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Purim 2010

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One of the most well known quotes from the Talmud goes, “Rava said: It is a man’s duty to get so drunk on Purim that he cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai'” (Gemara Megilah 7b). The text goes on to give an example of how too much wine can lead to murder, and as a result the overwhelming majority of rabbinic authorities, while agreeing one should loosen up a little to celebrate Purim, are strongly opposed to getting drunk.

This week one of the major figures in American Orthodoxy, HaRav Shmuel Kamenetzky, who heads the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, called excessive drinking on Purim an “aveirah” — a sin. “Chas v’shalom that our Torah would consider getting drunk to be a mitzvah!”

Still, too many people nowadays who ought to know better, ignore what their rabbis and rebbes tell them! Hoards of drunken religious neophytes staggering down main roads of Jewish ghettos around the world on Purim, accosting passersby with foul breath and vodka bottles, throwing up in alleyways and buses, is hardly the finest side of Judaism.

This whole issue is emblematic of the varieties of Judaism even within the confines of Orthodoxy. On the one hand you have those serious, rather killjoy sort , usually associated with Musar and the Lithuanian wing of Orthodoxy, who argue for sobriety and self-discipline. They will tell you that there is indeed an ancient obligation to drink wine, as there is to celebrate Shabbat and festivals, and on Purim one should indeed go further than normal to celebrate the great occasion. They will point out that the word used by Rava in the Gemara is “besumeh”, which also means “perfumed” or “exhilarated”, and may refer either to the wine or the person–but anyway is not the common word used in literature for a drunk, which is “shikor”. It probably means “pleasantly merry”.

The Purim story is indeed about a drunken king who makes disastrous decisions he regrets when he sobers up. This illustrates the difference between religiously ordained “controlled” drinking, and pagan unbridled excess. In Lithuanian pilpul, not knowing the difference between “curse Mordechai and bless Haman” is turned into a game of numerology, or theologically and it is taken to explain why only the Divine spirit differentiates between evil and good. Without it we are all capable of the worst standards of behavior. But even the Litvaks allow yeshiva students to make fun of religious authority with skits and satire (rhymes, called “gramen”) on Purim day, to emphasize the contrary and revolutionary nature of the festival.

On the other hand there are the Chasidim who frankly don’t need an excuse to get drunk at any time of the year. Their approach to life is that our inhibitions are the reason most of us are unable to reach or communicate with God and therefore alcohol performs an important role in removing inhibition and opening up the channels to God. Of course I agree that we are inhibited in spiritual matters and that is why I favor mysticism; but if God can only be reached through an alcohol-induced miasma, then I doubt very much if they and I are talking about the same god.

I recall, as headmaster, asking the Lubavitcher Rebbe for teachers because I valued the warmth, hospitality, and selflessness of Chabad graduates. He obliged. But the day after their first Shabbat at the school I was inundated by protesting parents who thought that giving 12-year-olds shots of vodka in the name of religion was going too far.

Of course nothing I say now will part a Chasid from his vodka, or indeed me from my malt. And nothing I say is going to stop the drunken masses of all wings of Judaism giving religion a bad name on Purim or any other time. Any more than I can control the hundreds of high school kids who take a gap year off in Israel and use yeshiva as an excuse to indulge in orgies of drink, drugs, and sex.

We Jews have never been prohibitionists. On the contrary, it has always been a matter of pride that we have avoided a culture of drunkenness. Poor suffering Eastern European Jewish peasants didn’t have much other source of relief in eras gone by, so no one wanted to deprive them of a drink. And it was always argued that Jewish drunks rarely resorted to the violence usually associated with inebriation. Still given the almost universal excesses of our times, we who proclaim religious values, need to be educating our children, by example to exercise control. And even if I agree we should relax it on Purim, relaxation does not mean excess.

There is a positive side to this. Too often religion is seen as a killjoy. And Judaism is a disciplined religion with lots of demands. Still it is nice to know that on occasion we are commanded to have fun and let our hair down. We should drink and be merry. But not drunk.

12 thoughts on “Purim 2010

  1. I am tea total. There are probably other people, too. Even those who like alcohol never drunk a lot in those Shuls I went to no matter what day it was.

    S.J.O.

  2. Several years ago, a week before Purim while waiting for a number 253 bus outside Manor House tube station, a young Lubavitch bloke asked if I had any hashish to sell. When I expressed surprise he said it was quite alright, it being nearly Purim.

    So now I'm asking, aside from the law of the land being opposed to recreational drug use, was he right?

    [the spell checker wants to change Lubavitch to lubricant or lubricate; shome mishtake?]

  3. 🙂

    I write this under the influence of half a bottle of Italian white

    Having only a week or to ago emerged unscathed from the local Rhenish Carnival, and having just moments ago dragged our dog Hazel in from the garden where she has been enthusiastically welcoming Purim – a full moon – and barking to her delight at fireworks on the horizon which evidence that this little town in Germany is thankfully no longer "Judenrein" I'm wondering if there may be a link between the traditions of dressing up in silly clothes & being noisy? The carnival is usually explained away as an X-tian tradition – resting on Roman origins – but without reference to Purim which is older & falls about the same time of the "natural" year

    Graham

  4. Despite what you said about yeshiva students making fun of their rabbanim on purim, my two boys (both at seriously litvish yeshivot) and their colleagues abstain from this practice too. They do not want to risk hurting people's feelings. What one person might see as hilarious, might be really upsetting to the person who is the subject of the joke.

