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Ford, Kavanaugh, and Noah – the other elephant in the room

Spend a weekend on campus, and see our young men, young women, and often large quantities of alcohol mixing in toxic ways
Illustrative. Adolescent drinking beer. (iStock)
Illustrative. Adolescent drinking beer. (iStock)

One of, if not the, most contentious Supreme Court confirmations ended with the swearing in of Justice Brett Kavanaugh as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Despite accusations of sexual assault by Prof. Christine Blasey Ford and others, the US Senate voted to confirm. Ford accused Kavanaugh of attacking her at a party in 1982 when Kavanaugh was a 17-year-old high school senior and Ford was a 15-year-old sophomore. The debates seemed to focus on questions, such as should one believe the accuser who claims she is a survivor of sexual assault or err on the side of “innocent until proven guilty” even in a confirmation hearing. Those interested have probably read all there is to read and can make up their minds. There is one element about which both Ford and Kavanaugh agree that seems to have received scant if any attention: the role of alcohol in our lives and the lives of teenagers and young adults.

Prof. Blasey Ford stated that she was reluctant to come forward during high school because, “I did not want to tell my parents that I, at age 15, was in a house without any parents present, drinking beer with boys.” Justice Kavanaugh, similarly admitted the role of alcohol in his life, “Sometimes I had too many beers. I liked beer. I still like beer. But I never drank beer to the point of blacking out, and I never sexually assaulted anyone.” [The various quotes from the hearing can be found in the Washington Post here: Memorable quotes from the Kavanaugh hearing]

Without entering the contentious issues of whether or not the Senate should have confirmed, among the many issues we as a society need confront in wake of the debate, consumption of alcohol looms large.

In a study on the impact of alcohol and sexual assault, the authors’ state:

Conservative estimates of sexual assault prevalence suggest that 25 percent of American women have experienced sexual assault, including rape. Approximately one-half of those cases involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, victim, or both. Alcohol contributes to sexual assault through multiple pathways, often exacerbating existing risk factors. Beliefs about alcohol’s effects on sexual and aggressive behavior, stereotypes about drinking women, and alcohol’s effects on cognitive and motor skills contribute to alcohol-involved sexual assault.

Beyond the enormous and well-documented evidence of health risks in unbridled alcohol consuming, the risk of sexual assault stands out as an immediate danger. This danger is both to the victim and the perpetrator. As a study on college students declares, “sexual assault is extremely common among college students. At least half of these sexual assaults involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, the victim or both.” Studies don’t imply that it only happens when alcohol is involved; rather that alcohol consumption makes it more likely to occur for both victim and perpetrator.

Eons before these studies came to light, the Torah informs us of this very danger:

Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah woke up from his wine and learned what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; The lowest of slaves Shall he be to his brothers.” (Genesis 9:20-25)

Why was Ham’s seeing his “father’s nakedness” met with such anger by Noah? The Hebrew term “erva” contains within it critical import. The rabbis of the Talmud explain the term as used here in two ways, “some of our rabbis say he “castrated [Noah]” and others say he “raped” him.” (Rashi’s commentary ad loc). Noah’s first major endeavor after leaving the Ark was to develop the mechanism to produce wine. Overindulgence in the intoxicating fruits of his labor ended in his losing control and seemingly being assaulted by his son.

This episode inspired the Jewish sages to further discuss the dangers of intoxication in a well-known passage from the classic Midrash Tanchuma:

Our teachers of blessed memory stated: While Noah was planting the vineyard, Satan appeared before him and asked: “What are you planting?” He answered: “A vineyard.” “What is it?” inquired Satan. “Its fruits are sweet, whether moist or dry,” he answered, “and from them one produces a wine that causes the heart of man to rejoice, as it is written: And wine doth make glad the heart of man (Ps. 104:15).” Satan suggested: “Come, let us be partners in this vineyard.” And Noah replied: “Certainly.”

