Rava said, “A person should get so drunk on Purim until that person does not know (ad lo yada) the difference between the phrases (and the implied attitude toward) ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai.’” Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira once partied on Purim together. They got drunk and Rabbah cut Rabbi Zeira’s throat. In the morning, Rabbah prayed to God, who brought Rabbi Zeira to life again. The next year, Rabbah again invited Rabbi Zeira to join him for a Purim party. “No, thank you,” said Rabbi Zeira. “A miracle may not happen every time.” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 7b)
This text is not just about Purim. Rather, it is about the very essence of what it means to establish acceptable social mores in a community. The message of the text — drinking as part of a way to affirm one’s personal religious identity — is not acceptable, even when it seems mandated. While the text cited above may be the locus classicus in sacred literature for some who extol drinking alcohol in the context of Jewish ritual or celebration, it is clear that even the rabbis were uncomfortable with its message. Just look at the classic commentaries. How much should be imbibed to fulfill this sacred obligation? “Just enough to fall asleep,” says Maimonides, and cause no trouble to self or others. He knew what harm could come from alcohol abuse. And if the directive of the text is to perform mitzvot, then the best way to be able to do them effectively — reach heavenward as a result — is with a clear head and conscience, both compromised in the retelling of this story.
It’s time for Jews to speak out against the abuses of alcohol in the synagogue and community — particularly at kiddush clubs, on Simchat Torah, and, of course, on Purim. Many Jews who are in recovery recognize that it was precisely these moments on the Jewish calendar when they started drinking, ending in much the same place as Rabbah and Zeira. Of course, Purim is not responsible for anyone’s alcoholism. But the way we program the observance of Purim in religious contexts sometimes provides the environment for abusing alcohol. As Jews, we shouldn’t allow one of our holidays to be hijacked into a drinking fest. The same holds true for any community institution or organization that uses drinking as an allure to reach young people and engage them Jewishly. That gives a mixed message about the values we are teaching and should be modeling. It is unfortunate that the Lubavitcher Rebbe didn’t speak out against drinking as he did against gambling. Then, his emissaries on college campuses would be unable to use alcohol as a vehicle to recruit college students for Shabbat. In this case, the messianic end does not justify the means.