California may soon legalize pot, but what does Jewish law say?


Among the more puzzling of the Jewish mitzvot is the commandment to get so drunk on Purim that you can’t distinguish the hero from the villain in the holiday story.

This year, recounted Rabbi Yisroel Engel, director of Chabad of Colorado, one ultra-Orthodox Denver man decided to ditch the booze and substitute marijuana brownies to achieve the required inebriation.

“I found that very bizarre,” Engel said in a phone interview.

The experiment was the exception to the rule in Denver’s Orthodox community, Engel said: Most understand that whatever state laws might say, recreational use of marijuana stands contrary to the values of Orthodox Judaism.

“It’s great to get high,” Engel said. “But you know what? You can get high on spirituality, on the soul, on prayer. Get high on God.”

The conventional Orthodox line on marijuana is at best ambivalent.

Nobody is suggesting that taking a puff of cannabis is like eating pork,” said Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, an Orthodox lecturer, writer and pulpit rabbi in Manhattan.

Rosen compared the Jewish view on cannabis to that of wine, which halachah allows — even encourages — but only in moderation.

“Drunkenness is totally disapproved of,” he said, dismissing Purim as a debatable exception. In general, “nobody is in favor of being drunk. But in small quantities of wine, it’s a mitzvah.”

On Nov. 8, Californians will have a chance to vote to legalize marijuana, and in fact, it seems likely they will: A statewide UC Berkeley poll of California voters published last month showed more than 60 percent of California voters favor legalization.

But just because Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, would legalize the drug in California doesn’t mean it would become allowable under Jewish law.

Though most Orthodox authorities consider smoking weed a frivolous pursuit to be discouraged, an end to pot prohibition creates an opportunity to reconsider some of the halachic and religious considerations around lighting up.

To be sure, Jewish texts bristle with verses that poseks — interpreters of Talmudic law — use to prohibit the smoking of marijuana.

Deuteronomy 4:15: “For your own sake, therefore, be most careful.”

Leviticus 19:2: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”

Numbers 15:39: “Do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.”

For Diaspora Jews, though, the clearest prohibition is perhaps dina d’malchuta, literally, sovereign law — Aramaic shorthand for the concept that an observant Jew should obey civil authorities as well as rabbinical ones.

Legalizing weed would lighten the dina d’malchuta concerns around using cannabis. But Jewishly speaking, the absence of a prohibition doesn’t constitute permission.

“The idea, ‘Well if something is not illegal it must be OK,’ is very much not a Jewish idea,” said Rabbi Mark Washofsky, professor of Jewish law and practice at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.

“Lots of things are not prohibited,” he went on. “At the same time, you might not want to spend a whole lot of time using them. … Just because you’re allowed to drink wine doesn’t mean you should be a drunkard.”

And although wine proves a useful analogy, pot is not explicitly addressed in the Torah. Where the word of law is unclear, as it is with cannabis, the normal Jewish prescription is dialogue.

“Merely because the state of California decides to legalize marijuana does not mean anything for Jews until we talk about it,” Washofsky said.

As it stands, much of the Orthodox mainstream rejects marijuana entirely. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), the Lithuanian-born posek whose pre-eminence in American Jewry is such that the Orthodox often refer to him by only his first name, Rav Moshe, declared smoking marijuana to be “obviously forbidden.”

“It destroys his mind, and prevents him from understanding things properly,” he wrote in “Igros Moshe,” a nine-volume halachic commentary. “This is a terrible thing, since not only can the individual not properly study Torah, he also can not pray and properly perform mitzvot [commandments], since doing them mindlessly is considered as if they were not done at all.”

To bolster his opinion, the rabbi cites the punishment for gluttony offered in Deuteronomy: death by stoning.

A Torah of cannabis

Sure enough, there are those, such as Yoseph Needleman, who dismiss Feinstein’s prohibition as “suck-up-to-the-man disinformation.”

That’s the message in his 2009 book (written under a pseudonym), “Cannabis Chassidis: The Ancient and Emerging Torah of Drugs (A Memoir),” about the canned answers he received from mainstream rabbis when he was looking for guidance as a high schooler as to how the Jewish religion treats pot.

“Not that I thought I would find one, but I wanted a tradition that was helpful about how to enjoy drugs better — specifically, reefer,” he said. “Because that was a wholly natural thing, according to all the rumors on the street.”

That search led him to Jerusalem, where he spoke with the Journal in March at a café in the Nachlaot neighborhood.

Yoseph Needleman

Needleman is a lanky, bearded man whose words tumble quickly after one another in a rush of enthusiasm. He stretched out his long legs at a sidewalk table on a street of hip coffee shops where it’s not uncommon to walk past several Friday pleasure-seekers rolling marijuana cigarettes in public.

Marijuana laws are more stringent in Israel, but both society and police are just as tolerant of it in some places as they are in California. One gets the sense the cops consider other matters more pressing in Israel.

Where most Orthodox poseks read the holy texts as prohibitive of marijuana use, Needleman sees a potential guide for the perplexed stoner.

For example, in the introduction to his book, he cites Proverbs 25: “‘If you get a taste of honey, take only as little as you need and let the rest pass, lest ye take too much and vomit it all up.”

