Rabbi, I have a prob­lem

QUES­TION: On Sim­chat To­rah, our shul has al­ways had kid­dush early with whisky avail­able for the rest of the ser­vice. But now our spoil­sport new ex­ec­u­tive thinks the drink is caus­ing too much fri­vol­ity and wants to stop it. Surely hav­ing a lit­tle fun is pa

The Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism -

WHEN IT comes to al­co­hol con­sump­tion, Ju­daism walks a very fine bal­ance. The Bi­ble is crit­i­cal of drunk­en­ness. The degra­da­tion of Noah and Lot (Gen­e­sis 9:18-29, 19:30-38) are both cau­tion­ary tales about the dan­gers of al­co­hol. If the reader is left in any doubt about this, King Solomon force­fully drives the point home in Proverbs (23:20-21):

“Do not be among winebib­bers, among glut­tonous eaters of meat for the drunk­ard and the glut­ton will come to poverty, and drowsi­ness will clothe a man in rags.”

Yet the Tal­mud has some very pos­i­tive things to say about the con­sump­tion of wine. Rav Huna be­lieved that wine opens the mind (Bava Ba­tra 12.b) and Rava claimed that drink­ing wine made him wise (Yoma 76.b). An anony­mous pas­sage in the trac­tate Bava Ba­tra (58b) makes the as­ser­tion that wine is bet­ter than any medicine.

A bal­ance be­tween th­ese two ap­par­ently con­tra­dic­tory views emerges from the Midrash (Tanchuma Noach 13), which sees moderate con­sump­tion of al­co­hol as a bless­ing but taken in ex­cess, it quickly turns into a curse.

Syn­a­gogues have the un­en­vi­able task of try­ing to achieve this bal­ance on Sim­chat To­rah. To ban drink­ing out­right is un­nec­es­sar­ily pu­ri­tan­i­cal and even counter pro­duc­tive, as it will only en­cour­age en­thu­si­as­tic rev­ellers to flout the ban. Equally, un­ac­cept­able is al­co­hol abuse in the syn­a­gogue. Re­spon­si­ble re­li­gious leaders must se­ri­ously con­sider the mes­sage this sends to im­pres­sion­able teenagers.

It may be help­ful in try­ing to achieve this bal­ance to bear in mind the Tal­mud’s pithy ob­ser­va­tion (Eru­vin 65b) that “When wine goes in, the truth comes out.” What this means is that what­ever one feels in­side is ex­pressed and mag­ni­fied by the con­sump­tion of al­co­hol. For those who ex­pe­ri­ence the true joy of cel­e­brat­ing with the To­rah, a lechayim will only serve to en­hance that feel­ing. For oth­ers, who are obliv­i­ous to such joy and use the fes­ti­val as noth­ing more than an ex­cuse to get drunk, such con­sump­tion is empty and ugly.

I be­lieve ev­ery syn­a­gogue should have a kid­dush on Sim­chat To­rah with good food and am­ple spir­its for those wish­ing to make a lec­ahyim. It is the rabbi’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to set the tone by re­mind­ing his merry con­gre­gants that while al­co­hol can put one in a re­laxed frame of mind, real joy comes from within.

THIS TOUCHES on one of the few oc­ca­sions when Or­tho­dox Jews have a def­i­nite ad­van­tage over Pro­gres­sive ones (at other times, nei­ther are su­pe­rior nor in­fe­rior to each other, but are two equally valid in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the same tra­di­tion).

Re­form and Lib­eral Jews see no prob­lem in driv­ing to syn­a­gogue on Sab­baths and fes­ti­vals. Trav­el­ling may have been con­sid­ered a type of “work” that was banned in for­mer times, but for us that def­i­ni­tion ap­plied to the age of don­keys and camels, when trav­el­ling was dirty, la­bo­ri­ous, and risked the dan­ger of at­tack by brig­ands. To­day, how­ever, trav­el­ling by car fa­cil­i­tates par­tic­i­pa­tion in com­mu­nal life, es­pe­cially for those liv­ing at a con­sid­er­able dis­tance or who are un­able to walk for what­ever rea­son. What is im­por­tant is that they come — how they come is ir­rel­e­vant.

How­ever, the down­side is that when we sur­vey the kid­dush af­ter ser­vices, we not only have to bear in mind the equal rights of those around us to their share of the nosh, but we also have to re­mem­ber the drink-driv­ing laws.

Still, that apart, I can see lit­tle ob­jec­tion to a wee dram (par­tic­u­larly for those who did walk or to pas­sen­gers in a car) to re­in­force the ca­ma­raderie of mem­bers who have been pray­ing along­side each other ear­lier.

But I am less sure about hav­ing that dram (or drams) dur­ing the ser­vice, which might in­tro­duce a some­what less than pi­ous at­mos­phere. Are the ex­ec­u­tive re­ally be­ing spoil­sports or are you just bored and want to start drink­ing as quickly as pos­si­ble?

Yes, fun is part of Sim­chat To­rah, but there are other ways of achiev­ing that apart from al­co­hol, be it through the singing, danc­ing and gen­eral ex­u­ber­ance. They should be the way in which we dis­tin­guish the day. The ob­ject is to sharpen our ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the To­rah, not numb our senses.

It is also worth stat­ing that at Sim­chat To­rah — or any other oc­ca­sion — non-al­co­holic drinks should be avail­able too, not just for driv­ers, but be­cause ev­ery syn­a­gogue has con­gre­gants who are mem­bers of Al­co­holics Anony­mous, be they male or fe­male, and whether that is pub­lic knowl­edge or not. It is im­por­tant for them to have al­ter­na­tive op­tions to al­co­hol — both to avoid temp­ta­tion, and to avoid the em­bar­rass­ment of be­ing the only one not hold­ing a glass of wine/whisky and con­stantly hav­ing to refuse of­fers.

If you have a prob­lem to put to our rab­bis, please ring 020 7415 1676 or email ed­i­to­rial@thejc.com with de­tails

Naf­tali Brawer is rabbi at Bore­ham­wood and El­stree Syn­a­gogue

Jonathan Ro­main is rabbi at Maiden­head (Re­form) Syn­a­gogue

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