Some Torah For Purim, Though Not Purim Torah!

My posting last week about messianism within the Habad community elicited a fairly wide response from different readers, Jewish and non-Jewish.  I want to clarify that I was not disparaging all of the Habad/Lubavitch community.  As I wrote, I am deeply impressed by the successful outreach efforts that make Habad a true leader in the worldwide Jewish community.  This is certainly the case in my own community in upstate New York, where I enjoy a fine relationship with my fellow Jews from Habad. However, I stand firmly by my contention that the messianist strain within Habad, like all forms of religious extremism, must be repudiated, for Habad’s sake as well as for the sake of the health of the Jewish people.

On to Purim! The book of Esther makes clear that the historical purpose for all our partying on Purim is to express joy and gratitude for having been saved from Haman’s genocidal designs, not simply to party. Esther also makes clear that drinking  alcohol –likely a lot  of it-  was an integral part of life in the royal court as well as an important part of the Persian Jews’ celebrations.  Though alcohol may have fit well into a very sensual Persian culture, the rabbis of the Talmud were ambivalent about our consuming it to excess, whether on Purim or any other time.  They wanted alcohol, like everything else, to be consumed with a sense of discipline as part of sacred rituals, even as they enjoyed wine and strong drink.  A passage on this topic in the Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 7b) is telling.  The sage Rabbah taught that a person is obligated to get so drunk during Purim that he cannot tell the difference between the statements, “Cursed be Haman!” and “Blessed be Mordechai!”  The Talmud then tells us that two sages once got together  to feast on Purim, and they got so drunk that one sage killed the other.  The next day, out of great remorse, he prayed to God who restored his friend to life.  The next year, the same sage said to his friend, “Let’s hold the Purim meal together this year!”  His friend remarked, “You know, miracles don’t just happen all the time.”    Many commentators simply record the Talmud’s ruling that we drink to excess on Purim.  Interestingly, Rabbi Menahem Meiri (Spain 1249-1310) remarks in his monumental Talmud digest, Beit Hebechirah, that we are not obligated to get extremely drunk on Purim. In fact this is behavior that would diminish us through frivolous rejoicing rather than celebration that brings us closer to God, and thus it is not done. Meiri cites early post-Talmudic sources who read the Talmud’s charge to us to drink excessively on Purim in the context that I quoted to you before.  The story of the two sages and their drunken murder proves that the Talmud is not telling us to become dangerously drunk, but to drink enough that we may not know for sure the difference between Mordechai and Haman:  in other words, drink for pleasure not for intoxication.

Another fascinating reinterpretation of the Talmud’s statement concerning Purim inebriation is that of Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky, (Israel, 1911-2000) the Rebbe of the Slonimer Hasidic community, whose volume of teachings about Purim was published separately from his monumental Torah and holiday commentaries.  Noting that drunkenness is incompatible with the holiness of Purim as a religious holiday, he explained that the Talmud’s statement in Aramaic can be read literally:  “A person is obligated to get drunk- on– Purim”, similar to when we say that a person is high on life.  The extraordinary nature of the holiday should make us so “drunk” with spiritual uplift that all conflicts within ourselves, between us and God, and between us and other people – all of them symbolized by Mordechai’s blessing versus Haman’s curse- are wiped out.  Admittedly, Rabbi Berezovsky is stretching the meaning of the Talmud’s words, but his point is well taken.  Purim itself should make us go wild because it celebrates the catharsis and vindication we feel when people like Haman are thwarted.  It can overturn our alienation from ourselves and the world, and release us temporarily from the pain of living without redemption from evil:  all without giving us a hangover or making us sick.

Though I cannot speak about other Jewish communities, the American Jewish community continues to gradually reject the myth that Jews don’t have alcohol and substance abuse problems.  That is why I am always disturbed when religious rituals and celebrations such as Shabbat morning Kiddush clubs, Purim celebrations, and Jewish college campus events are used as covers for people who struggle with alcoholism.  Judaism does not deny us the pleasure of enjoying alcohol, which is obvious from the fact that in Jewish law wine is considered to be a davar chashuv, something important and substantive with which we as a community sanctify time and the lifecycle.  Yet Judaism also demands that we not hurt our bodies and that we not place stumbling blocks before the blind:  if we know that members of the community are dealing with alcohol disease, lending the thin patina of religious legitimacy and obligation to excessive drinking is not only irresponsible, it is dangerously unethical.

My hope for all of us is that we can follow the good counsel of sages such as Rabbi Meiri and Rabbi Berezovsky:  let’s get “drunk” on the spirit of Purim and other times of celebration without pushing the excessive use of spirits.  Blessed be Mordechai and cursed be Haman!  Shabbat shalom and chag Purim sameach.  Happy Purim.


About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in 2019.
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