  5. mikey:

    That's a very interesting point and in one way I admire and approve this respect for the sensitivities of others. But the implication is that the long-standing Litvish tradition must have been wrong or in some ways against Torah. In which case isn't this a symptom of the new trend towards hyper-religion and holier than thou?

    Jeremy

  6. Anonymous:

    Sadly, this has become quite prevalent amongst the very Orthodox, and in many Orthodox communities I know of, the use of weed and other drugs is frighteningly common. In one way, of course, it is merely a reflection of wider society. In another, like smoking, it is indicative of a closed and rigid society where there are few other outlets for self-expression and indeed escape. For someone not inclined to study long hours, and without a culture of recreational activities, smoking (anything) is one of the few releases. Even without the dangers of dependency and the dangers of living in a miasma, it also raises the issue of crutches. I think we have a ticking time bomb here that is as indicative of a moral crisis as is the high use of drugs in society in general. And the defense that it is only for Purim doesn't wash, because reports of such requests are now rrequent throughout the year.

  7. Graham:

    I think noise has a lot to do with scaring away evil spirits. Almost everywhere, from America to Europe to Tibet and Japan, early religions have rituals to keep the evil ones out by making noise that are still in use, and I have no doubt similarly that disguise is also a way of "fooling" the Devil into mistaking you for someone else.
    We, too, have always taken pagan folk customs and adapted them to monotheism (just think of the Ugaritic custom of seething a kid in its mother milk or the Sumerian Seventh Day Human Sacrifice to the god Shappatu). And have you noticed how almost every religion finds a use for redunatant red threads!!!!
    Nothing New Under the Sun!!!! Only new human beings trying the same old tricks!

  8. I have been in a debate with my brother-in-law over the "alcohol on Purim" matter. He arues that, current moral standards and regulations on providin booze to the underaged notwithstanding, "besumei" (sic.) means drunk by anybody's yardstick.

    I say: consider this. A stand-up comedian might be heard to say something like ".. and this bloke was so drunk that I swear he couldn't have told the difference between his grandmother and a sack of potatoes …". Leaving aside whether this works as comedy, the point I am making is that it is intended as a silly sort of chuckle-line. First, even when we've imbibed aplenty, we can tell the difference between humans and potatoes, and hence the intention of the comic is to exaggerate to get his laugh; and secondly, even if you suppose that there might be a few around who could not, how might you scientifically experiment to determine the level of C2H5OH you need in your bloodstream to make this state of confusion possible?

    From which I conclude that it is impossible to take this dictum from the Gemara literally, and it is intended in jest. The best that I am willing to concede for Purim and consumption of wine etc. is that this belongs to the list of things (all of them far more noble) of which Mishnah Peah says "ein lahem shiur": they defy quantitative analysis.

    That brings me to a connected point, which is that the entire text and sub-text of the Megillah are in themselves incapable of supporting the sort of halachic analysis we afford to the Torah. The book is a moralistic work, which uses a narrative, populated by larger-than-life characters, to demonstrate what could have happened to Jews as a result of their estrangement from Jewish values. It does not, fundamentally, serve the purpose of explaining what those forsaken Jewish values are/were (we have other sources for that). I object, for example, to the manner in which Mishloach Manot, a key feature of Purim, has become micro-analysed, so that what was then, and still today can be, a spontaneous gesture of friendship and cordiality, has been turned into a study session of what to include and what does not count in "manot", and when, precisely, one is allowed to be "michloach" in order to be a part of the "mitzvah".

    By the way, with respect to an earlier post, the word most probably is "teetotal" today, although "t-total" would be more accurate. It derives from the fact that John Turner (I believe it was), one of the founders of the temperance movememnt in England in the 19th century, had a stammer, and said t-t-t-total and the term stuck.

  9. Daniel:

    Thank you for that interesting post. I'm certainly on the same page, though I have an open mind as to the historicity (or not) of Esther, but I certainly agree it was intended as a lighthearted narrative. How else to explain the exaggerated emphasis on booze, the terror of wives rebelling against their husbands, and the exaggerated description of the makeup, with the obvious joke about female makeup being like embalming dead bodies (compare Keyn Yimlu Yemei Merukeyhem/Hachanutim in Esther 2:12 with Bereishit 50:3).

    Still, there are important political and PR issues like not touching the spoil.

    And I certainly agree with your comment about the way we have exaggeratedly legalized the life out of so much. But that's the ongoing divergence in Judaism between the Lithuanian, legalistic approach and the Chasidic, laid back, experiential world. The truth is neither is enough without the other.

    And thanks for the source of the T in T Total… Titilating.

    J

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