I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been pressured to drink in Jewish spaces. “You’re here for morning minyan, we’re just having a lechayim to get ready.” “Good Shabbes, so nice to have you here. Have a drink, we’re all friends here.” “Rabbi, what are you drinking? We’re celebrating.” “We’re in shul, live a little, it’s only a little bit.” “It’s Purim, we’re supposed to get drunk.”
If there were no downsides to drinking alcohol, I would be all in favor of the peer pressure I’ve experienced. I keep wondering though, why is the Jewish community so unwilling to address the challenges we face? Why can’t we accept that more and more Jews are choosing to abstain from alcohol and other addictive substances and processes? Why aren’t we willing to say that alcohol, along with drugs, sex, food, gambling, pornography, eating disorders, and other addictions are harming and taking the lives of too many of our people?
On Purim, there is a beautiful tradition of sending Mishloach Manot to our friends and loved ones. It saddens me to see bottles of alcohol included (excessive amounts of sugary snacks can also be challenging for those who struggle with food addictions and other medical concerns). What is the message we’re sending to our friends and loved ones? That we can drink without consequences? That the dangers don’t apply to us just because we’re Jewish? A new study reveals that binge drinking in yeshiva high schools is higher than the national average. One of the study’s conclusions is that “teens with exposure to adults who have used substances are more likely to use substances themselves.” Our children are watching us. When we act like drinking has no negative effects, they believe us. Can we really be surprised when drinking impacts their lives in negative ways?
I have the honor of directing the Our Jewish Recovery movement. We are dedicated to lifting up the voices of all who are impacted by addiction in the Jewish community. We have a thriving Facebook group, recovery meetings, Torah study from a recovery lens, studies of Jewish recovery literature, an upcoming retreat, and a new website, podcast, training, and more in the works. Almost everyone who comes into the group, when asked what resources they are looking for says the same thing: more discussion of addiction in the Jewish community, and more resources to help those who struggle.
We can start with being honest and admitting that Jews are addicts too. A few years ago, I was the rabbi of a wonderful synagogue in Memphis. It was widely known that there was a problem with drinking and drug use in one of the local Jewish youth groups. Several high schoolers needed significant treatment. A meeting was organized of the local rabbis, and one of them, despite hearing of the challenges, said “I don’t hear about this problem in my community. It must be that we don’t have these issues.”
It’s a very neat solution to the problem of addiction in the Jewish community. If we refuse to acknowledge that it even exists, then we’ve solved the problem and don’t have to talk about it. How convenient for us. The challenge is that when we refuse to admit that addiction isn’t just something that happens to non-Jews, those who desperately need our help feel isolated and disconnected from the tradition which should be giving them the help they deserve.
Why are we so hesitant to admit our struggles?
It’s hard to talk about difficult topics. We’re ashamed of admitting our failures and worried about what everyone else will think when they hear about them. Will they talk about us? Will we be an embarrassment in the eyes of the community? Will they refuse to marry our children if they know we’ve had challenges?
It’s also hard to admit that we need help. I remember thinking “How can it be that I’m an addict? I’m a teacher of Torah. I daven, I study, I immerse myself in tradition. I’m a good person. How can this be? Addicts are those homeless people begging for money. I don’t drink or use drugs, how can I be an addict?” What I came to learn was that addiction has many forms (and not all people who are homeless are addicts, either). While I was never addicted to drugs or alcohol, I became addicted to food from a very early age. Later on, pornography, love addiction, codependency, gaming, skin-picking, and hair-pulling all entered the mix. They were coping mechanisms to distract me from the challenging household I was raised in. Unfortunately, I became addicted to the coping mechanisms. What was helpful in one regard damaged my life in many others. Thankfully I was able to get help. I am one of the lucky few, and my rabbinate is dedicated to helping others find happiness, holiness, and healing, and experience, strength, and hope, one day at a time. I’ll share more about that in future blogs.
Addiction in the Jewish community isn’t new. The Talmud relates that Rabba and Rabbi Zeira prepared a Purim feast with each other, and they became intoxicated to the point that Rabba arose and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, when he became sober and realized what he had done, Rabba asked God for mercy and revived him. The next year, Rabba said to Rabbi Zeira: Let the Master come and let us prepare the Purim feast with each other. He said to him: Miracles do not happen each and every hour, and I do not want to undergo that experience again. (Megillah 7b:8)
I’m not here to tell you that alcohol should never be allowed under any circumstances. It’s not my job to tell you how much alcohol is safe for you and your family. I am saying that the consequences of our actions can leave legacies of pain and suffering, and alienate our loved ones from us, from our tradition, and from the help they need. We can and should be honest about the dangers of alcoholic consumption in the Jewish community. (Not surprisingly, alcohol manufacturers don’t want us to know how alcohol affects our bodies. We must do a better job of educating ourselves.) Too many of our loved ones are no longer here after mistakenly believing that they could handle just one more drink. Even with the increased rates of overdose during the pandemic, deaths from alcohol still outnumber those from drug use. When we talk about addiction, we need to talk not just about drugs. We must include alcohol and other substances and processes too.
Thankfully, recovery is possible. I am grateful for my six years of recovery. Recovery has made me a better person, and a better Jew. When my recovery journey started, I couldn’t have imagined that my rabbinate would be dedicated to the work of recovery. The blessings I receive from recovery are too many to number.
Wearing a mask on Purim can be fun. Imagining ourselves as someone else can give us new insights. Letting go of who we are so that we can become who we are meant to be is wonderful.
I don’t drink, on Purim, or any other time, and you don’t need to either. Plenty of respected rabbis have ruled that there is no requirement to get drunk on Purim. Some have said that we can fulfill the commandment of not knowing how to distinguish between Mordechai and Haman by taking a nap. Some have said we can just be so perfumed with the joy of Purim. I’ve heard others suggest singing and dancing. While I know some will disagree with me, our tradition is clear that we need not put ourselves in danger when there is a risk to our health, not on Purim, not on Shabbat, Passover, Simchat Torah, or any other time of the Jewish year.
Wearing a mask can be especially helpful in fighting a dangerous pandemic. When the masks we wear prevent us from seeing the truth about ourselves, they also stop us from finding the wholeness we seek.
May we all be blessed with a joyous and safe Purim.
To learn more or join The Our Jewish Recovery Facebook group, click here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/OurJewishRecovery
The upcoming Pre-Passover Jewish Recovery retreat can be found here: https://jewishcollaborativeoc.shulcloud.com/event/stepping-into-liberation-retreat.html
Additional information (Trigger warning – Images of alcohol appear in both articles):