PONET: The wisdom of drink

Intoxication. You can hear it in the word — can’t you? — the sense that in reaching a state of heightened joy, perhaps near ecstasy, one has been invaded by toxins, that when inside an extremity of feeling — say exhilaration, despondency or erotic obsession — one has been poisoned with emotion, unhinged, rendered irresponsible, foolish and at risk.

As always, language does convey a truth — in inebriation there is danger. But we do well to remember that a wise response to danger does not seek safety through sacrifice of intensity, depth and passion. How to recognize the value as well as the risks of aroused feelings, awakened awareness, heightened sensitivity? The understandable call to dampen and dull our pains, to diminish and control our joys comes at the cost of aliveness and creativity. I urge therefore cultivation of a wisdom of extremity, a consideration of the uses and abuses of intoxication in general and of drink-infused intoxication in particular.

Jewish tradition, its laws and narratives, advocates various uses of alcohol as part of the regimen of a good life. Highly sensitive to the dangers of abusive consumption, the tradition warns of overuse and addiction — “Do not ogle that red wine as it lends its color to the cup, as it flows on smoothly; in the end it bites like a snake; it spits like a basilisk. Your eyes will see strange sights; your heart will speak distorted things”(Proverbs 23) — but it clearly calls for drinking wine at every wedding ceremony, on Shabbat, at Passover Seder and on Purim. And the Psalmist (104:14) characteristically appreciates that God “brings forth bread from the earth and wine that gladdens the heart of man to make faces shine brighter than oil.”

Wine, however, is not the way for everyone. The tradition affirms total abstention as right for some, individuals whom it names Nazirites, and includes among them the prophet Samuel and the judge Samson. However, for those who choose to incorporate wine into their lives, a wisdom of drinking is critical, and in our times perhaps more important than ever.

Consider two pedagogical examples: The first drunk to appear in the Hebrew Bible is Noah, who after the Flood, having survived the first genocide, then plants a vineyard, harvests grapes, produces wine and drinks himself into a stupor. In the aftermath of drunken collapse, inside the nauseating dread of hangover, he utters his first spoken word, “Cursed,” sadly addressed to his son. Comment and discuss the distinction between finding comfort and “getting wrecked.”

Trapped inside the shame of her own barrenness, Hannah, who would soon give birth to the prophet Samuel, prays in silent tears at the alter in Shiloh. Eli, the priest at Shiloh, no doubt accustomed to witnessing the decorous ministrations of pilgrim celebrants, mistakes Hannah’s open expression of anguish for wine-induced hysteria. “Oh no, my lord!” she responds to the scolding cleric. “I am a very unhappy woman. I have drunk no wine or other strong drink, but I have been pouring out my heart to the Lord.” Have you ever used drink, or feigned being drunk, so as to act out an anguish (or perhaps a desire) you have kept hidden from others and perhaps from yourself? The Talmud teaches that when wine enters, a secret emerges.

The goal of drink is not drink itself, but rather the state of mind to which it can lead when wisely managed and skillfully used. We can use alcohol to remind ourselves of the goodness and beauty of life, to reawaken our sense of solidarity, integrity, lovability; we can use it as one tool in the lifework of crafting and shaping our deepest desires, sorrows, terrors and joys.

But how does this craft relate to actual student life at Yale? I think we need to find out, and to that end, I am hosting tomorrow night, at 8:30 p.m. at the Slifka Center, an open discussion of the real questions Yale students face and the ones they turn away from: When and why do we drink to “get wrecked?” How can we dismiss the things we’ve said or done because we are drunk? What leads us to lament the consequences of a forgotten night as our heads pound the next morning, and what lures us back to drink again?

James Ponet is a 1968 graduate of Timothy Dwight College and the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish chaplain. Contact him at james.ponet@yale.edu .

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