Sunday 5 May 2019


The six-pointed brewer's star, the oldest guild symbol of brewers.

This article includes some of my personal and subjective views about substances and their role within the religious community.
My late teenage years were filled with what I believed were inspirational religious gatherings, known as farbrengens, where alcohol was a primary feature. I now realise that mild to moderate feeling of base drunkenness were misrepresented as qualities of intense spirituality. 
I watched people being brought into religion through the bottle and then kept in religion with the same bottle. I believed this was good and even practised the same techniques myself, with some success.
To this day, some of those people whom I brought into the fold and who now have grown up children of their own, still ask when we can sit down, have a drink and farbreng.
The fact is that I haven’t had or administered an alcoholic drink since my early twenties - because I soon realized that, to a large extent, alcohol was a drug that made and kept some people religious. And I feel so strongly about this, that I won’t even drink wine but use grape juice instead. And alcohol is banned from my Shul no matter the occasion.
The mind and the body make their own drugs and I want all my experiences, religious and otherwise, to be real and unaided by substances – even if it takes a little longer.
I was recently lucky enough to be invited for a sail on a yacht. I happily took my family along for the experience. However, soon after we launched, the skipper began pouring himself and the crew copious amounts of alcohol which was imbibed, like water, over the course of a few hours. I cannot describe the feeling of being trapped, helpless and locked in a situation from which I could not escape. The skipper and his wife were happy and shrieking with laughter. For them, this was a meaningful experience in which they participated on a regular basis. For them this was yachting.
I hazard to suggest that parallels can be drawn to some who believe spirituality is the spirit in the bottle. I also suggest that sometimes one feels trapped as guests in a house of people who are inebriated and have imbibed so much alcohol that would be well over the legal limit for driving.
If someone is not fit to drive, then I do not want to listen to their Torah, let alone their thoughts, or even partake in their conversations.
Of course many will counter by saying that drinking in ‘moderation’ is perfectly fine. The problem is how one defines ‘moderation’ because even after one sip, one is - to whatever degree - under its influence.
This is how alcohol - wine in this case - has been elevated to having a ‘spiritual property’ in our literature, representing ‘what Judaism is all about’:
“Most foods decompose as time goes on. In fact, all physical things do - buildings crumble, clothes wear out, our bodies age. This is because anything physical is ephemeral - it doesn't last; while the world of the spirit is eternal, and gets stronger with time. The one exception is wine. Wine, although it is also physical, has the spiritual property of improving with age. It is wine that testifies that even the physical can be refined.
Wine represents what Judaism is all about: the fusing of the holy and the mundane, the spiritual and physical, the body and soul.
What could be more holy than that?”[1]
Obviously the author is not referring to overindulgence, and the fact is that this view is well entrenched within normative Judaism.
Excessive drinking is certainly not encouraged (except for Purim according to some interpretations) and the Beit Yosef writes:
 "...inebriation is entirely prohibited and there is no greater sin than drunkenness...[and it is] the cause of many sins".[2]

To show how endemic and acceptable drinking has become, many synagogues even boast of their Haftorah Clubs, where (generally) men leave the services for a drink just after the Torah reading.
The Orthodox Union’s Executive Vice President, R. Dr Tzvi Hersh Weinreb has spoken out against this practice as the participants often return to the services in a state of disruptive inebriation.
These ‘clubs’ are so popular that they have merited a Wikipedia entry:
“To avoid leaving synagogue prematurely, some Kiddush Clubs now congregate in members' homes after services have concluded. Kiddush Clubs can, in some cases, be selective in who they accept as members. 
Qualities that are looked upon favorably that can lead to an invitation to a club can include: being able to ‘handle your alcohol’, skills in giving divrei Torah, sociability, and ability to purchase alcohol and other supplies. Members may take turns hosting the club, as well as taking turns ‘sponsoring’ the bottle(s) imbibed.”[3]


Often when alcohol is abused, it is not long until other substances are also experimented with as well. An increasing number of rabbis are beginning to speak out about this problem as it affects many of our families.

One such rabbi is R. Berel Wein who writes:

“There was a time not that long ago – I recall it from my youth when Jews who were alcoholics or even regularly drunk were a rarity. Jews drank on Simchat Torah and Purim but were sober the rest of the year. Jews prided themselves on their sobriety and scorned their Eastern European non-Jewish neighbors because many of them were always drunk...

A drunkard was never a hero or a role model in the Jewish world...
All of that has changed dramatically in our time...

The bar, the pub, even the Shabat kiddush are all the in-places in today’s society to drink without social disapproval. Here in Israel, the traditional Friday night family dinner, observed for decades even in non-observant homes, has given way to the melees and stabbings and drunkenness of the pubs and bars. Friday night and Shabat are the most horrendous times of the week for traffic fatalities here in Israel, many of them induced by alcohol.