What did Satan do? First, he obtained a lamb and slaughtered it beneath the vineyard. Then, he took a lion and slaughtered it there, and after that he obtained a pig and an ape and slaughtered them in the same place. Their blood seeped into the earth, watering the vineyard. He did this to demonstrate to Noah that before drinking wine man is as innocent as a sheep: Like a sheep that before her shearers is dumb (Isa. 53:7). But after he drinks a moderate amount of wine he believes himself to be as strong as a lion, boasting that no one in all the world is his equal. When he drinks more than he should, he behaves like a pig, wallowing about in urine and performing other base acts. After he becomes completely intoxicated, he behaves like an ape, dancing about, laughing hysterically, prattling foolishly, and is completely unaware of what he is doing. All this happened to the righteous Noah. If the righteous Noah, whom the Holy One, blessed be He, praised, could behave in such a fashion, how much more so could any other man! (Midrash Tanchuma, Noah 13)

So the rabbis taught us we see happening before our eyes. But have we taken any of this to heart?

I am not interested in jumping into the partisan politics of the American government. That is a subject which also requires healing. However, this can and should be a teaching moment for several issues and the use of alcohol in our community and society should be one of them.

I served as a rabbi on a college campus and perhaps didn’t speak of this enough. It is clear that such an issue exists and on a few occasions, I was privately consulted in rape cases. Yet we see the acceptance of this consumption in many places.

I now teach in a yeshiva in Israel where students learn during the year between high school and college. In other words, the time in their lives which matches the time period the Senate just scrutinized: the time of the accusations.  Binge drinking is not uncommon. The yeshivot and seminaries work hard at preventing the students from partaking but it is a Sisyphean endeavor. It requires education, a buy-in from the community, and support from parents. From personal experience teaching at several institutions, I can say that the support is not always there. Furthermore, alcohol too often receives praise. This praise of alcohol at kiddushes, Simchat Torah celebrations, and in the media has an impact. A recent video questioning the dangerous message some in our community are sending highlights the problem. Some felt that the video presents an extreme vision of what is happening — and maybe it does. However, perhaps the communal discussion requires a bit of shaking up at this point.

At present, the yeshivot and seminaries in general and with varying degrees of support prohibit students from entering bars or becoming intoxicated. Seminaries often have stricter zero-tolerance policies than some of the yeshivot. That reality only serves to emphasize the already common gender bias which exists in other areas. Furthermore, there are few healthy, alcohol-free places for co-ed mingling. yeshivas and seminaries often dissuade mixed events or opportunities for young men and women to meet. Hence the primary meeting places are ones where alcohol is readily available: bars, the streets, or unsupervised family apartments – the exact environment described by Blasey Ford. If we want to educate towards a healthy lifestyle, then its time the yeshivas and seminaries create healthy situations for their students to meet. We can pretend all we want that during the year students should focus on Torah and not be in contact with each other lest it lead to indiscretion and violations of Jewish law; however, unless students have healthy places to go, despite our best efforts, they will undoubtedly sneak away to find each other in dangerous and unhealthy places that they don’t want to tell us about. We need to create safe environments and we also need to address these issues in ways that will be effective.

For several years, I spoke at one of the seminaries about the dangers of alcohol consumption in general and also the increased risk of sexual assault.  At some point, it was pointed out to me that the same discussion needs to be happening with the yeshivas. Since then, over the past several years, I have addressed these dangers in my yeshiva. To be honest, I am not sure how impactful these discussions are. However, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t happen. We need more and constant education on these subjects.

Lest some get confused, I want to point out that in my experience, what is happening on college campuses is far worse. Despite the claim that some campuses are “dry” in reality, one need only spend a weekend, which I often do, on a campus to see that young men and women and alcohol, often large quantities of alcohol, are mixing in toxic ways. In the yeshivas and seminaries in Israel, the students must eventually return to a supervised institution and often curfews and public transportation limit the ability to drink all night to complete abandon. Colleges offer a type of environment where overindulgence leads to few consequences unless something terrible happens such as assault or injury. Obviously, adults living on their own also have such freedoms; however, it seems to me that college environments offer a false sense of security and little responsibility.

Of course, let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that this remains an indiscretion of youth. Recently a discussion in a Jewish paper was criticized for asking people to respond to “what are you drinking this Simchas Torah. “ Rampant alcohol consumption in the Jewish religious community is a problem. The rabbis of the Talmud understood well the message of the Torah in this area. Do we?

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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