September 16, 2019

Purim: Joy vs. Oblivion

By Rabbi Paul Steinberg

“Rabbi,” they ask with concern and genuine curiosity, “there are synagogues, Chabad houses, and rabbis that are enticing our young people to come to Purim events with the appeal of alcohol and drinking.”  I listen with anxiety, anger, and a bit of desire. “What do you say about this, rabbi?”

As a rabbi in recovery, I find myself in a conundrum with the holiday of Purim.

Truth: The Talmud explicitly states, “One is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until one does not know the difference between [the verses] ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai’” (B. Talmud, Megillah 7b).  That’s the truth. 

Many, however, ignore the further truth that, immediately following that one line, the Talmud tells a story of two rabbis – Rabbah and Zeira – having a Purim feast.  They become intoxicated and Rabbah cuts Zeira’s throat.  Loaded, he murders the other.  The next day, though, Rabbah prays and revives Zeira.  The next year on Purim, Rabbah invites Zeira back for another feast, to which Zeira replies: “One cannot count on a miracle happening every time.”  The point of the Talmud is, therefore, not about getting intoxicated, but rather it is a cautionary message—tempering the idea that we should indiscriminately get intoxicated.

When I began to accept myself as an alcoholic, I felt terrified to tell anybody about it.  I still worry about it.  Granted, I am a rabbi and I know that my learning and title carry an additional burden of Jewish symbolism.  But I am still a human being.  I am reminded that there are plenty of things that rabbis have done that have been reprehensible: adultery, pornography, gambling, cheating, stealing, lying, gossiping, supporting unethical political positions, i.e., subjugating women (as well as gays and lesbians), and good old-fashioned egotism. Alcoholism and addiction, however, hold its own unspoken and particular taboo in the Jewish community.

The bottom line is that drunkenness has long been a condoned custom of Purim frivolity because of this one, aforementioned line in the Talmud. The assumption is that drinking and intoxication complies with the joy of the holiday. But what if drinking does not bring one joy? What if it destroys one’s life? The most significant authors of codes of Jewish law, including Maimonides, the Shulchan Arukh, the Mapa and the Mishnah Berurah, understand that drinking is not its own mitzvah separate from general feasting.  In other words, one should eat and be happy, and if drinking is suitable for that, then drink a little.  If not, do not drink. And, in any case, they add, “no one should drink more than they are used to. “ These are key points, because someone can fulfill all of his Purim observances without drinking at all, especially if they are in recovery, and therefore not used to drinking at all.  One Rabbinic commentator (the Bi’ur Halakhah 695:2) says explicitly:
We are not obligated to become inebriated and degrade ourselves due to our joy [on Purim]. We are not obligated to engage in a Simchah (joyous occasion) of frivolity and foolishness. Rather it should lead to a Simchah of enjoyment, which should lead to love of God and thankfulness for the miracles He has performed for us.

Professor Brene Brown, (Gifts of Imperfections, p. 79-80) understands joy as the great pleasure of connection, which captures our vulnerability. Joy, she poignantly describes, is the “culmination of being” or “good mood of the soul” that only comes to us by way of exercising our own virtue and wisdom.  Joy or simchah, is therefore that which comes as a result of practicing gratitude for the relationships, the learning, and the opportunity and blessing of being alive, and living conscious of that which we are given as gifts, including our intellect, our emotion, our bodies, our society and culture, and our friends. That’s simchah.  Frankly, getting loaded to oblivion denies the beauty and genuine joy of living.

As for the rabbis and institutions that entice participation because alcohol will be available… well, it’s simple.  Such rabbis and institutions are not credible Jews, ignorant to the spirit of the tradition.  They don’t comprehend joy in the spirit of either the tradition or the human being.  Yes, for some, having a bit to drink on the holiday of Purim, which commemorates the toppling of order and allowing our inside feelings to become apparent on the outside, can be helpful.  For most of us, including the addict and alcoholic however, a drink on Purim does not accomplish this.  Thus, the Jewish tradition has wisely evolved, making it unequivocally clear that there is no reason or obligation to drink or become intoxicated on any occasion, and so, we are exempt. 

Paul Steinberg is the author of