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Getting drunk on Purim is dangerous, not a mitzvah

The most dangerous physical threat to our children and grandchildren on university campuses may not be COVID or antisemitism, but something well-intentioned leaders don’t even consider.

In the United States, alcohol is a significant factor in deaths and injuries of college students and young professionals, making drinking one of the most dangerous parts of college.

With Purim just around the corner, adults involved in outreach to college students and young professionals should keep this in mind as they celebrate. Purim is often marked by lots of drinking when it really should be about strengthening friendships and expressing gratitude for the miracles in our lives.

During one of my rabbinical exams in Israel, a hasidic rosh yeshiva asked me about my professional plans. When I told him I was going to work for Hillel, he impressed upon me that it is never a mitzvah to get drunk.

Despite a single Talmudic opinion in the name of Rava stating that one must drink wine on Purim until that person “cannot tell the difference between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai,” rabbis such as Yosef Karo have long noted that the Talmud qualifies or rejects Rava’s view, teaching us that even on Purim “drunkenness is an absolute prohibition.”

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb, a past head of the Orthodox Union, was outspoken about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption in this context. About a century earlier, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, known as the Chafetz Chaim, summarized centuries of rabbinic opinion: “We are not commanded to get drunk,” especially if it will lead to inappropriate behavior or interfere with other obligations.

It is a mitzvah to have a celebratory Purim meal with some wine, but this only applies on Purim day, and the emphasis should be on some, not on wine. The only mitzvah on Purim night is to hear the megillah, and especially for those who observe the Fast of Esther, drinking on an empty stomach is dangerous and serves no spiritual purpose.

Campus leaders are in a tough spot. Many communal organizations serve alcohol to attract participants, and even if they don’t serve it, they tolerate people attending while intoxicated. The Jewish community is either silent or is part of the problem.

Yet in my own decade of experience at several campuses, when a student is injured, alcohol is often part of the story. Both drinkers and those around them suffer. Alcohol impairs judgment, increases the risk of sexual assault, and interferes with brain development. And that’s without even mentioning the risk of addiction.

Sometimes, I hear that some students do not attend our Shabbat dinners because they know that if they came drunk, someone would ask them not to do it again, which would be uncomfortable for them.

No one wants to be accused of being anti-fun. But the idea that without alcohol no young people will attend your events is a myth. When you offer a compelling, warm and meaningful experience, students begin to see they don’t need to be intoxicated to enjoy the beauty of Jewish holidays with their friends.

Those who can’t imagine communal events for young professionals without alcohol could at least consider replacing hard liquor with beer or hard cider.

At Brandeis Hillel, besides megillah readings and food on Purim night, our student leaders and professionals designed a campuswide breakfast on Purim morning with smoothies, yoga, breakfast wraps and more. The only time we serve alcohol at our Hillel is wine for kiddush when parents are present, such as on graduation weekend.

Every semester, more and more students quietly thank me for creating a comfortable and welcoming space for Jewish life. They tell me they’re avoiding social settings with alcohol either because of the obvious dangers, because they just don’t like the rowdy atmosphere, or because they know they are predisposed to alcoholism. When we use alcohol as a draw to Jewish community, we need to remember that we’re putting some students in harm’s way, and pushing others away.

Young adults and the professionals who work with them need all of our encouragement to be true to Jewish values rather than to the popular drinking culture around them.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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