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Holy High-Days

The history of Marijuana and the Jews

By Jaq Greenspon

So once again the High Holy Days are upon us. This is great. I’m all about the ceremony, the history, the reverence of first celebrating the new year, Rosh Hashonah, and then the ritualistic cleansing of the soul which comes with Yom Kippur. As much as I practice (or not) during the rest of the year, listening to chanting of Kol Nidre and hearing the shofar blow and still gives me chills.

Of course, right after all that comes that most social of Jewish occasions – the breaking of the fast. It’s one of the few times during the Jewish calendar when a gathering of the family is implicit in the celebration. This year, however, for the first time, it will be legal to smoke marijuana in the house for that visit. And while the solemnity and observance of the holiday itself precludes partaking, this new wrinkle on things just might be the best way to mentally and emotionally survive the traditional family gathering. There is only one question, really, to be answered. Legality aside… is it kosher?

According to a Haaretz article from January of 2016, that since Marijuana is a plant, as long as it’s grown in the US, it doesn’t fall under the custom of allowing the land to rest every seventh year (shnat shmita) “hence hechsher (kosher approval) is not necessary.”

Okay, to be fair, there’s more to it than just being “kosher” in the edible consumption sense of the word. There are certainly things which are Talmudically legal, but still a bit hazy on the morality or ethics side. Then there’s the whole “letter of the law” vs. “implied intent.” As has been recently borne out in larger forums than this, there’s a big difference between doing what’s always been done as a voluntary formality compared to what you’re legally required to comply with. So regardless of anything else, the first question to be answered is, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park: “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.”

Rabbi Malcolm Cohen over at Temple Sinai points out in a recent email that “our bodies are considered gifts from G-d so smoking a joint which contains tobacco and releases carcinogenic chemicals is a problem.” And he’s not wrong. But then again, we constantly do things to our bodies which probably aren’t good for them. Forget the obvious like tattoos, merely piercing your ears is a desecration of sorts and then there’s eating processed sugar or drinking coffee. Which means it then becomes a matter of how far are you willing to stretch things to fit your own comfort zone?

So let’s take a look at that kosher question. Rabbi Cohen, in that same email says: “For some Jews, one of the questions comes down to kashrut, whether marijuana is kosher or not. If it’s being used for medical purposes kashrut is less important. You can even ingest treyf if it’s helping your condition.” This then begs the question as to what “helping your condition” means. Diagnosed medical ailments as opposed to merely handling the stress of day to day living. A glass of wine (or four during seder) at the end of the day (something which also corrupts our gift from G-d bodies) would accomplish the same thing so by that logic, are we in safe territory?

The answers fall along the same lines as Rabbi Cohen’s response, but then they go further and bring in a moral valuation to the question. Over at JewishAnswers.org, they’ve translated Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s response and it begins “It is obviously forbidden to smoke marijuana, as this violates many basic laws of our Torah.” And continues that those laws, as stated above, have a lot to do with not causing injury to your own body. But then he continues and it starts to sound a bit personal. “Even if there are people who are not physically affected by this,” he states, “it mentally affects the person as it destroys his mind, and prevents him from understanding things properly.” He then concludes this tirade with the idea that “furthermore, he is creating within himself a very strong desire (addiction?), which is much stronger than the desire to eat, etc. which are necessary for a person to live.” This sounds like the words of someone who is basing their entire thought process on an ill-formed opinion with no shred of evidence to back it up. Because while there are certainly drugs which can and do cause this kind of reaction, one of the primary side effects of marijuana is the desire to eat whatever you can get your hands on.

Where Rabbi Feinstein loses the argument, though, is when he abandons any pretense of kashrut or health reservations by creating a moral imperative against any drug use, starting with pot (“Additionally, the parents of the person smoking certainly are disturbed by his actions, in which case he is violating the Mitzvah of Kibbud Av V’Em (respect for parents).”) and moving on to say that “the bottom line is that it is clear and obvious that this is one of the grave prohibitions, and everyone must try with all of their strength to remove this impurity (Tuma’ah) from all Children of Israel.” Yikes!

