The question of alcoholic beverages has been the concern of many religious communities. For both Jewish and Christian communities, drunkenness is considered morally inadequate. Yet, we often fail to perceive behind the usual reasons given for drinking, “to forget,” “to have a good time,” a more profound motivation.
I believe that the true motivation behind drinking alcohol is a philosophical motivation, and what is more, a spiritual motivation. Indeed, people drink to temper the ho-hum routine of their life. Their drinking stems from a profound dissatisfaction with life as it is manifest, from an obscure feeling that beneath everyday existence there lies a deeper, truer reality. People drink to explode the bounds of their own nature, to press beyond the obsession with survival, to experience pure sensations, unaffected by the ailments of life. By drinking, they hope to pierce through the veil of appearances (the “maya” to use a more exotic term) to the truer reality. One that is more intense and more vivid. A reality where one has the liberty to create. As such, the motivations behind alcohol drinking can be considered to be philosophical— the intuition that present reality is but an illusion under which lies a truer reality— and spiritual—the attempt to unveil a deeper reality of an otherworldly aura. But can the effects of alcohol be considered aspiritual experience? Is this why we drink “to life?” to this other life we experience in drunkenness, of pure joy and elation?
This question takes us into the nature of spirituality. Indeed, what do the Jewish and Christian traditions consider spirituality to be, and in the light of their conception of spirituality, how may we characterize the experience of drunkenness?
Strikingly, in both traditions, as opposed to other forms of spirituality (which we will expose further down), true spirituality always leads to action. There is no such thing as a gratuitous spiritual experience in the Judeo- Christian traditions. A genuine spiritual experience always propels us back into human reality, into action.
Moses, upon witnessing God’s glory, didn’t soar into the heavens. He came back down bearing the tables of the law. The apostle Paul, upon his blinding encounter with God, became one of the most influential apostles. Indeed, there is not spiritual experience per se, for its own sake. For as such, it would only grasp the mind, having no effect past the moment of representation; it would not affect the body, nor existence. Worse yet, it could be an illusion, a mere dream. In order to be credible, to be whole, a spiritual experience must permeate existence, it must merge with everyday life, guiding every action, every word, and every motivation.
The spiritual experience of alcohol remains an isolated experience which does not overflow into daily existence. His attempt at grasping the deeper reality having failed, the drinker is forced back to everyday life (with a hangover at that). On the other hand, he who has had a genuine spiritual experience comes back to reality with the power to create anew; to change everything. Such is the test of a true spiritual experience: if one comes back from it enlivened to exert one’s creative power on reality.
The spiritual experience triggered by alcohol is hence an aborted one, which doesn’t mature to ethical fulfillment. And what is more, it is a dangerous experience (and I speak not even of its hazard to health; it is dangerous in another sense).
Indeed, drunkenness as a spiritual experience is no new concept. Alcoholic beverages and other drugs were featured ingredients in ancient religions and cults. The Greek mystics already used wine to produce a state of euphoria characteristic of Dionysian cults (note that Dionysos came only later to be associated with wine by reason of the ecstasy his disciples experienced which could be compared to that achieved in drunkenness). Ancient Hindus also used a drink called “soma” in order to induce in the drinker a hypnotic state.
In both cases, the individual is in a position where he does not know what he is doing. He is transported beyond his will and power; his liberty is thus withdrawn. There is a danger associated with this state of being, as with any kind of possession, that the individual, instead of becoming creative, should instead become destructive. A genuine spiritual experience cannot occur in a state of unconsciousness. As such, it could again be mistaken for a dream. The true spiritual experience must take place while the subject is fully conscious; he must be able to remember his experience. He must be able, throughout the whole experience, to abort it were his discerning powers to reject the force moving in him. He must be able to judge the potential effect of his actions, so as to inhibit any potentially destructive action. There can be no true spirituality without the discernment of the mind. This is what Emmanuel Levinas states in Difficult Liberty: “The spirituality of Israel resides in her intellectual excellence.” Our situation as spiritual creatures in no way excludes the exercise of our critical powers. Likewise, our critical powers in no way exclude us from having a spiritual, even mystical experience.
The spiritual experience brought about by alcohol leaves the subject completely oblivious as to what is going on. And thus, it takes on again the form of a mirage, with no lasting effect. Moreover, it is a potentially dangerous state, during which the unconscious subject is no longer able to discern between creative and destructive actions.
Thus, the drinking of alcoholic beverages, although motivated by a philosophical and spiritual intuition, and in spite of its feature role in ancient cults and religions, does not qualify as a spiritual experience. First because it does not motivate for action (worse yet, it decreases our potential for action); second, because it remains an unconscious experience where the subject does not remember nor can monitor. The mental state triggered by alcohol leaves no trace, either in the memory of the subject, or in his subsequent behavior, and may easily be dismissed as illusory. There is no genuine spiritual, mind-broadening experience to be found in alcohol. Although the motivations are pure and even legitimate— we want, we need to forget— in choosing this path we may lose in the process what we were looking for in the “mystical” experience of alcohol, that is, the best of what we have: ourselves.
Image:Tempranillo varietal wine bottle and glass, showing colour Shot with Nikon D70s. Public Domain
Cause our hearts to understand, to discern, to comprehend, to study and to teach, to observe, to act and to fulfill all the words of Your Torah in love… ~ SIDDUR, AHAVAH RABBAH