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.