There’s a role for alcohol or drugs in the Jewish religious experience, but we can create a joyous atmosphere without turning to mind-altering substances
Rabbi Adam Cutler
Beth Tzedec Congregation, Toronto
Rabbi Adam Scheier
Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, Montreal
Rabbi Scheier: As Purim approaches, I think of a story Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach would tell about a rabbi who walked around wishing people a “kosher Purim” and a “happy Passover.” Someone pointed out to him that he must be confused, for Purim is connected to happiness and Passover is associated with kashrut.
The rabbi responded: “On Passover, we become so obsessed with ensuring our homes are kosher that we often forget to rejoice. On Purim, we sometimes get carried away with rejoicing, so we need to remember to keep our behaviour kosher!”
I recall Purims before I entered the rabbinate that were marked by excessive drinking. I am proud to say that this is not the case at my synagogue’s Purim celebrations. However, in some parts of our community, religiously sanctioned alcoholism is a major problem, and it’s not only relegated to Purim.
Have you encountered this in your experience, and have you seen any efforts to maintain a joyous atmosphere without instinctively turning to the bottle?
Rabbi Cutler: I am very conscious of the way alcohol is presented at my shul, whether during Purim, kiddush or other moments. Yet, I am also aware of teenagers who may choose to go to other synagogues on Purim or Simchat Torah because of perceived easy access to alcohol.
Those who feel compelled to imbibe on Purim to the point of no longer being able to distinguish between the cursed Haman and the blessed Mordechai should study the many modern responsa on the topic, including one by my teacher Rabbi David Golinkin, which advocate drinking before going to bed and allowing the alcohol to serve as a sleep-inducer. Once asleep, one can certainly no longer distinguish between Haman and Mordechai.
Drinking on Purim, it strikes me, addresses two demands. The first is a desire on this most joyful of days to increase our happiness by any means necessary, including through inebriation. The second, on a holiday that marks our near annihilation and notes the thin line between salvation and destruction, drinking can serve as a coping mechanism, a means of escape from the brutal realities of life, if only for one day a year. Such an approach to alcohol may be understandable on a very small scale, but transforms into alcohol dependency if engaged in more regularly.
Meanwhile, a team out of Johns Hopkins University is currently recruiting rabbis to participate in a study on the spiritual effects of psilocybin, a psychedelic substance found in some mushrooms. Is there a legitimate role for alcohol or drugs in the Jewish religious experience?
Rabbi Scheier: The problem of alcoholism in the Jewish community neither begins nor ends with Purim. A few years ago, a major Jewish organization issued a statement discouraging Shabbat morning kiddush clubs – not because of the alcohol dependency issues, but because the gentlemen who participated in the drinking would then go home, fall asleep at the Shabbat table, and miss out on important family time.
While we avoid extremism with most actions, alcohol undoubtedly plays a role in the mature Jewish experience. Wine, for example, is imbibed at essentially every Jewish ceremony and festival. Our responsibility, in my view, is not to present alcohol as an evil. Instead, it is to teach how to live holy lives, which involves education and moderation. At the same time, we must be vigilant to ensure that laws concerning minors and alcohol consumption are respected in our houses of worship.
How, in your view, does one teach or model this moderation?
Rabbi Cutler: With words and with actions.
Occasionally, someone will bring a bottle of scotch to weekday breakfast at the shul. Since I don’t think it especially appropriate to consume alcohol at one’s place of employment – especially at 8:15 a.m. – my position is that at breakfast, I will only drink liquor that is older than me.
I am also acutely aware that there are recovering alcoholics who regularly attend synagogue events and I’m mindful of the commandment not to put a stumbling block in front of the blind. When alcohol is served, non-alcoholic alternatives must be present. Additionally, I think it generally unwise to include an alcoholic beverage in the name of a synagogue program, as if consumption of said beverage is an intrinsic part of the experience, which – barring beer or scotch tasting – it rarely is.