms of his knowledge of Jewish sources and his polemics.

Avi Schaefer's death was an absolute tragedy. But it had nothing to do with underage drinking or rabbis on campus promoting such. Avi was allegedly struck by a local 23 year old not an underage college student. Shame on you for trying to exploit this tragedy for your own polemical purposes. In addition, the issue is drunk driving, not drinking in general. And certainly not on Purim.

Quite out of his generally puritan character, Maimonides says "How should one conduct the [Purim] festive meal? He should... drink wine until he becomes drunk and fall asleep out of his drunkenness." Doesn't sound too gentle to me. This position is supported by the likes of Maharal, Rabbi Tzadok of Lublin, and a host of others. In fact, Rava's statement, verbatim, is codified by Rabbi Joseph Karo in the Shulchan Aruch (while modified by Rabbi Moses Isserles to the more moderate position).

The question of the amount of drunkenness required on Purim has certainly been a point of contention. If one honestly examines the sources historically, one finds the debate raged from the Talmud period until today. The dichotomy suggested simply does not match the reality. The key is highlighted by Rabbi Isserles -- that whatever you do, should be for the sake of Heaven.

There is no reason not to advocate for moderation, but please be true to the sources.

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