An unseasonable confession: I hate drunkenness. I hate being drunk and drunk people in turn repel me. Drinking isn’t something I inherited—on rare occasion my parents might share a glass of scotch, but always avoided excess. This moderation was accompanied by a strange ethnic logic: drinking, especially mixed drinks, is something gentiles do (shikker iz der goy, as everyone knows); Jews maybe have a little wine, and never get drunk. As a gesture of rebellion I started ordering gin and tonics once I turned of age—the most WASPish cocktail I could imagine—but really more out of a sense of obligation than anything else. I got through most college parties by politely sipping a single hard seltzer. Having a conversation with a drunk person in that context struck me mostly as an invitation to meditate on the virtues of Islam.
So Purim is problematic. I’m obligated on this day not merely to drink to but to get drunk. On Purim a sacrament is made that exceeds substance (as on shabbat, when wine and its consumption is made a vehicle of holiness) and bleeds into experience. There is no minimum amount of alcohol to consume, I can’t fulfill my obligation by drinking an olive or egg’s volume of whiskey. My service of heaven instead takes its form in the blurriness of vision, in slurred speech and disorganized thoughts. This is the measure of piety: out of love for God and His Torah, I lose consciousness.
What do I do with this?—other than, of course, construct a rigorous theory of sacred drunkenness. In doing so I jump from from Shushan to Eleusis—like Plutarch, who was convinced upon witnessing the festival of Sukkot that Jews were worshippers of Dionysus I turn here to a theology of Greek ecstasy to better understand my own tradition. My first premise: the obligation of drunkenness is not one to be taken lightly. Revelry is serious work.
I learned how to dance on Purim from Derrida. Or maybe from his interpreters, who have a habit of making Derrida dance. Caputo, reading Mark Taylor: “deconstruction dances gaily on the grave of the dead God, is not responsible to anything, is not responding to a call or claim, makes no promises and has no faith.” The dance of deconstruction is the “pious path pursued through negative theology,” performed not in celebration of God’s absence but in celebration of an absent God. This image echoes George Steiner, who in Real Presences wrote the following critique of Derrida:
Deconstruction dances in front of the ancient Ark. This dance is at once playful, as is indeed that of Satyrs and, in its subtler practitioners … instinct with sadness. For the dancer knows that the Ark is empty. (p. 140)
What does it mean to dance in front of an empty Ark?
The megilla of Esther is one of only a handful of canonical texts (including the Song of Songs) where the name of God is absent. Some will object: God forbid God’s name is absent—as if anything might exist in the absence of God’s name! Better to say, then, that God’s name is concealed—certain commentaries have even codified lists of all the mentions of God encrypted throughout the megillah. This is precisely the (subtle) difference between classical Kabbalah and Hasidic theology: in the former God’s essence is remote; in the latter He is immanent but hidden.
In either case, migallat Esther represents the first prose account of Israel’s exile and thus the budding formulation of a diasporic (non-)theology. It’s in part for this reason that the kabbalists identify Esther as the paradigmatic story of safkut, Derrida’s aporia, the reality of doubt. Esther, like us, exists after prophecy; the central question of her religious life is also ours: “what, exactly, do You want from me?” Esther is apprehensive. She doesn’t know, with anything like the certainty of a prophetess, if she will succeed in saving her nation. Up until and including (I’ll contend, countering certain Hasidic readings) the moment of redemption itself, God’s will and presence is occluded. Our dance on Purim is the dance of the deconstructionists, an ecstasy experienced in God’s absence.
There’s something in the substance of wine itself that offers us access to this experience. Waking, sober life is a reality of contradictions. Only in dreams and in drunkenness (wine-drunkenness, says the tradition, especially) are we able to transcend contradictions and live in the space of paradox, where opposing principles are accepted as wholly true. The Zohar calls this space resha d’lo ityada, the “head that is not known”—in Lurianic Kabbalah this concept (acronym Radla) is described as a level of the sefirah Keter that transcends all binaries and distinction. To borrow from a good friend and teacher: in phenomenal reality, doubt [safkut] is a problem of epistemology; at the level of Radla it is a condition of ontology¹—the ground of Radla’s being (if we can speak of such a thing) is uncertainty. Think about Schrödinger’s cat; or, better, of Aristotle’s horse in potentia, which boasts every color and breed at once.
There’s a tradition that imagines Purim as Israel’s second acceptance of the covenant of Torah. At first, on Sinai, we accepted it in fear; on Purim we accept it out of love. It is only in (the) light of Your absence, paradoxically, that we fully accept our relationship with You. Is this not the festival of rabbinic Judaism par excellence? The festival of exile, of apophasis? Only in His concealment do we seek to understand and act in service of God.
