Thursday, April 20, 2006

Shmini (Midrash)

The Devil Rum

Or, to be more accurate, the devil wine, or perhaps the devil Bacchus. The midrash on this week’s portion features a lengthy discussion of the dangers of imbibing alcohol and drunkenness. This takes off from a brief halakhic passage (Lev 10:8-11) prohibiting the priests from drinking any wine or strong drink while engaged in service in the Temple (this is extended by the Rabbis, on the basis of v. 11, to include a proscription against sages issuing halakhic decisions or sitting as judges while drinking). Ramban and others suggest that this portion appears here in association with the central incident of the parshah, the tragic death of Nadav and Avihu, who were stricken dead for entering the Sanctuary without permission, to offer “strange fire.” One view holds that they did so while in a drunken state; hence, the halakhic prohibition that follows on its heels.

Modern Jewish apologetics has often noted Judaism’s tolerant, realistic attitude toward drinking, certainly in contrast with the blue-nosed, puritanical attitude of much of Western Protestantism, adding that this tolerance has contributed to the relatively low rate of alcoholism among Jews. This claim certainly carries a significant measure of truth: by sanctioning or even sanctifying drinking within certain settings—the blessing over wine at Kiddush or festive occasions, or even the use of hard liquor at a synagogue Kiddush or a Yahrzeit—Judaism obviates the taint of “forbidden fruit,” with the psychological temptations that come in its wake. The slightly tipsy Hasid happily singing a joyous niggun is a stock figure of Jewish folklore. But the issue of alcoholism and Jews is not so simple: many books have been written on the subject, from sociological and other perspectives, and the issue is clearly a complex one; moreover, one that is constant flux changes with the massive social and cultural changes the Jewish people have undergone and continue to undergo in the modern world. As I am not particularly well-read on the subject, I would not even dare to venture an opinion, except to say that it is clear that not a few Jews do suffer from this problem, and that any collective self-satisfaction or complacency on this issue seems unwarranted.

In any event, our midrash makes the verses interdicting drinking by the priests into the occasion for a broader discussion of the subject, presented largely in a jocular, humoristic tone. The lesson is nevertheless driven home, simply by the fact that the Midrash selects as the butt of its humor the fool who lets his life be ruled by the passion for drink (as in the refrain of the American folk sing, in which a woman bewails that her man who “loves liquor better than me”). Due to the length of this midrash, we shall only translate some selected sections. Leviticus Rabbah 12.1:

“Do not drink wine nor strong liquor [… when you go into the Tent of Meeting]” [Lev 10:9]. It is written there: “Do not look at wine when it is red” [Prv 23:31]. What is meant by ”when it is red” When he lusts for the blood [of a woman who is impure by dint of being] niddah or zavah. “When he places his eye on the cup” [ibid.] The written text is kis [“purse”; i.e., and not kos, “cup,” as in the Masoretic correction]. This is a euphemism, as is written “We shall all have one purse” [Prv 1:14]. “He shall walk with uprightness” [Prv 23:31]. In the end his wife shall say to him: I have seen [blood] like a red rose, and he does not separate from her. R. Yossi said: If he is a learned sage, in the end he will pronounce the impure pure and the pure impure.

The midrash’s first concern is that drink will cause a person to do things he would not when sober—e.g., to relax his sexual standards. The strict discipline of Jewish marital life, involving a du-phased pattern of being together and separated, is an important value of the halakhah. The opening phrase here, based on a play on the redness of wine and the redness of menstrual blood, is occasioned by a difficulty in the phrase verse, “wine when it is red…” This phrase invites the obvious question, “When is wine not red?,” spawning in turn various midrashic answers. There is also a hint of greater promiscuity, suggested by the allusion to the bands of evildoers in Proverbs 1, who seem to share their woman—a kind of gangster’s moll or prostitute who services all of them in turn (“by lot,” ibid.), vulgarly referred to as kis. The drunken husband who couples with his menstruous wife is a negative mirror image of the ardent bridegroom of Cant. Rab. 7.3, who sees his wife “surrounded with roses” and controls his passion. In brief, as has been known by seducers of the innocent of both sexes since time immemorial, wine is a prime ally of sexual licentiousness, lowering “inhibitions”—that is, causing a person to forget or ignore his own standards and values. It also leads to a general blurring of distinctions and unclarity of the mind: even it does not lead to active wrongdoing, it causes distorted judgment, and may cause the sage to issue rulings that lead others astray.

Another thing: “Do not look at wine when it is red.” It shall certainly make him [his face] red. “When he places his eyes on the cup.” He places his eyes on the cup, and the storekeeper has his eye on his pocket. “He shall walk with uprightness” (be-mesharim). In the end he shall make his house empty [Aramaic: meishra; a word-play on meisharim in the above verse]. [He says:] What do we need that copper bowl for? One of earthenware will do just as well! So he sells it to buy drink with it. R. Yitzhak son of Radifa said in the name of R. Ami: In the end he shall sell his household utensils and drink wine with them.

A second danger of wine is that it ends in addiction: a person makes it his highest priority in terms of spending money on it, pawning valuable objects to buy drink. Note the shrewd observation about the storekeeper: there are always those who encourage others to spend money they can’t really afford to spend, on things that are not good for them. “A fool and his money are soon parted.”

R. Ahha said: An incident is related of one who sold his household utensils and to drink wine. His sons said: Now our father will leave us with nothing. So they got him drunk, and took him out and left him in a graveyard. Some wine sellers passed by the gate of the cemetery; having heard that there were tax collectors in the city, they left their merchandise in the graveyard and went to see what was going on. That person woke up from his sleep and saw a wineskin above his head, so he took it and placed in his mouth. After three days his sons came: Let us go and see what father is doing. The went and found him with the spigot of the wineskin in his mouth. They said to him: Even here your Creator has not abandoned you! Since He has given you, we do not know what to do with you. So they made a arrangements among themselves: each one of them would provide him with drink for a day….

The final stage is one of progressively intense addiction to drink, leading to total self-degradation. Here, the person is in such a drunken stupor that he doesn’t know at all what is going on around him; his only thought in life is where to find his next drink. Thus the grotesque scene of him lying in a cemetery with the ancient equivalent of a bottle in his mouth, as happy as a baby (and having regressed to an infantile state). Nor are the sons shown in a particularly favorable light: what interests them is not their father’s welfare, but the loss of their inheritance! The story ends with a pregnant irony: the wine left there is seen as a gift from God: ”His Creator has not abandoned him!” So they decide that the only thing to do is to accept the situation, and end up taking turns supporting their father’s habit…


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