Parashat Shemini – Judaism and Beer

A few months ago I received a very exciting email from the director of the Jewish museum in Munich.  Apparently he was searching the internet for “Jews and Beer” and my name came up!  No, this is not just because I like beer so much, but because there are actually a few great articles out there about our Men of RS sponsored brewing club, BrewRS, as well as our interfaith brewing relationship with St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church. (A quick plug – we will be having the second annual Biblical Brew Off on May 30th, where we will go head to head with St. Tim’s to see who brews the best beer!)

So the director of the museum was reaching out because next year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian Beer Purity Law which states that beer can only contain 3 ingredients: water, barley, hops.  The Jewish Museum of Munich is celebrating the anniversary with an entire exhibit devoted to Jews and Beer.   I was honored to be invited to write an article for the new exhibit about rabbinic attitudes to beer in the Talmud.  As I have begun delving into the topic, I have observed that Judaism has a quite nuanced relationship with beer and alcohol.

In fact, in this week’s portion, we find perhaps the first reference to beer in Jewish literature.  God commands Aaron and his sons, while in the tent of meeting, not to drink wine or sheichar (related to the Yiddish, shikur, and often translated as strong drink but most likely an early form of beer, perhaps brewed with dates).  This prohibition is laid upon the priest in order that they not become too drunk to differentiate between holy and profane, between clean and unclean and ultimately unable to perform their priestly duties.

According to our tradition, and to anyone who has ever had one too many, alcohol has the power to confuse us.  In the case of the priests, it is the holy and the profane that can get mix up.  Some commentators remark that the death of Nadav and Abihu, Aaron’s two sons, earlier in the portion was a result of them being drunk while making an offering using strange fire instead of the holy fire from the altar.  Thus, according to our sages, God commanded total abstinence while the priests were at work, lest something like this happen again.  In this case, alcohol had a detrimental effect.  Aaron was speechless at the loss of his sons – in total shock, not unlike a parent who has had to bury a child who died of alcohol poisoning or a drunk driving accident.

However, we also see from our tradition that alcohol has the power to uplift our lives in many ways.  We drink wine on Shabbat and other celebrations as a symbol of our joy.  The book of Psalms speaks in praise of wine as a substance that “gladdens the human heart.”  And one of my favorite rabbinic texts about beer, clearly points to how alcohol can bring us together.  In the tractate of the Talmud, Avodah Zara, the rabbis write:

Why has beer of non-Jews been forbidden? Rami b. Hama said in the name of R. Isaac: Because of marriages.  R. Ahai used to drink it when it was brought to his house.

Why would R. Ahai drink it if it was brought to his house?  Because, it is not the beer itself that is the problem, it is drinking it with non-Jews that was the problem for the rabbis.  Although we most certainly do not agree with rabbi’s view on intermarriage, it is clear that what they are getting at is the idea that if you drink with non-Jews, you are more likely to socialize with them and then the next thing you know… you’re getting married.

Although we do not agree with the rabbi’s view on interfaith marriage, we can all agree that alcohol has an amazing ability, when used in moderation, to loosen us up, to make us more gregarious, to lower our inhibitions in a good way and to bring us closer to one another.

I want to bring in one more text that I think best speaks to this nuanced nature of alcohol from the Talmud, from Megillah 7b.  The tractate of Megillah, as you might have guessed from its name, deals with laws of Purim and this particular line deals with the most scrupulously observed commandment of Purim:

Rava said: a person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until he does not know the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai”.

Just as priests in this week’s portion are commanded not to drink for fear of confusing the holy for the profane, on Purim, a holiday that is the epitome of flipping things on their head, we are commanded to drink for the explicit purpose of confusing the hero and the villain of our story.  Purim is a holiday of merriment and alcohol can be an integral part in helping us celebrate the holiday.

However, this is not the end of the story.  Most people stop reading the text after that first commandment and forget about the second half of the story.  The story continues:

Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira made a Purim feast together. They became intoxicated. Rabbah stood up and killed Rabbi Zeira. On the morrow, Rabbah prayed and revived him. The following year, [Rabbah] said to him: “Come and we will make the Purim feast together!” Rabbi Zeira replied: “Miracles don’t happen every year!”

The rabbis have clearly placed this story here to temper the first tradition.  Yes, we should get drunk on Purim – drunk even to the point where we can’t tell the villain from the hero.  But not so drunk that we lose our humanity – not so drunk that we cannot tell the difference between right and wrong, between life and death.

Our Jewish view of alcohol is nuanced.  It is not necessarily good or bad – it is how we use it and in what circumstances.  Alcohol has the power to bring us together and to separate us.

I have a good friend who recently told me that he is an alcoholic.  He has been an alcoholic for many years (and will be the rest of his life) but only recently came to terms with what this means.  After driving home blackout drunk one night, he knew he had reached a point where he needed help.  He didn’t even realize what he had done until the next morning.  He explained to me, like many alcoholics, his body reacts differently to alcohol.  For many of us, we have the ability to stop after one or two drinks.  We have the ability to get drunk enough to confuse Haman and Mordechai but not so drunk that we endanger someone’s life.  For him, and so many others, he does not have the physical ability to stop and therefore has found a way, through AA, counselling and the loving support of his family to give up alcohol all together.  For alcoholics there is no middle ground.

Perhaps this is why God gave the priests the commandment to not drink any wine or beer while performing the sacrificial service.  God knew that there would be some for whom total abstinence would be required – there would be those, perhaps like Nadav and Abihu, who physically, like any other disease, would become so inebriated that they would commit an unforgivable offense.

We have a support group here at the synagogue for those who have children and other family members suffering from alcoholism and addiction.  I recently spoke with one of the members who told me about her daily struggles with her daughter’s alcoholism.  She told me about how alone she felt until she went to the group.  She was especially upset because she felt that so many of her friends had abandoned her.  She wasn’t sure if she should share that with the group.  But when she did she was amazed to hear the response from the others in the group – we understand, we have lost friends too – these people in the room now – they are our friends.

As she told me this story, I thought again about how alcohol has both the power to bring us together and to separate us.  So, I am hoping that the Jewish Museum of Munich likes my essay so much that they invite me to present a lecture at the Museum next fall.  And while I am there, I hope to have a beer or two with some friends, not so much that I cannot distinguish between holy and profane – but maybe just enough to blur lines between Haman and Mordechai.