Purim is the festival of the Radla, the mystery beyond contradictions, the wine-drunk realization: “it’s all true.” In God’s absence, doubt arises; on Purim we celebrate the experience of doubt as such, without searching for its resolution.
Heidegger thinks of drunkenness through the language of alterity; ecstasy as excessive “fullness” beyond subjectivity; literal ek-stasis, being beyond oneself:
Drunkenness means a being-filled, that includes a proper collectedness and readiness. Drunkenness is that sublimity of mood which has decided itself in favor of the most extreme other. (GA 52: 147)
This theory of intoxication brings to the fore of our mind that deity which dominated Heidegger’s thought, translated out of the poetry of Hölderlin, “holy Bacchus, the fruit of the storm”—Dionysus. Alterity and drunkenness: the god of wine is a masked god. As Walter Otto notes, the mask of Dionysus functions principally as the symbol of his presence—that is, his immanence; his identity as “the god who appears”:
… Dionysus was presented in the mask because he was known as the god of confrontation. … Because it is his nature to appear suddenly and with overwhelming might before mankind, the mask serves as his symbol and his incarnation in cult. (p. 90)
We can dwell here, if you like, on the function of the mask in Purim celebrations. But the language of incarnation risks distracting us from a point I want to insist on—the functional utility, that is, of the mask (and then: the masquerade) as the symbol of a dialectic of presence and absence. Ritual masking is a discourse of being and non-being; or of non-being (the relative non-ontology of created beings) alluding to absolute Being. The mask—the Purim mask like the Bacchanal mask—allows for revelry in the absence of divine immediacy. I mean to suggest the mask as an access point to Radla, a portal into the space of revelry that exceeds contradiction. You could do something interesting here with the mask as a distinctly Heideggerian symbol, contra Levinas’ insistence on an ethics of the face. In lieu of this I return to Otto, who later extrapolates on Dionysus’s contradictory qualities, casting the god as fundamentally a god of paradox:
His duality has manifested itself to us in the antitheses of ecstasy and horror, infinite vitality and savage destruction; in the pandemonium in which deathly silence is inherent; in the immediate presence which is at the same time absolute remoteness. All of his gifts and attendant phenomena give evidence of the sheer madness of his dual essence: prophecy, music, and finally wine, the flamelike herald of the god, which has in it both bliss and brutality. At the height of ecstasy all of these paradoxes suddenly unmask themselves and reveal their names to be Life and Death. (p. 121)
Echoing Otto, Heidegger highlights Dionysus’ “distinctive” paradoxical relationship to the dialectic of being and non-being even more explicitly (pay attention here):
Dionysos is not just one demigod among others, but the distinctive one. He is the Yes that belongs to life at its wildest, inexhaustible in its creative urge, and he is the No that belongs to the most terrifying death and annihilation. … He is the one in being the other; that is, in being, he at the same time is not and in not being, he is. […] In presencing, this demigod is absent, and in absencing he is present. The symbol of the one who is absent in presencing and present in absencing is the mask. The mask is the distinctive symbol of Dionysos — that is, understood metaphysically in a Greek way: the originary relatedness to one another of being and non-being (presence and absence). (GA 39: 189–90/173)
The idiom of Dionysus read through Heidegger allows us access into the secret of Purim; namely: the ability (and obligation) to find joy in accepting the doubts that accompany God’s absence/concealment—or, more radically, to find joy in the doubt of God’s existence. In wine-drunk ecstasy we throw ourselves into the presence of an absent God; in ecstasy, we reveal His concealment.
Before His absence, His empty altar, we’re obliged to drink wine. The wine of Purim grants us access to the Dionysian space of Radla, the space where doubt is not undone but embraced, where divinity is at once present and absent.“In presencing, God is absent; in absencing he is present.” To dance in God’s absence: this is what revelry demands of us—this is the task of drunkenness.
The premise of these notes was born out of a conversation with a close friend on the bus back to Jerusalem. There’s no good way to credit him, as he himself would point out, but he knows who he is.
I should also credit my cherished teacher Rabbi Joey Rosenfeld, whose classes on Purim were formative in my thinking around this topic.
Many of the citations above were sourced from Andrew Mitchell’s excellent essay “What is Called Drinking?: Heidegger, Wine, and Loss,” available here.
- Shout out Jeremy (@jeremytibbetts1).
- Otto, Walter F. Dionysus: Myth and Cult. Vol. 95. Indiana University Press, 1965. Required reading for any serious student of Heidegger, who credited himself with shaping Otto’s theory of myths.