Jordan Rosenblum is a professor of Jewish studies and art history at the University of Wisconsin. (Photo/Courtesy Rosenblum)
Jordan Rosenblum is a professor of Jewish studies and art history at the University of Wisconsin. (Photo/Courtesy Rosenblum)

Lecture on booze as a gateway chug into rabbinic thinking

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Jordan Rosenblum’s first whiff of the Talmud in college was intoxicating. Now 41 and a professor of Jewish studies and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rosenblum is the author of “Rabbinic Drinking: What Beverages Teach Us About Rabbinic Literature” — a sort of backdoor introduction to the basics of Talmud and the classical rabbinic mindset.

He’ll bring that approach to San Francisco State University on Sept. 15 as a guest lecturer in professor Rachel Gross’ Introduction to Jewish Studies course. During the fall semester, with SFSU entirely online, the Jewish Studies Department is making the course’s guest lectures available to the public for free. Rosenblum’s is titled “The Talmud Walks Into a Bar.”

J.: Of all the subjects the Talmud touches on, why alcohol? What makes it such a good introduction to rabbinic texts?

Jordan Rosenblum: My book isn’t just about alcohol. It’s about all drinking. But mostly beer and wine.

One of my main audiences is undergrads. I teach Intro to Rabbinic Literature. I could’ve written about a variety of things, but that’s my point; rabbinic texts talk about the most profound things right in the middle of a discussion of the most mundane things. So I could’ve just as easily written a book called “Holy Crap: An Introduction to Rabbinic Literature Through Excrement and Urination.” But I happen to think the lens of beverages is particularly relatable to a college student.

But the rabbis also have a lot to say about other beverages, like breast milk.

Cover of "Rabbinic Drinking" by Jordan RosenblumAnd what do they say about breast milk?

I have a son who’s about to turn 6. Right after he was born, he and my wife were figuring out breastfeeding, and I wondered: What do the ancient rabbis have to say about this? So one example is this: The rabbis believed that a biological father is obligated to feed his child, and his wife is obligated to feed her husband’s child. But a biological mother has no rabbinic obligation to feed her own child. So if they get divorced, he’s still obligated to feed the child, but she isn’t.

And already, right there, you have a window to so many other things. From there, you can talk about gender, family structure, contract law, all kinds of things. To talk about anything specific, we have to also talk about all these major broad themes in rabbinic literature.

You write that your first encounter with rabbinic literature, which came as a college freshman, was reminiscent of “drinking a little too much. In both, I experienced a feeling of euphoria and pleasant disorientation, followed by a splitting headache.”

It’s just that there’s so much to get your head around. It was so different from other things I had read, and it presumed so much knowledge. Keeping it all straight was difficult. It was like the first sips of alcohol where you look around and think, “People like this?” As I got it, like the acquired taste for alcohol, I started to realize why people liked it.

What was that first piece of Talmud you encountered?

One of the first ones I studied is right at the beginning of Berachot [the first volume of the Talmud], where they’re discussing the correct time to say the Shema, how late at night can you say it — and in the middle of that, a bunch of sons come back from a party, presumably drunk, and they ask their dad a technical question about reciting this prayer.

What kind of experiences did you have with Jewish learning before that?

I grew up going to a Conservative synagogue and had a bar mitzvah, but I learned liturgical Hebrew. I could read and rattle off prayers, and had read some things in translation, but had never sat down with Hebrew or Aramaic in a fluid way and hadn’t really interacted with a page of Talmud.

What are people going to hear about if they tune in to your lecture?

There are a variety of ways to talk about the rich and varied experiences of the Jewish people. There are ways to do it that are dry and boring, and there are ways that are engaging and direct. I want people to get an introduction to rabbinic literature, because all of Judaism that came after is engaged with rabbinic Judaism, even if it’s just to reject it.

About two years ago, right before Passover, Orthodox authorities declared that almost all beer in New York was nonkosher. The main beer distributor for the whole New York area was Jewish but not observant. So the Orthodox view is that an observant Jew can sell their hametz (leavened food, which includes beer) temporarily during Passover. But the owner of this distributor was a nonobservant Jew who still fully owned his hametz. What that showed is that even today, to understand basic business practices, you have to understand debates that began 2,000 years earlier. What I’m hoping to do is give people an understanding and an interest in this literature.

To wrap it up, give us a colorful rabbinic drinking story.

Take Purim. There’s the famous rule that a Jew must drink on Purim “ad lo yada — until they don’t know good from bad.” But if you look at that text, there’s more going on there. There’s a story about two rabbis getting drunk on Purim. One of them kills the other. In the morning he realizes what he did and he prays to God, and God brings him back to life. The next year on Purim, the guy who got killed doesn’t want to drink with his friend again because he might kill him again, and God might not bring him back this time. And that’s right next to this thing about drinking ad lo yada, a reminder that there are limits.

“Fall 2020 Lectures in Jewish Studies.” Offered via Zoom by SFSU Jewish Studies Department, 5-6:15 p.m. Tuesdays from Sept. 8 to Dec. 1. Free with registration.

David A.M. Wilensky
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
J. The Jewish News of Northern California Staff Headshots.
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is director of news product at J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky