29 March, 2006

Official alcoholism

Said Rabha: A man is obliged to intoxicate himself on Purim, till he cannot distinguish between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordecai."

Babylonian Talmud, Book Four, Megillah, ch. 1.
A curious injunction. As Daniel Alder notes ('Drinking on Purim: When to Say When?'), you'd have to be really massively drunk not to be able to distinguish those two phrases; this fact leads him to consider less literal interpretations. One mediaeval commentator suggests that what is required is the repetition of a tongue-twister, something like "Cursed be Haman. Blessed be Mordecai. Cursed be Zeresh. Blessed be Esther", which would be a little more taxing. The famous talmudist Rashi, meanwhile, claims that the festive wine will send the reveller slumberward, thus unable in sleep to distinguish any two phrases. Yet another mediaeval, predictably, follows the gematria route, demonstrating the numeric equality of the two phrases in question. Compare another oenophilic Hebrew trick:
A simple example of gematric power might be the Hebrew proverb [nik' nas 'jajin jå' så sōd], lit. 'entered wine went out secret', i.e. 'wine brings out the truth', in vino veritas. The gematric value of יין 'wine' is 70, and this is also the gematric value of סוד 'secret'. Thus, this sentence, according to many Jews at the time, had to be true.

— Ghil'ad Zuckermann, 'Language Conflict and Globalisation' (2003).
Why would any organised religion promote pleonastic inebriation? Alder's solution is merely a celebration of communal triumph over hardship, alcoholism providing a means of overcoming rationality, in the manner of soma and Sufic whirling. Which isn't really any explanation at all. But for a different take on drunkenness, so typically Greek in its rational irony, see Plato's Laws (his last work), end of Book One. In this dialogue, the Athenian Stranger, who takes Socrates' place, argues that institutional drunkenness would test the moral resolve of young soldiers, just as gymnastics tests for physical fearlessness in peacetime:
The legislator would induce fear in order to implant fearlessness; and would give rewards or punishments to those who behaved well or the reverse, under the influence of the drug?


And this mode of training, whether practised in the case of one or many, whether in solitude or in the presence of a large company—if a man have sufficient confidence in himself to drink the potion amid his boon companions, leaving off in time and not taking too much,—would be an equally good test of temperance?

Very true.

Let us return to the lawgiver and say to him, 'Well, lawgiver, no such fear-producing potion has been given by God or invented by man, but there is a potion which will make men fearless.

You mean wine.

Yes; has not wine an effect the contrary of that which I was just now describing,—first mellowing and humanizing a man, and then filling him with confidence, making him ready to say or do anything?


Anonymous said...

From what I hear, there is a spectrum of religious traditions, ranging from what Nietzsche called "Apollonian" (the rational/individual) to the "Dionysian" (the ecstatic/chaotic). Perhaps the injunction to get intoxicated (which is not the same thing as becoming an alcoholic) is a relic of a more Dionysian strain of Judaism.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thank you for your comment. What you say is absolutely plausible, and it's what I meant to suggest by reference to soma and Sufism. The ecstatic element of Judaism is no doubt there, going back perhaps to the religious frenzies of David in 2 Samuel; but there is also something very specific about this passage, and very restricted, which demands more explanation.

Anonymous said...

Why does an injunction to get drunk on a major holiday require explanation? An Apollonian or Puritan does not question or demand an explanation for dietary or behavioral restrictions (Lent, kashrut, Ramadan) because s/he "knows" that privation is good for the soul. Similarly, a Dionysian would never question religious guidance to sing, dance, eat, drink, and fornicate on holy days because s/he "knows" these things are good for the soul.

For a Jewish man, having sex with his wife is a mitzvah. And not just for making babies!

Perhaps the Dionysian outlook has become foreign to us merely because the major religions of today have become so Apollonian in nature. To rectify this imbalance, American society has developed secular Dionysian rituals, such as eating turkey on Thanksgiving, drinking beer during the Superbowl, and hiring a stripper for the stag party before a wedding. All these are occasions that might be just as well be observed with fasting, silence, and meditation.

Conrad H. Roth said...

The injunction to get drunk would not in and of itself require an explanation. But, judging from the article I was reading, the purim intoxication is unique. (Perhaps this is an incorrect statement: I know the OT fairly well, but an totally ignorant of rabbinical Judaism.) The Apollonian / Dionysian distinction is one thing, but it is a modern psychological distinction derived from a classical context: the ancient Jew will not be able to offer this explanation of the unique character of Purim. There just doesn't seem to be anything comparable in the Jewish tradition. And the oddness of the command is well attested by the rabbinical efforts to explain it away! If it were more naturally integrated into the religion, ie. if there were more Dionysian aspects to Judaism, this would not present such a problem.

Furthermore, the very specific command interests me--why was that particular criterion of intoxication chosen? Only for colour? Or is it there to suggest that intoxication must lead, on one day of the year, to a complete nihilism of religious values (ie. can't tell between Good (Mordecai) and Bad (Hamann))?

I agree with your last point, and am confident that the 'Dionysian' elements of human life have become rigidly attached to its secular aspect.