Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hammerman on Ethics: Is Drunkenness on Purim a No-No?

Is Drunkenness on Purim a No-No?

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Q - In an age where addiction is so widespread, is it ethical to promote drunkenness on Purim?

A. No it is not.

I am no teetotaler, but when children and young adults are being bombarded with commercials glorifying alcohol consumption, it is irresponsible for religious and moral leaders to hitch a ride on that wagon. Regrettably, I've heard of some rabbis on college campuses who promote underage drinking. Those rabbis should be arrested and barred from contact with young people forever.
If you don't agree with me, ask the parents of Avi Schaefer, a Brown freshman with a promising future as a promoter of coexistence on campus, who was killed by a drunk driver last year.

Making merry is one thing, but binge drinking seems to be de rigueur at this time of year, what with the confluence of Purim, St Paddy's Day, Mardi Gras and Spring Break. We're all thrilled to at last be freed of winter's icy shackles, but that doesn't call for a cold tall one - take a walk instead!

You can blame the sage Rava for Purim excesses. In the Talmud, (Megilla 7b) he is quoted as stating that a person must get drunk on Purim so as not to be able to distinguish between "Cursed be Haman and Blessed be Mordechai."

This flies against a strong opposition to drunkenness found throughout Jewish history, from the stories of Noah, Lot and Nadav and Avihu, Aarons' sons killed in a flash fire after they entered the sacred precinct supposedly inebriated. Plus, at a time when teen drinking has reached epidemic proportions (fully a quarter of high school seniors report recent binge drinking) and someone is killed by a drunk driver, on average, every 40 minutes, we face challenges that Rava could never have imagined.

In a responsum on the matter, Rabbi David Golinkin goes to great lengths to demonstrate how later sages and commentators tried to water down that Tamudic comment to the point where it is impossible to distinguish Rava from the Church Lady. Maimonides assumes that we should drink just enough to gently fall asleep. Others like Rabbi Menachem Hameiri who, being from Provence, undoubtedly knew his wine, stated, "We are NOT commanded to get drunk…for we were not commanded to engage in debauchery and foolishness, but to have heartfelt joy which will lead to the love of God and to gratitude for the miracle that was performed for us."

There are lots of ways to explore the blurry boundaries between good and evil and Purim is a good time to do that. The cantor in my congregation has the last name Mordecai and he is playing Haman in our Purim play. The resulting confusion will enable us to fulfill Rava's dictum without imbibing a single drop.

The Meiri brings up a good point for us to ponder. Do we need to be smashed in order to have a good time? Has our idea of the good life become one long beer commercial?

So raise a glass - or two - on Purim, if you are over 21, that is. But no more. Then, with clear heads, we can teach our kids the wholesome lessons of Purim - how to take revenge on our enemies and eat pastries (along with charity, of course).

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