AskMoses.com’s Rabbi Shlomo Chein continues in this trend by pointing out that “whilst this factor is not a Halachic issue, it is nonetheless perhaps most noteworthy.” And that factor is once again about the physical effects of taking the drug. Without a specific tenet to point to indicating why Jewish law says you are not allowed to partake, these rabbinical sources are looking at ancillary ways to prevent something. The answer continues by admonishing that “Judaism demands perfection through personal labor. To feel good we need to be good. To take something that gives your mind the impression that all is good, is a cheap and unjust substitute to being good. Drugs allow you to be happy because they help you ignore your problems; they don’t solve your problems, or teach you how to deal with them.” The obvious responses here should come to your mind as easily as they come to mine, but when the next paragraph continues “The best high is one that is legal and long lasting. It is inexpensive, but quite pricy. You can’t get it from anyone, but you can have it anytime you want. You can’t take it; you have to make it: perfect your thoughts, feelings, and actions, through assiduous study, sincere self refinement, and selfless good deeds. You will feel better than any artificial high.” And just like that, rational adults, asking serious questions, are reduced to children being lectured by disapproving authoritarian figures.

In this case, the original questioner was a college student who was already getting high and wanted to keep their connection to Judaism. They wanted to know what the Torah said because “I am having a hard time deciding whether what I’m doing is right?”

Maybe that’s where we need to go – directly to the source? We understand the legality of the situation, that here in Nevada you can buy marijuana and consume it in your own home, so we know we’re not breaking any secular provisions. We get that smoking pot doesn’t really enter into the kosher discussion and even medicinal uses are now being certified by the Orthodox Union but we still haven’t hit the answer to that “is it right?” question.

What does the bible say?

Well… there are a number of passages which might relate to marijuana (if you squint just right). Look at Genesis 1:11-12:

And G-d said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, [and] the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed [is] in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, [and] herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed [was] in itself, after his kind: and God saw that [it was] good.

Or Deuteronomy 32:2: “ My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass.” If those don’t convince you, what about the academic and scholarly works?

There’s some hotly debated research by Sula Benet from 1936 which states that the “calamus” referred to in the bible is actually “cannabis” and therefore, the biblical references to pot increase dramatically. Then there’s the research of Yoseph Glassman who found, while reading about Sabbath rituals, the following passage: “Also, one will beautify [Shabbat candle lighting] when the wick is made from cotton, flax or cannabis...” In an article from 2013 in Haaretz, Glassman (a physician, mohel and former IDF officer) states that “There is no question that the plant has a holy source, God himself, and is thus mentioned for several ritualistic purposes.” Further, he believes that “marijuana usage…is an aspect of Jewish law and tradition that had long been buried, and one that deserves ‘resurfacing and exploration’.”

The article continues with references to Glassman’s work finding evidence of hashish usage in ancient Israel and that Maimonides was an advocate. Glassman is quoted as saying “There are complex laws of plant mixing and hybridizing from the Talmud, which Maimonides comments on…Cannabis specifically was taken especially seriously in terms of mixing ... and could, in fact, incur the death penalty.” So obviously there was some thought put into this.

Then there’s the 8 years of interviews and research put into the 2009 book Cannabis Chassidis: The Ancient and Emerging Torah of Drugs, which looks at the uses of Marijuana in the Jewish world. Written by Yosef Leib because (as he stated in an interview with the Times of Israel) “I think kids need advice and counsel on doing drugs that they are going to do anyway. If they are smoking pot and taking other drugs, they need to know how to do it effectively.”

Leib may be on to something. While he himself doesn’t believe pot can create a spiritual experience, he’s quick to point out where and when it’s been used historically. “The Vilna Gaon,” Leib explains, “wrote in his cheirim, or writ of excommunication, that Hasidim are untrustworthy because they dance, sing and smoke.” Further, Leib mentions “Rabbi Yisroel Ben Eliezer… the father of the Hasidic movement… picked wild grasses and barks, and made medicines out of them which he would sell, along with advice on how to use [them] properly. He used to smoke from a water pipe to experience an ‘aliyat neshama,’ or ascension of the soul.”

That, along with several of Lieb’s other anecdotes, seems like a good indication that marijuana, or at least a close equivalent, has a long history of being used with the Hasidic.

For Lieb, who can still see some of the negative effects of pot mentioned by several rabbi’s previously, also see “the good effects [marijuana can give, are] a sense of peace of what’s going on around you. It can help you break down daunting issues that might be on your mind and help you process things more easily. Weed is also great for praying, especially if you’re not in a hurry. And, of course, the best way to use it, spiritually, is to share it with someone.”

To me, this answers all our questions. And still leaves us back at the beginning. Like most biblical interpretation, we can find whatever answer we’re looking for in the book, but the overarching questions, is it legal, ethical, and kosher, all point to a “use it if you want to” philosophy. So again… the choice is yours, but it seems to me you’re covered no matter what. And I see this as good news.

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