This post continues the weekly series on the Nishmablog that features responses on JVO by one of our two Nishma Scholars who are on this panel. This week's presentation is to one of the questions to which Rabbi Hecht responded.
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Question: One of Purim’s (reportedly) most beloved traditions is to drink “until you can’t tell the difference between evil Haman and righteous Mordechai.” Is drunkenness really a Jewish value? What about for those who have issues with drinking (nazirites, and recovering alcoholics, for example)?
It should not be surprising that the essence of this question actually also bothered many Torah scholars over the centuries. The famous Chafetz Chaim in his Biur Halacha, Orach Chaim 695, note 1 phrases the problem most succinctly. How could the Sages have created an obligation to drink to this extent knowing full well the many references, in all the holy books, of the great ethical obstacle presented by drunkenness? If anything, the question is even voiced louder today. The media around us is filled with the faults of too much alcohol. The ethical call of abstinence, especially in response to the potential for drunkenness, is actually given merit almost across the political and moral spectrum; both liberals and conservatives seem to agree on the ‘evil’ of too much alcohol. Yet we find the Sages having instructed us not only to drink some alcohol on this day but to drink enough to become drunk. Indeed, how could they have so instructed us?
The first step in responding to this question may lie in the recognition that they did not so instruct all of us. Biur Halacha, note 2 clearly states that one is only commanded to drink if one can ensure that, through this consumption of alcohol, there will be no lessening of halachic, i.e. ethical, standards in one’s behaviour. He further adds that, for one who cannot make this assurance, it is clearly better not to become drunk. It would seem that with such a formulation of the law, the Sages are actually challenging this critique of the law by asserting that the concern behind the critique is inapplicable. This law is questioned because alcohol can have a negative effect on individuals. The answer is that anyone who would be so negatively affected by such drinking is not only exempt from this law but is, furthermore, not even allowed to drink. How can the Sages have instructed individuals to drink given the potential negative effects of such drinking? Because they did not instruct any individual who could experience such negative effects to drink; in fact it is forbidden for such a person to drink. The further answer is that Halacha actually maintains a view of alcohol and drinking that is different than the view that is generally believed.
. Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, Purim in a New Light, speaking of Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, the famed Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, states that, on Purim “the Rosh Yeshiva himself took his drinking quite seriously, but never revealed the slightest sign of being affected by it.” The issue is the cause-and-effect of alcohol. The general assumption of our modern world is that the relationship between alcohol and behaviour is direct; that the consumption of alcohol will necessarily lead to certain behavioural results. The view of Halacha, it would seem, is somewhat different. Although you could not say this about many or even most, the Halacha believes that there are some, as a result of their righteousness, who, even when drunk, can maintain control, to a large extent, over their behaviour. It is only such individuals who the Halacha is instructing to drink ad d’lo yadah, until they do not know this distinction of cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai. The Halacha would also seem to maintain a further understanding with which our general world may disagree: that some individuals can know whether they can exhibit such control over behaviour even while under the influence of alcohol. It is, as such, that the Halacha can instruct individuals regarding drinking. Those who know that they can control their behavior under the influence of alcohol should attempt to drink to this extent on Purim. Those who cannot, or are not sure if they can, should not so drink. Yet, if those who are commanded to drink are only those who will not be affected by the drinking, why is there this command to drink in the first place?
The answer must be that there is still a recognition within the Halacha that a human being will be affected by alcohol; it is just the person’s behaviour that need not be affected. Our modern society may find such a theory problematic because it believes that the stimulus-behaviour connection in human beings is direct. Stimulate the human being is a certain way and there will be a certain result. Halacha recognizes, however, that there is another factor in this realm of cause-and-effect and that is the human will. It is true, in a human being with limited will power, there may only be a reality of the direct flow of cause-and-effect. The Halacha believes, though, in the ability of human beings to develop their wills so that they can exercise some control over the relationship of cause and effect. This is the challenge of life. It is thus a fundamental concept within Halacha that one can reach a level that, albeit being under the influence of alcohol, one’s will is strong enough to control the cause-and-effect to ensure that even in that state there is no negative behaviour. It is such an individual who is commanded to drink. But still, why?
T.B. Eruvin 65a,b discusses the variant effects of wine on the human being. From the presentation of this gemara, a mixed message about alcohol seems to emerge. In certain ways, alcohol may be beneficial for the human being; in other ways it may not. It would seem that alcohol can affect the feelings of a person which, in turn, can affect behaviour. The effect on feelings can be most beneficial, helping one, for example, in the grieving process. The effect on action, though, can be most detrimental. This is the basic structure of a direct understanding of the cause-and-effect of wine: alcohol affects emotions which affects behaviour. What the Halacha is basically asserting is that human will, if righteously developed, can affect this cause-and-effect yielding that alcohol can affect emotions while still being prevented by the human will from further affecting behaviour negatively. This is the directive of ad d’lo yado. The joy of Purim should be such that it should be magnified through the stimulus of alcohol which can intensify these emotions of joy. The problem is that these emotions stimulated by alcohol can also further lead to uncontrolled negative behaviour which is what happens in the general populace. Indeed that is a problem and, as such, a member of the general populace must be very wary of using alcohol to increase joy. For the person of will, though, who can exercise that control, the call of Purim is to feel the extreme in joy and, as such, to properly use alcohol to further this feeling.