Jews have become experts in single malt liquors bought at outrageous prices and displayed as a sort of trophy testament to one’s success in life. The goal of twelve and thirteen year olds at Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties is to drink hard liquor, and their parents indifferently acquiesce to this pending disaster.

Somehow the yeshiva world has allowed Purim to morph into a drunken orgy which also has consequences later on and not only next day’s hangover. The rate of alcoholism in the Jewish world is now at an all time high, equal to if not even higher than the average in many countries. It is one of the many unseen or purposely ignored elephants that now appear in our room.   

Alcohol like drugs and tobacco is addictive. Therefore alcoholism has to be defeated before it really takes hold. This can only be accomplished by a change in social society’s attitude towards drinking. As long as it is viewed as being socially acceptable, nay even desired, all of the radio ads against drunken driving and all of the warnings on the labels of the liquor bottles will be of little avail.

There are finally synagogues in the United States that ban liquor entirely from its premises even for catered affairs in their social halls. This was as a direct result of the weekly drunken behaviors by teenagers and even pre-teenagers on its premises. It was at least a statement by the congregation that drinking is no longer socially acceptable behavior.

Of course the rabbi of the congregation that initiated this action was roundly criticized for curtailing the private lives of others...[4]


As long ago as 1958, Time Magazine published an article by Professor Charles Snyder which claimed that while Jews may drink as much or even more than non-Jews, the rate of alcoholics amongst the Jews was considerably lower than the rest of society. This was based on research by the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies:

“Of those hospitalized for drinking problems, 25.6% were Irish, 7.8% were Scandinavian, 4.8% were Italian, 4.3% were English, 3.8% were German, and less than 1% were Jewish.”

The reason why Jews were relatively unaffected by alcohol abuse, was considered indeterminable at that time.

Today we think that it may have something to do with genetics:

“It appears that many Jews — nearly 20% — have a DNA mutation linked to lower rates of alcoholism. The variance is known as ADH2*2, is ‘involved in the way the body breaks down alcohol in the bloodstream,’ and is thought to produce more of a toxic chemical byproduct when persons with the gene drink heavily.

This is both good and bad news for Jews. Those with the gene had more unpleasant reactions to alcohol, and predictably drank less. ‘Almost all white Europeans,’ on the other hand, lack the gene, and ‘thus drinking tends to be more pleasurable, increasing the risks of alcoholism.’”[5]


The point of this article is to show how widespread the incidence of substance usage (abuse?) is in the religious community. I have read academic articles which show how some substances can help in ways where traditional therapy has failed. I am aware that more and more substances are becoming legal. But that is not my point because I am instead fascinated by why people raised in religious households, who have had a yeshiva education etc., still need to look for fulfilment in substances that can simply be purchased - for their spiritual enhancement.  

Obviously, they are not getting what they are looking for in their Judaism. The problem, though, is that in some circles, these trips into substance usage is ‘sold’ and disguised as part and parcel of the Torah spiritual experience.

Where once it was alcohol which was the catalyst which bound members of a religious society to G-d and to each other, now it is other more effective substances which are being touted as just as, or even more effective than the tradition method - and considered spiritually beneficial.

Although not a scientific survey, I have interviewed a number of people on the assurance of anonymity, from my community. There are some of the findings:

Sometimes, even at a ‘safe’ wedding or Bar Mitzvah celebration, guests are lured by respectable people within the community to whom many look up to, and they are taken outside or to a corner and introduced to new substances besides the ubiquitous alcohol.

Some communities have cakes at the Kiddush which are known to contain certain substances.

In some instances, pre-Shabbat gatherings are regularly organised on Friday afternoons where bottles of alcohol are opened and the lids are thrown away and the participants arrive in Shul (if they can) in a state of total inebriation.

Under age children are quite savvy and somewhat experienced in the various substances, and I am aware of some horrific stories which have taken place at seemingly innocent birthday parties and other occasions.

Nature hikes are often organised where substances are freely and openly available. These ‘nature gatherings’ are attended by well to do and respectable people with children who play with our children. They even form part of our lift schemes.  I have been told that it is not unusual for 50 to 80 per cent of these participants to engage in such activities, and they come well prepared for the event. This then creates pressure for the others to join in and not be regarded as square prudes.

It is not unusual to see people coming to mincha on Shabbat afternoon so inebriated that they cannot participate in a shiur or even daven properly. It is not unusual for a husband to come home late from Shul on Shabbat morning in such a state that his wife is embarrassed in front of the guests – or worse, is comfortable with the situation.
On Shabbat, it is common for members of a certain community to use drops and oils in place of smoking mind altering substances which, of course, is forbidden on the holy day.

At a certain school, whiskey (and liqueur for the women) is openly distributed to the teaching staff during recess, on auspicious occasions.


According to R. Levi Brackman, the reason why there is such a “culture of excessive drinking of alcohol within many Orthodox Jewish circles” is because their parents and grandparents originated in Eastern Europe and Russia where excessive drinking was part of the culture.

