Mar 2016

Drink Prey Lust

Purim is a festival of inversion, a time when the lowly are honored, the esteemed are mocked, the serious is parodied, and the forbidden is — for a moment — permissible.  By turning things upside down for a day, Purim reaffirms what right-side-up should look like. 

It is only in this context of inversion that there is a religious mandate to drink until one is so drunk that one does not know the difference between the hero and the villain in the story.  But how should a festival of inversion be observed in a context where upside-down is no inversion at all and looks suspiciously close to right-side-up?  How should Purim be observed on college campuses?

In 2015, about a month before Purim, a Nashville jury convicted two former members of the football team at my university, Vanderbilt, of the rape of a female student.  (A mistrial has since been declared and a new trial will take place in April 2016.)  The men, drunk, carried the woman, drunk and unconscious, to a dorm room where they stripped her naked and videoed themselves violating her.  One of these men was the woman’s boyfriend and, according to testimony, he encouraged his teammates to have their way with her.

How different is this from the act of alcohol-fueled sexual violence that opens Megillat Esther?  The king of Persia, drunk at a continuous six-month-long party, commands his queen, Vashti, to come and parade nude for the pleasure of his male friends.  She refuses.  The king has her killed or exiled and the other men, concerned at Vashti’s temerity to resist, warn all the women in the kingdom that they had better obey their husbands…or else!

The Vanderbilt rape case is only one of the more egregious instances of something that is happening at universities across the country.  In a context where alcohol abuse and alcohol-fueled rape are real problems, Purim is a challenging holiday.  If Jews on campus use ad de lo yada (until you don’t know the difference [between blessed Mordechai and evil Haman]) as a way of infusing Purim with the ethos of a frat party, it is part of the problem.  What can Jews on campus do instead, to make it part of the solution?

When the 2015 verdict was announced, I was serving as director of Vanderbilt’s Jewish Studies program and decided to initiate a response by our program.  Our campus community was grappling with difficult issues, and I felt that Jewish Studies could offer something unique and valuable, bringing scholarly voices from the Jewish tradition to inform the conversation.  From my own research on the strategies and tactics of the Soviet Jewry movement, I knew how effective holiday-centered action could be for framing issues.  And so, I organized a Purim teach-in.

“DRINK. PREY. LUST.  Sexual Violence and the Book of Esther” was premised on the idea that the holiday of inversion should not offer more of what’s already going on, but should actually invert.  In the days before Purim, we offered an unflinching encounter with the dark core at the heart of the holiday’s story.  Yes, the megillah was written as parody, but it remains, nevertheless, a story of rape, genocide, alcohol abuse, rampage and cosmic evil that transcends the generations.  Faced with actually gazing into this abyss, tradition prescribes classic strategies of avoidance: mask it, laugh it off and drink it away. American Jews add to this the strategy of sanitizing Purim for the children, so that it becomes a Jewish Halloween.

None of these strategies serve Jewish college students well.  The teach-in took a different approach.  Rather than avoiding or whitewashing, we confronted the problems directly and, in doing so, we held up a mirror to a campus culture that had produced an evil similar to that depicted in the opening scenes of the Book of Esther.

“Drink. Prey. Lust.” was taught over the length of an entire day by faculty and graduate students from Vanderbilt’s College of Arts and Science, Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion.  It was attended by approximately one hundred undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff, Nashville-area clergy and members of local churches and synagogues.  We brought together diverse co-sponsors, including academic units (Jewish Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, and the Divinity School’s Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality), an interfaith coalition of campus chaplaincies (Vanderbilt Hillel, Baptist Collegiate Ministries and the Office of the University Chaplain and Religious Life) and key organizations working to fight violence against women (Project Safe and the Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center).

The program was inspired by conversations I’d had with Wexner Field Fellow Sheila Katz (Class 26), of Hillel International, and with Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumni in a yearlong workshop, “Pedagogies of Engagement in Jewish Studies,” at Brandeis University’s Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, organized by Jon Levisohn (WGF, Class 10), Lila Corwin Berman (WGF, Class 12) and Noam Pianko (WGF, Class 11). 

The teach-in was a good effort, very good for a first try, and excellent for something that went from planning to implementation in only a month.  But it pales in comparison to the scope of the problem of alcohol abuse and alcohol-fueled rape on college campuses, and it will mean little if it is a one-time or one-campus affair.

These problems will, I fear, remain with us for many years to come.  Each year brings a new opportunity for Purim to be part of the problem or part of the solution.  If Jews on campus make Purim their annual rallying point for consciousness-raising and public activism on the issue, this festival of inversion might help turn a bad situation on its head and bring some light, joy, gladness and honor, not only to Jewish students, but to campus communities that need it very much.

Shaul Kelner, an alum of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship (Class 8) and also Chairman of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and Davidson Scholars Selection Committee, is Associate Professor of Sociology and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. His research focuses primarily on Jewish organizations and leadership. Prof. Kelner holds a PhD in Sociology from the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. He is currently writing a book on American Jewish activism for Soviet Jewry. He lives in Nashville with his wife Pamela and his children Boaz and Shoshana. Shaul can be reached at