Marijuana Has Always Been A Part Of Jewish Life From Ancient Israel To The Shtetl

The Jewish rapport with weed is long and varied, implicit yet ingrained.

President Richard Nixon, father of the Drug War, was one of the first to explicitly call it out: “You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish,” said Nixon. “What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob, what is the matter with them? I suppose it’s because most of them are psychiatrists.”

Was Nixon onto something? Without drawing gross, tired stereotypes like Jews are anxious and/or shrinks, so they smoke pot or Jews aren’t big drinkers, but they sure do love their weed — is there something noteworthy about the character of the Jewish relationship to cannabis?

Indeed, there are a number of Jews involved in cannabis activism. The famed marijuana strain Jack Herer was named after the Jewish activist and author of pro-hemp book The Emperor Wears No Clothes. The Drug Policy Alliance, a nationwide reform nonprofit, was established by Ethan Nadelmann, son of a rabbi, while Rick Doblin says he founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies as a contribution to “healthy social change, to the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam.” And in Portland, couple Roy and Claire Kaufmann host a cannabis seder every year, drawing parallels between Passover and the Drug War based on shared themes of bondage and personal freedom.

Perhaps it is because Jews relate to the underdog, and victims of cannabis prohibition — mostly low income people of color — are today’s underdog.

Often beneficiaries of white privilege, American Jews have been able to smoke weed with little legal interference. Since the 60s, many found themselves in a cultural demographic where cannabis was commonplace. “Things like smoking marijuana, not so much today, but in its time, was considered to be deviant behavior,” says Shaul Magid, professor of Jewish studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. And the Jewish tendency to deviate, the Jewish role among the counterculture, he says, grew out of a broader tradition of Jewish involvement in the left — in Marxism, anarchism, and European socialism.

But in the ultra-Orthodox world, where cannabis is increasingly popular, Magid says, it lacks the same Reefer Madness stigma better known among secular Jews.

“You find a lot of weed smoking in the Haredi communities and those people are interested in experience, interested in tefillah [prayer],” he says. “One of the effects of marijuana that alcohol doesn’t have is that it enables focus on one thing. For something like tefillah, that’s perfect.”

However, marijuana’s role in prayer itself is up for debate.

“The medical reason for using cannabis is the easiest for someone to accept, recreation — an adult’s right to choose what they consume — is the second bar to pass,” says Roy Kaufmann. “But the highest bar to clear is spiritual use, and that’s unfortunate because a lot of people might innately understand there’s a spiritual element to cannabis, but we’re in a society where people aren’t comfortable talking about spiritual use.”

While Genesis 1:29 conveys that cannabis (among other plants) is kosher, it doesn’t advise as to whether you can use it to pray: “Then God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you.”

The Talmud says you should only pray from a “koved rosh,” or a serious state: That is, your head should be “heavy” and clear. If cannabis gets in the way of that, then don’t get high before you pray; if it facilitates that, it’s a green light.

“You can use cannabis to achieve a spiritual level,” says LA-based Orthodox Rabbi Simcha Green. He explains that in Hebrew the word for praying, l’hitpalel literally means to self-judge. “So the Jewish concept of prayer is totally different from the English concept,” he says. “In the Hebrew concept, you’re not asking for something [from God], you’re judging yourself.” And sometimes the reflective, contemplative nature of cannabis can help, allowing you to look inward.

Rabbi Green’s son Elie, founder of Doc Green’s cannabis topicals, compares the cannabis state of mind to the Shabbos state of mind: both help you be here now, both incorporate oneg [joyful pleasure]. “Cannabis elevates the soul, Shabbos comforts the soul,” he says. “In Judaism, we elevate physical things to a spiritual level.” Foods and spices are sacralized all the time in Jewish ritual, like blessing wine on Shabbat or spices for Havdallah — why couldn’t cannabis, for instance, fill in as the Havdallah spice? Afterall, the purpose of the spice is to cheer us up as our “extra souls” depart after Shabbos.

