Spouse of Souse and Wailing about a Wall: Questions to my Jewish Standard "Dear Rabbi Zahavy" Talmudic Advice Column for May 2016

I just realized that I've been writing this monthly column for three years!

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I think that my husband drinks too much. He has at least two glasses of wine every night at dinnertime. He often drinks more later in the evening. On Shabbat he has several drinks of hard liquor with his buddies in shul before lunch. I’m worried that he is an alcoholic. What should I do?

Wife of Wine Drinker

Dear Wife,

Wine plays a pervasive and positive role in the rituals of our Jewish tradition, as you doubtless know. Our Sabbaths and festivals are inaugurated at dinner by blessing a cup of wine and drinking it. We end the holy days with wine at the Havdalah ceremony. On Passover we make it through the stresses of the holiday and of the Seder meal with the help of four cups of wine, interspersed throughout the evening. On Purim there is a mitzvah that we must drink until we no longer can differentiate between cursing Haman and blessing Mordecai.

At a child’s bris, we recite a blessing and drink wine right after the circumcision. At a wedding, the bride and groom drink wine before the groom places the ring on his bride’s finger and recites the formula of Kiddushin, and a second cup is filled for the blessings that conclude the ceremony.

The biblical books of Proverbs, Kohelet, and Psalms, in our early Israelite wisdom literature, advise us that wine makes a person’s heart glad. And the Talmud adds that happiness comes only through wine.

And yet, our heritage does not approve of overdoing drink to the point of intoxication. The drunkenness of Noah is decried in a narrative in Genesis, and the Torah considers worthy the Nazirite’s vow to abstain entirely from wine.

Even given the mainly positive attitudes toward alcohol in our traditions, you are worried about your husband’s drinking habits. Let’s look more closely at your concerns. I will make some assumptions based on what you asked.

You say your husband drinks at dinner. I’d worry if he were going to operate heavy machinery or pilot a plane after drinking. But if he spends his time at home, not driving or out in public, it’s less of an issue and I’m less concerned.

You also need to consider your husband’s motives for drinking more than one glass of wine. It may relax him and help him unwind. His daily responsibilities may burden him with anxiety and stress and the wine then serves as his medication.

If he drinks enough to impair his reflexes or judgment, that could still lead to trouble, however, even if he is home. Some people are angrier when inebriated and that would not be desirable. And some people send out strange emails when tipsy. That also could cause problems down the road.

But if none of this pertains to your situation, then you do not have a clear problem to deal with. Perhaps that quick analysis will calm your worries. There are psychologists and social workers who will agree with me that you need not be overwrought, given these facts.

On the other hand, there are professionals who would say that what your husband is doing raises a red flag. A person who drinks daily at the level you describe is using wine to self-medicate, perhaps to deal with underlying depression, stress, or tensions that can be treated better under the supervision of a qualified counselor.

You should know that if your husband is admitted to a hospital for any reason, he is likely to be asked how much he drinks. At his level of consumption (if he is honest with the interviewer) he will be tagged as an alcoholic. This may not be something he wants. But he should be clear in informing the staff, since his safe and proper treatment with medications may depend on how much alcohol he has in his system.

You may also be concerned about the long-term impact of alcohol on your husband’s health. You don’t want to be passive, allow him to drink too much, and accordingly see him develop a serious drinking-related disease like cirrhosis of the liver.

Periodically we read of studies that purport to show, for instance, that two drinks of wine a day are beneficial to a person’s health. We ought to ask in your case: What about four glasses of wine? And more important, we ought to ask, with some skepticism: Who sponsors these studies? What of other medical conclusions that claim the long-term use of alcohol at these levels can be detrimental to a person’s health?

So finally we ask, do you or your husband have a problem here or not? I suggest that you be watchful of your husband’s wine habits, and that you talk to him from time to time about them. But in my view you do not need to be hypervigilant or to take any action at this time. As long as your husband appears to you to be safe and happy, you can relax.

That said, if his drinking increases and he becomes inebriated to the point of impairing his ability to function socially or physically, you should urge him to seek help through a therapist or a support group.