“Very deep, right?” Needleman probes in the book. “Anything ‘sweet,’ this applies for.”

The Jewish tradition of smoking pot is old and deep, he argues.

Needleman is fond of quoting Yaakov Yosef of Polonoye, biographer of the Baal Shem Tov (Israel ben Eliezer), the mystical founder of Chassidism. Yosef once claimed he would trade his portion in this world and the next, all for just a taste of what the Baal Shem Tov got from his pipe.

Law and stigma

Then as now, divisions in Jewish opinion were stark. In a 1772 letter, the Vilna Gaon, a legendary Torah scholar, excommunicated the followers of the Baal Shem Tov, taking issue with their dancing, exuberant methods of prayer and their smoking.

In today’s terms, the letter might have read, “What exactly is it that they’re smoking over there?”

There are many who now take a similar disapproving view of Needleman’s cannabis theology.

“If that’s what you’re talking about as spiritual experience, then Timothy Leary must have been the most spiritual person ever,” said Rosen, the Orthodox lecturer, referring to the psychedelic pioneer who popularized LSD.

“I don’t call that spiritual,” he added. “I call that something else: altered mind state.”

But then, there are plenty who are inclined to agree with Needleman on the spiritual potential of marijuana use.

The manager of marijuana law and policy for the Drug Policy Alliance, Amanda Reiman, is among the top backers of Proposition 64 in the state.

Reiman grew up in the Reform tradition, though today she no longer observes most rituals. Once a year, however, she gets together with a group of friends on Yom Kippur to light up and share insights on how they hope to change and grow in the new Jewish year.

“I would say it’s absolutely been a helpful tool in terms of spirituality,” she said in an interview.

But aside from her own practice, Reiman believes that legalizing pot is a Jewish imperative because marijuana prohibition disproportionately affects marginalized populations, she said.

“As Jews, we’ve had so much in our history of being marginalized and unfairly persecuted,” she said. “I think we have a responsibility to recognize that this has been happening to our communities of color for decades in the United States, and we need to play an active role in righting those wrongs.”

In that belief, she might find some support from halachah.

“If you see an injustice, you have to fix it,” said Washofsky, the Reform rabbi. “That’s what Jewish law tells us. But how we understand the definition of injustice is not always determined by the text. Sometimes we have to look at the world and make the decision on our own.”

Coexisting with cannabis

For years, Ean Seeb, a marijuana entrepreneur in Denver, wanted to sponsor the local Jewish Community Center’s annual poker tournament, and for years the organizers turned him down because they were uncomfortable carrying the logos for his marijuana businesses.

This year, they reached out to him to say they were going to be allowing cannabis-related sponsors and branding.

For Seeb, a regional board member for the Anti-Defamation League who’s active with JEWISHcolorado (formerly the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado), the reversal is a signal that “the negative stigma of cannabis users is slowly fading away.”

If California voters choose to legalize marijuana, run-ins between the recreational marijuana industry and Jewish communities here would be likely, if not inevitable.

They wouldn’t be without precedent: At one time, the South Robertson district, which encompasses several heavily Jewish neighborhoods, was home to more than 20 medical cannabis dispensaries, said Doug Fitzsimmons, president of the South Robertson Neighborhoods Council.

For the most part, dispensaries and the neighborhood’s religious institutions coexisted without problems, Fitzsimmons said. Over time, though, it became clear that a lack of strict regulation created nuisances to the community. Because dispensaries are cash businesses, robberies were frequent, and customers would sometimes loiter and smoke weed in front of the shops, Fitzsimmons said.

After a crackdown on dispensaries citywide by the city of Los Angeles, the number of shops dwindled. But if recreational pot becomes legal after the November vote, demand for the plant could bring such businesses flocking back to Robertson Boulevard.

Talking to kids about pot

Each year, Bruce Powell, founding head of school at de Toledo High School in West Hills (formerly New Community Jewish High School), gives a talk to the school’s entire student body. He tells the teens to ask themselves five questions before doing anything:

Is it legal? Is it moral? Does it comport with Jewish values? Is it going to hurt another human being? Can you proudly tell your grandmother about it?

Powell’s prescription addresses risky behavior more broadly. But with regard to marijuana, a change in the law would modify the students’ answer to the first of those questions: Although the product would still be forbidden for those younger than 21, it would exist in the same legal classification as alcohol.

But Proposition 64 wouldn’t touch any of the other questions. Notably, Powell said, it would not impact the Jewish values on which the high school bases its drug and alcohol education.

“This is definitely going to be another challenging parenting moment,” he said of the likely change in legal status. However, “it’s no different than parents talking to their children about drinking, about driving, about sex.”

In all those conversations, Jewish teachings figure prominently for Powell.

“Everything is created b’tselem Elohim [in the image of God],” he said in an interview. “So how do we want to treat that image? Do we want to diminish that image?  Do we want to increase that image? And then we ask the question: What do drugs do to that image? Do they help the image? Do they increase the image?”

Meanwhile, at Chabad of Colorado, Engel has a different strategy for dissuading people from toking.

Instead, he suggested, “Try POT — stands for ‘put on tefillin.’ ”

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