On Purim, the Talmud commands us to drink until we "don’t know the difference between ‘Blessed be Mordechai’ and ‘Cursed be Haman.’"
Obviously, the talmudic rabbis never heard of "Just say no."
But the commandment to drink till we’re drunk is problematic, especially in a holiday that, some critics say, already celebrates sexual subjugation, murder and intermarriage.
It is problematic in a religion that advocates, as the Apocrypha states, "Moderation in all things."
And it is problematic in a society in which 10 percent of the population, Jews included, suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction or both.
Drinking permeates the Purim story: from the beginning, where King Ahasuerus hosts a weeklong feast for his officials and servants with "royal wine in abundance," (Megillah 1:7) to the end, where the Jews celebrate their victory and proclaim the 14th of Adar as an annual "day of feasting and gladness." (Megillah 9:17) A declaration that, according to some rabbis, prompted the talmudic dictate to drink to excess.
"I would argue that in this day and age, the commandment to drink till we’re blitzed ceases to have the force of mitzvah," says Rabbi Paul Kipnes, who leads Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, and who runs a program in the Los Angeles area for Jews in recovery from alcohol, drugs and other addictions.
But with or without the force of mitzvah, intemperate drinking is an accepted part of the Purim celebration and, many would argue, warranted. After all, without the two wine feasts arranged by Queen Esther and attended by King Ahasuerus and Haman, the miracle of Purim would never have happened.
At the first wine feast, Esther lays a trap for Haman by extravagantly flattering him. At the second, she reveals Haman’s plot to kill the Jews to King Ahasuerus. The king then orders Haman to be hanged on the gallows that Haman originally built for Mordechai.
Conversely, others would argue, myself included, that drinking triggers all the trouble in the first place.
After the week of feasting, when "the heart of the king was merry with wine" (Megillah 1:10), Ahasuerus orders his queen, Vashti, to parade naked, wearing only her crown, before him and his guests so he can show off her beauty. Vashti refuses and is banished, or, according to some sources, executed. This precipitates an all-points bulletin inviting beautiful young maidens to "audition" for the suddenly vacant position of queen — and makes way for Esther’s entrance.
It is also wine that later solemnizes the plot, when King Ahasuerus and Haman sit down to drink (Megillah 3:15) to seal the decree ordering the annihilation of the Jews.
"There is nothing wrong with drinking," Kipnes explains, "except when it becomes a raison d’etre or leads to people getting hurt."
"But," he adds, "Purim is one of three occasions where Jews who have gone down the path of alcoholism admit to getting drunk for the first time. The other two are Passover and b’nai mitzvah."
That’s not surprising as drinking pervades the Jewish calendar year — from multiple cups at Purim to four cups at Passover to one cup every Shabbat. It’s also present at Jewish life-cycle events — including wine given to anesthetize babies at the brit milah.
But ironically and erroneously, we Jews have a reputation for not getting drunk. In the 18th century, the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that Jews don’t get drunk because they "are exposed through their eccentricity and alleged chosenness to relax in their self-control." This is reinforced by the well-known Yiddish proverb, "The shikker is a goy."
Additionally, we Jews have a propensity for denial, for refraining from airing our dirty laundry in public, thereby serving to mask the addiction problem both in our homes and in our communities.
But the problem exists. And for us parents, license to drink heavily, even once a year, is not a message we want to give our children.
Not when, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, boys first try alcohol, on average, at age 11 and girls at 13.
Not when half of all teenage deaths result from driving under the influence of alcohol and about half of all teenage suicides involve alcohol use.
And not when the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reports that binge drinking is the number one substance-abuse problem on today’s college campuses, leading also to an increase in AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, date rape and other assaults.
Purim, this ostensibly frivolous and farcical holiday, celebrates the triumph of good over evil. But it does so by giving the message that drinking is the way to have fun, and by espousing behavior that is dangerous, demeaning and contrary to Judaism’s commandment of shmirat haguf, preventing bodily harm.
And there’s nothing good about that.