The Purim story truly has something for everyone: costumes, treats and surprises for little children, a nail-biting story of suspense and intrigue, and for the more spiritually and intellectually-oriented crowd: profound lessons of irony and Divine Providence.
That’s why it’s so surprising that one issue attracting so much attention is the mitzvah to imbibe alcohol. The practice traces its way back to the Talmud, where Rava apparently instructs us to drink wine until we do not know the difference between “Cursed is Haman and Blessed is Mordechai.”
That’s like saying that a Jew should drink so much that he cannot differentiate between Ahmadinejad and the Chief Rabbi of Israel!
Many commentaries have noted that the follow-up to this directive – in which Raba becomes intoxicated, “stands up” and kills compatriot R. Zeira – illustrates the dangers of excessive drinking. Within this view, one commentator suggests that Raba did not directly murder R. Zeira, but merely served up so many drinks that R. Zeira almost succumbed to alcohol poisoning; it was only Raba’s last-ditch fervent prayer vigil that rescued R. Zeira from a tragic demise! In recent years, the Union of Orthodox Congregations has warned parents and their teenagers to refrain from excessive indulgence. Moreover, DUI is not just a violation of American law, it is a violation of Torah law. Celebration is one thing – putting yours and others’ lives in danger, quite another.
One esoteric interpretation of the story suggests that during their feast, the two scholars indulged in deep mystical secrets, and Raba “stood up,” – rose to a higher level of understanding – and drew R. Zeira after him, sharing Raba’s mystical insights. R. Zeira, whose soul was more limited in its capacity to grasp such concepts, nearly died from the spiritual intensity of the encounter. This interpretation finds support in the names Raba, which means “large” or “great”, in contrast to “Zeira”, which means “tiny” or “small.” According to this view, the limited perspective of R. Zeira simply “couldn’t handle” Raba’s lesson!
At times, modern Jewish life seems to suffer from the Raba-R. Zeira tension. Two centuries ago, the enlightenment ushered in a new vision of what it meant to be Jewish; the Reform movement encouraged the abandonment of what it deemed to be ancient small-minded practices in favor of a broader vision. Put simply, Reform promoted a gradual sell-out of what was hitherto known as Mitzvot Ben Adam Lamakom – Mitzvot between Man and God: Kashrut, laws of family purity and other associated mitzvot were relegated to the dustbins of Jewish history. In the 1888 Pittsburgh Platform, for example, the Reform clergy asserted “that observance [of many of these early mitzvot] in our days is apt to obstruct rather than to further modern spiritual elevation.”
Eretz Yisrael, with Jerusalem at its center, also ended up on the editing-room floor of early Reform. It wasn’t until 1937, when its naïve position on Zionism was called into question by historic and political realities, that Reform backtracked.
As one Reform rabbi notes:
“…from the earliest days of Reform Judaism, back in the 19th Century, long before the Holocaust, anti-Zionism stemmed from an ideology that we may actually consider praiseworthy. The founders of Reform Judaism dreamed of a beautiful and all-encompassing redemption. For them, the mission of the Jewish people was to serve as God’s partners in tikkun olam, repairing a broken and troubled world, for all humanity. They were turned off by a narrow Messianic vision, focused on the Jewish people’s return to its homeland. Instead, they worked for the betterment of all humanity. In their minds, the Jewish people could best do God’s work by remaining dispersed throughout the world, laboring alongside men and women of every race and religion to make the entire Earth a better place.” (Rabbi Barry Block, Anti-Zionism in Early American Reform Judaism)
Seeing itself as the visionary “Raba” of Purim, Reform was determined to slaughter the parochial, insular, small-minded “R. Zeira”, the old world-Jewish perspective. Predictions –bordering on quasi-prophecies – abounded in the 1960’s – foretelling the death of Orthodox Jewish life in America. A smug brand of triumphalism developed: Raba would finally overcome R. Zeira, once and for all!’
To be sure, parochial elements within the Torah-observant community abound; scholars throughout the Jewish world have documented these inward-looking trends in books, journals and in classes over the past couple of decades, and continue to critique these developments from within the Torah tradition. Yet the past few decades have also seen the increasing professionalization of Jewish education and outreach, with an ambitious mission to reframe the classical Torah tradition for the modern world. With scholars such as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik at the helm, the minutiae of halacha, of Jewish law, and the splendor of Jewish thought have been able to express their essence: Correctly articulated, the true “Raba” is none other than the resilient, eternal, Torah tradition of our past! Paradoxically, approaches within the Jewish world once thought to be leading the way towards broad new horizons, have begun to expose themselves as small-minded efforts to curry favor with popular opinion in both the general and Jewish community, in religion, ethics and politics.
With Purim around the corner, it’s time to reflect on what it means to be Jewish, to identify which approaches best epitomize “Raba” in his struggle with “R. Zeira.”