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Driven to Drink

Yocheved Lavon

Until recently, overindulgence in drink was commonly perceived as a non-Jewish thing, but today, liquor’s reputation has changed. Some of our sons and brothers — boys who learn Torah and believe in Jewish values —indulge in recreational drinking, claiming that Friday-night drinking helps them stay on an even keel the rest of the week. What lies behind this shift in attitude — socially, emotionally, and spiritually? And where is it leading these boys? Can we ever condone such behavior?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

bottles of wineWe are not a nation of teetotalers. From Russia to Morocco, from America to Israel, alcoholic beverages have always been part of Jewish life. “Let wine make the human heart rejoice,” said David HaMelech. The Torah recognizes the legitimacy of using alcohol to awaken joy in our hearts — and the illegitimacy of drinking to a point where self-control is lost.

Some of us associate a fine wine or liquor with the good things in life, a way to upgrade any joyous occasion; others think of alcohol and see images of rowdy and destructive behavior, addiction, and ruined lives. The debate obviously can’t be framed in simple terms of “which side is right?” The questions we need to ask instead are: Where is the line between good and bad drinking? Who draws it and how is it discerned?


My Outlet

Moish, 23 years old, looks the part of a nice American yeshivah boy in dark trousers and a suit jacket over a white shirt. His manners are pleasant, while at the same time direct and down to earth, New York style. At a slow hour in a Jerusalem café, we begin our meeting, and two things become evident right away: one, his intense desire to make himself understood, to be heard as one who knows what it’s all about as an insider, not a commentator from the outside. Two, his scorn for some people’s tendency to judge or to slap labels like “alcoholic” on him and his peers with no understanding of the word’s implications.

Clearly, retaining the identity of a yeshivah bochur is important to Moish and his friends. They have no argument with Torah hashkafah or with Jewish morality. Somehow, the see their Shabbos drinking habit serving a purpose in helping them to stay grounded the rest of the week. They want to know what’s wrong with letting loose with their buddies on Shabbos or at a simchah, if that’s the outlet that works for them.

In order to better understand the mindset of these boys, we asked Moish to share some of his feelings. They may be shocking or disturbing, but they are honest and real. After hearing what Moish – and likely countless others – have to say on this delicate subject, we presented his take to a distinguished panel for review, analysis, and hopefully a solution.

“First of all,” Moish begins, “I want to say that when we drink, it’s got nothing to do with escape. An alcoholic comes home and goes straight to the bottle. That’s not us. These are good frum guys we’re talking about.”

Moish adds a disclaimer:

“We’re not talking about guys in excellent yeshivos who are really into learning. We’re talking about the average or below-average guy who isn’t learning 24 hours a day. He goes to yeshivah, he learns, he puts in his time, and at the end of the week he feels the need to relax.”

Moish himself grew up in a very hospitable family that liked to see their guests having a good time, and good wines and liquors were always on the Shabbos table. A boy doesn’t have to go into dens of iniquity to get wine or liquor; he can get it at a kiddush, a simchah, or the table of an accommodating host on Shabbos night, and that in itself makes it different from narcotics, in terms of the kind of boys it attracts and their attitude of being entitled to it.

“People want to know: Why is this going on? They say that even just ten, 15 years ago, bochurim drinking was unheard of. Someone who’s older has to understand; there’s something called yeridas hadoros — it isn’t the same world that it was then.”


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