I asked a friend in our community who has struggled with alcoholism about the local availability of support meetings. He suggested first that it is important to choose the appropriate kind of group. They vary, attracting people of different ages, types of professions, and types of addictions, factors that may be important in terms of peer support. He noted that some support meetings have more affluent, older and more stable attendees. Others may have more blue-collar workers, single and divorced people, and unemployed workers.

He noted to me that many groups meet in churches, though usually in the social halls, not the sanctuary. There are groups all around our area, including in Ho-Ho-Kus, Dumont, Englewood and Fort Lee, at lunch times and evenings, at beginners level and advanced meetings. On a recent Sunday, the meeting locator on Alcoholics Anonymous’s local website, www.nnjaa.org, listed 40 meetings taking place within 10 miles of Teaneck. Consider also that family members of problem drinkers may turn to Al-Anon meetings for support.

I hope this discussion helps and I urge you and your husband to use your best judgment to decide, first, if there is a problem, and second, if there is, how to address it so that it can be resolved.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

When we visit Jerusalem, my wife immediately wants to visit the Kotel, the Second Temple’s Western Wall. She insists that the Temple site is especially sacred, and that she must go there to make urgent prayers for people who are ill, and to pray for success and for other needs.

I keep telling her that she can offer her prayers anywhere, and that running to the Kotel is unnecessary. What can I do to convince her that she need not do this?

Husband of the Wall

Dear Husband,

The basic premise of your wife’s actions is the general notion that some spaces in our world are more sacred than others, hence they are better places to pray. And the specific instance of her belief is the claim made for the special holiness today of the Kotel plaza in the Old City of Jerusalem. Let’s look at her assumptions and at her application of them.

A space becomes sacred when people say it is. Or sometimes, more specifically, when people say that a deity says that it is sacred. Oftentimes a place can be holy because faithful folks say that God dwells there, or that it is a portal to heaven.

A scholar of religions, Rudolph Otto, spoke in the early 20th century of the inherent awesomeness, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans — the numinous feelings — of holy spaces, and their ability to evoke powerful emotions.

No doubt, for many, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is an aesthetically and spiritually powerful location.

The stories attached to it tell us that God chose that place for the sacrifice of Isaac, that King David made it the center of his city, and that God told Solomon to build him a house on the hill.

In the broader narrative of Israelite culture, there are concentric circles of holiness that surround this sacred point. Ranked in increasing orders of holiness are the lands near to Israel, Israel itself, the Judean Hills, the city of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, the Temple courtyard, the inner chambers, and the most sacred Holy of Holies.

This same mount, by the way, is sacred to Islam, and it is a place of worship and pilgrimage for Muslims based on a narrative of Mohammed’s mystical physical ascent to heaven from the rock on the Temple Mount up to the presence of God.

So your wife has good reason to consider the locale special. That said, it seems from your question that you are hesitant. You see your wife wanting to run off to talk to a wall. True, it is a special structure, because archaeologists say that the lower parts of the wall may date back to the ancient time of Solomon’s Temple.

But the Kotel is a barrier, a partition. As many of us learned in elementary or high school, the American poet Robert Frost opines in his poem “Mending Wall” on his neighbor’s sage advice: “Good fences make good neighbors.” It seems that you put more trust in the poet’s words — “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” — and that you do not think that a wall makes for a compelling religious symbol.

You doubtless ought to take into account that at Orthodox synagogues all women pray behind a divider. Those who do that have no problem with the practice.

Finally, what should you do? Clearly, a trip to the Old City of Jerusalem uplifts your wife. If you can get yourself into a generous spirit, I suggest that you offer to drive her over to the Kotel. You can wait, if you wish, in the car outside the Old City wall, while she goes in to visit and to pray at the Temple wall. It does not take that long to offer prayers at the Kotel. And by doing this, you’ll be maintaining the harmony of your marital relationship. That kind action surely will make your life more holy.

Tzvee Zahavy earned his Ph.D. from Brown University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author of several books including these e-books on Amazon: “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Dear Rabbi Zahavy” — which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.

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