“As Jews, we strive for something higher — literally,” says Green. “The whole purpose of Torah is to give life a higher meaning, not just for us to give into our animal souls.”

In Jewish text, kaneh-bosm (cannabis) has various mentions, such as with the holy anointing oil. The recipe listed in Exodus 30:22-23 calls for nine pounds of kaneh-bosm, six quarters of olive oil, along with myrrh, cinnamon, and cassia. “The oil was thought to transmit the experience of YHWH, the Lord, Adonai,” says Danny Nemu, bible scholar and author of Neuro-Apocalypse.

The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) says, “One will beautify [Shabbat candle lighting] when the wick is made from cotton, flax, or cannabis,” while the Talmud indicates the plant’s usage in schach (Sukkot roof coverings), tallilot and tzitzit.

“To me it’s completely obvious. Every single culture that bordered with the Israelite kingdom had cannabis,” says Nemu. “In Egypt on Ramses’ mummy, they found cannabis pollen, and cannabis wasn’t native to Egypt. It had to be brought in from somewhere, and two major trade routes went through Palestine.”

Jews of Eastern Europe also used cannabis. “Jews have been like the gypsies, outcasts for a long time, and never felt obliged to obey the rules of society around them,” he says. “Jews like their cannabis and I think there’s also something quite degenerate, or proudly outside about that.” The transitory nature of the Jewish tribe meant they could only bring along intangibles like mind, culture, and experience — hence the combination of a heavily cerebral, scholarly tradition, coupled with the trippier, esoteric concepts in Torah and Kabbalah, may lend itself to a Jewish predilection for mental exploration.

The 13th century Sefer Raziel HaMalakh, a Kabbalistic grimoire (book of magic), provides a technique for warding off spirits with wormwood and cannabis, as well as using the herb in ointments. Meanwhile Bahya ben Asher, a.k.a. Rabbeinu Behaye (1255-1340), wrote that the purest of foods were created for attaining higher knowledge. “He explicitly relates to this the biblical tree of knowledge and comments further that such higher knowledge can also be gained through the use of drugs and medicines available at this time,” says Nemu. Rabbeinu Behaye also notes that the manna, “bread from heaven” mentioned in Exodus, had such qualities, too.

Meanwhile, the 18th century Baal Shem Tov, father of the Chasidic movement, was often considered a medicine man: A baal shem or doktor connoted someone who picked wild herbs and barks to concoct medicinal tinctures. He also famously smoked from a water pipe (lulke in Yiddish), which evoked “aliyat neshama,” or ascension of the soul. In other words, he was getting high — potentially on cannabis.

“The pipe-smoking mystics noticed the mysteries and incorporated smoking into the whole aesthetic,” Yoseph Needelman, author of Cannabis Chassidus. “They tried to expel the Chasidic movement for smoking and drinking to get to ecstasy. It’s one of the core differences of how different kinds of Jews relate to weed.”

One kind of Jew is the stereotypical neurotic. Trauma across generations, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust, has led to inherited PTSD. Hence, in Israel where undiagnosed PTSD runs rampant among a nation of war veterans, nearly 30 percent of the population has smoked weed in the past year. Not to mention, the that Israel is leading the world in medical marijuana research.

“I think that the Jewish connection to cannabis, and the Israeli connection in particular, is that the large use of cannabis by Jews might stem from that we are always throughout history suffering from existential pressures and anxieties. What calms and serenades more than cannabis?” asks Oren Lebovitch, chairman of Israel’s cannabis legalization party Ale Yarok (Green Leaf) and editor-in-chief of online magazine Cannabis. “Perhaps, who knows, this is one of the gospels that destiny has given the Jewish people to hand over. They say that ‘the word of the Lord (Torah) will come out from Zion’, so perhaps this is one of the Torah’s we are obligated to give the world.”

Madison is a New York/Los Angeles-based writer, with a specialty covering cannabis, drug policy, and Jewish life. Follow her on Twitter @margolinmadison.

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