To drink or not to drink
Faith leaders discuss the spiritual morality of alcohol consumption
For some families, “Pass the holiday cheer” means an extra glass of wine, a flask of Jameson on the sly, or perhaps a chummy six-pack with Dad to pass the time until yet another awkward gorge-fest. This is not to paint an overly pessimistic view of the holidays; merely to point out that for many people, access to alcohol is rule No. 1 of holiday survival.
All that yuletide imbibing begs the question: What does God think of getting tipsy while spinning the dredl? Will Santa still visit if mom is passed out beneath the stockings?
Depending on your faith tradition, alcohol may be equated with the evil spirits of Satan, revered as the nectar of Bacchus, sanctified as the body of Christ, or simply accepted as a harmless habit—within moderation. But even if both you and your partner are committed to a life of faith, it still doesn’t guarantee you’ll agree on how much is too much.
My religion teaches that alcohol is OK in moderation, and I’ve grown up seeing my parents drink habitually, sometimes to excess. I’m now in my 20s and the person I’m seeing is very committed to living the way of God. He has threatened to leave me if I don’t stop drinking altogether. I’ve told him that I enjoy drinking occasionally, with a fine meal or with friends, and that I don’t see anything wrong with that. But he points to my alcoholic parents as reason why I should abstain completely. Does it have to be so black and white?
“For me, the primary question is not alcohol; it’s boundaries,” said Georgia Prescott, founding minister of the Center for Spiritual Awareness in West Sacramento. “If he’s feeling uncomfortable by the behavior of someone he’s dating, he gets to say that.”
Prescott is not one to shy away from differences. She founded the Center for Spiritual Awareness, which calls itself an “omni-faith” church, exactly nine years ago, after spending 20 years as executive director of the Council on Aging in Sonoma County.
“My desire when I came [to Sacramento] was to have a family church that was diverse,” Prescott explained. “That was really the vision, to have a place where people could come together and celebrate their spirit, and be with people who don’t look like them, don’t sound like them, don’t love like them, don’t pray like them. … And we’ve created that.”
To stay true to the church’s mission “to not just acknowledge, but celebrate all paths to God,” Prescott preaches from a rainbow of religious sources: the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Sutras, the Bible, and the Torah. As an inner-city ministry that started out sandwiched between two “adult experience” hotels, the Center for Spiritual Awareness has blossomed into an “amazingly diverse” church that really “walks our talk,” Prescott said.
Michael Moran, Unity minister of Midtown’s Spiritual Life Center, shares Prescott’s dedication to interfaith cooperation. He asserted that “Peace will only come when it is taught and practiced in the churches, the synagogues, the temples and the mosques.”
Growing up Irish Catholic, Moran said there were only two things that ever grabbed him in life: the ministry and, once he departed from Catholic theology, broadcasting, which he sees as “an incredibly powerful force that can be used to change the world in a very short period of time.” Moran worked as a rock ’n’ roll disc jockey in Seattle before founding the Spiritual Life Center with his wife nine years ago.
Responding to our liquor-conflicted couple, Moran said, “I don’t recall anywhere in the Bible where alcohol is prohibited.” In fact, “Jesus was called a wine-biber.”
He turned to Rabbi David Wechsler-Azen, of Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael, for a Jewish perspective.
“One of the great Torah commentators was a wine-maker in France in the 11th century,” Wechsler-Azen said. “Every Shabbat is sanctifying the Sabbath through wine. So from a Jewish perspective [wine’s OK], unless you’ve gone too far.”
And how far is too far?
“Anytime you lose the ability to control your inhibitions,” said Moran. “If you’re drinking to the point where you go beyond the ability to reason, then that’s excess.”
Prescott offered another take on monitoring overindulgence: “If you can’t look in the mirror and say, ‘I am representing God today,’ and feel good about it, then you went too far.”
“I’d say dignity is a good marker,” Wechsler-Azen said. “If you’ve lost your ability to treat yourself with dignity and to be respected, and if you’re not able to stop yourself from saying or doing things that would be hurtful to others or to yourself …”
Lucky for him, Judaism provides an annual day of excess, in the form of the springtime holiday Purim.
“Once a year it’s actually a commandment to get plastered,” Wechsler-Azen told us. “It’s fascinating because it’s not trying to stop up all the tendencies; it actually sanctifies them.”
A rabbi for 21 years, Wechsler-Azen grew up on the golf course in New Jersey, and also boasts a film background. (“My right shoulder was in a Bruce Willis film,” he said wryly.) A rabbinic fellowship to film school led to his producing and starring in a theatre piece called The Garden of Eden, in which he played Adam. Together with his co-rabbi wife, Wechsler-Azen is now working on a project called Fresh Producers, which is “creating ways to incentivize youth to eat better and become advocates for better health in their communities, as well as increase access to healthy food in underserved neighborhoods.”
But back to this annual day of getting plastered.
Wechsler-Azen explained that Purim is the story of Esther, which relates the deliverance of the Jews in Persia 2,500 years ago from threat of annihilation. Performed as a farce, celebrants do song parodies to tell the story in the Book of Esther (the “Purim spiel”), and seize the opportunity to poke fun at teachers and politics.
“It’s kind of an outlet for all of those heretical urges that are often stuffed up in the name of reverence,” Wechsler-Azen said. “All of that is unleashed on this day. Men dress up as women, women dress up as men, Jews dress as non-Jews—”
“So you cross all the boundaries,” Moran said.
“You cross all the boundaries, and then you get so inebriated that you cannot tell the difference between ‘Blessed by the bad guy and cursed by the good guy.’ You’re beyond all distinction-making. … What it teaches is laughing in the face of danger.”
Moran pointed to the pagan Irish festival Lughnasa as another example of sanctified end-of-summer debauchery. In addition to drinking and storytelling, it was the one time of year when women could take other lovers.
“We don’t do that on Purim,” Wechsler-Azen clarified, laughing. “It’s only about drinking!”