He writes:

“In Russia, for example, it is customary to drink vodka whenever people get together with friends--toasting over vodka even in the workplace or on the train is very common in Russia. Clearly, pre-war Orthodox Jews living in the Pale of Settlement adopted the local drinking culture, albeit in a Judaized manner. Today this has continued and saying multiple L’Chaims with friends has now become a normal part of Orthodox Jewish life.

Recognizing where this comes from is important, because the argument has been made that saying "L’Chaim" over hard liquor is an authentic Jewish custom. This is far from the truth. Making Kiddush and using wine for sanctity is indeed a Jewish custom. However, drinking to excess in the manner that is found in certain parts of Eastern Europe and Russia in antithetical to Judaism and to authentic Jewish value.”[6]


Some time ago, I wrote an article Cigarettes and Halacha don’t Mix and concluded by saying that we still need to address the issue of alcoholism. Times have changed and cigarettes now appear to be the least of our problems.

We are so meticulous about our standards of kashrut, and glorify in our various hechsheirim. We are quick to push people away if their standards are different from ours. We even have kosher phones. Having a hashkafa that doesn’t fall within the three or four accepted approaches is deemed unimaginable and sinful. If someone wears a different style hat, it is cause for concern and alarm – let alone the style of Yarmulka.

Yet look at what is going on with substances within our ranks, our communities, our schools and our homes - and this is beginning to be considered a normal expression of Jewish spirituality!

Perhaps we are somewhat to blame for presenting an overemphasis on the cosmic, supernatural, messianic and immediate benefits and aspects of our faith. And then, when the sun rises the next day, and the same vicissitudes are still there to challenge us - a powerful need is created to fill the unfulfilled spiritual expectation and people turn to substances to hasten the high.


This is how Eli Wiesel recalls a Simchat Torah with the Lubavitcher Rebbe:

Elie Wiesel tried to keep up with the Rebbe's drinking once: "[At m]y first visit to the [the Rebbe's] court...I had informed him at the outset that I was a Chasid of Vishnitz, not Lubavitch, and that I had no intention of switching allegiance. 'The important thing is to be a chasid,' he replied. 'It matters little whose." .. "One year, during Simchas Torah, I visited Lubavitch, as was my custom... 'Welcome,' he said. 'It's nice of a chasid of Vishnitz to come and greet us in Lubavitch. But is this how they celebrate Simchas Torah in Vishnitz?' 'Rebbe,' I said faintly, 'we are not in Vishnitz, but in Lubavitch.' 'Then do as we do in Lubavitch,' he said. 'And what do you do in Lubavitch?' 'In Lubavitch we drink and say lechayim.' 'In Vishnitz, too.' 'Very well. Then say lechayim.'

He handed me a glass filled to the brim with vodka. 'Rebbe,' I said, 'in Vishnitz a chasid does not drink alone.' 'Nor in Lubavitch,' the Rebbe replied. He emptied his glass in one gulp. I followed suit. 'Is one enough in Vishnitz?' the Rebbe asked. 'In Vishnitz,' I said bravely, 'one is but a drop in the sea.' 'In Lubavitch as well.' He handed me a second glass and refilled his own. He said lechaim, I replied lechaim, and we emptied our glasses. After all, I had to uphold the honor of Vishnitz. But as I was unaccustomed to drink, I felt my head begin to spin. I was not sure where or who I was, nor why I had come to this place, why I had been drawn into this strange scene. My brain was on fire. 'In Lubavitch we do not stop midway,' the Rebbe said. 'We continue. And in Vishnitz?' 'In Vishnitz, too,' I said, 'we go all the way.' The Rebbe struck a solemn pose. He handed me a third glass and refilled his own. My hand trembled; his did not. 'You deserve a brocha,' he said, his face beaming with happiness. 'Name it.' I wasn't sure what to say. I was, in fact, in a stupor. 'Would you like me to bless you so you can begin again?' Drunk as I was, I appreciated his wisdom.... 'Yes, Rebbe,' I said. 'Give me your brocha.' He blessed me and downed his vodka. I swallowed mine--and passed out."

["All Rivers Run to the Sea", Elie Wiesel, pp. 402-4]

What's interesting about this account is that it shows that not only does one have to overcome the allure of alcohol for its own sake, but more importantly in many Jewish circles there is what sociologists call 'cultural authority' (represented, in this case, by the many references to Vishnitz and Lubavitch) which endorses and even coerces engagement in such activity.

[1] Can Wine be Holy,
[2] Orach Chaim 695.
[3] Wikipedia: Kiddush Clubs.
[4] Alcohol and the Jews, by R. Berel Wein.
[5] Are Jews Less Likely To Be Alcoholics? by Amanda Botfeld. Forward, January 2017.
[6] Judaism and Alcohol, by R. Levi Brackman.

1 comment: