613 or 420? Jewish Thinkers Split Among Ethics of Cannabis Use

A green and black seder plate has cartoon cannabis seder plate items in little dishes in a circle.
A seder plate from Tokin Jew | Courtesy of YIVO Library

On April 21, the sixth night of Passover, more than just Jews were celebrating a holiday revolving around a burning bush.

The day marked the beginning of the legal sale of recreational marijuana to adults in the Garden State, with lines wrapping around the buildings of the roughly dozen dispensaries with grand openings.

While droves commemorated the occasion with food trucks and reggaeton music, the legalization was not unanimously celebrated.

Rabbi Hershel Schachter of the Orthodox Union released a statement on March 11, before the New Jersey law went into effect, fortifying acclaimed Orthodox Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s ruling on the subject 49 years prior.

Schachter wrote that substance use inhibits human’s free thought, drawing from a Pirkei Avot chapter which states that “sleeping through the morning and drinking wine in the afternoon are among things that removes man from the world”.  He adds to Feinstein’s point that mental impairment prevents an individual from fulfilling the responsibilities of studying Torah.

Of course, not all Jews have abided by the rabbis’ interpretation of Jewish law, or at least, a $400 menorah bong from online cannabis glassware store GRAV would indicate otherwise.

The presence of weed in Jewish popular culture suggests a generational divide in how marijuana use in the community is perceived. The Instagram account @tokin.jew wishes its more than 9,000 followers a “Shabbong Shalom” almost weekly, posting pictures of Jewish celebrities such as “Broad City”’s Ilana Glazer and Seth Rogan posing with their paraphernalia.

Grey rock ruins show an entrance into a room where an altar used to be.
Altars from a c. third century BCE synagogue in Tel Arad contain burned cannabis and frankincense residue. | Courtesy of Alliance Israelite Universelle via YIVO Library

The two conflicting viewpoints make one thing clear: When it comes to weed, like most Jewish issues, its history and use in Jewish spaces is complicated.

Despite Feinstein’s ruling a half-century ago deeming recreational marijuana use Jewishly unethical, the Jewish relationship with the drug far predates the modern day.

Eddy Portnoy, director of exhibitions at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, explores this connection in his exhibit “Am Yisrael High: The Story of Jews and Cannabis.”

Rabbinic mention of cannabis dates to 13th-century rabbi Nachmanides, who argued that kaneh bosem, which may be cannabis, was one of the components of the incense blend in the temple, which had properties that allowed the smoke to rise directly upward, Portnoy said.

The Cairo Geniza, a collection of 11th-14th century Jewish manuscripts, mentions the use of hashish, a potent cannabis.

And old piece of parchment with small text scrolled on it
A fragment from Cairo Geniza (c. 1200-1300) requesting the purchase of hashish | Courtesy of YIVO Library

These claims from antiquity were recently bolstered by a discovery by Israeli archaeologists two years ago: Two altars in a synagogue near the Dead Sea had residue of burned cannabis. 

“What becomes evident is that the ancient Israelites did burn cannabis as part of their religious ritual,” Portnoy said.

Even throughout the middle ages, Jews connection to cannabis was apparent and laid the groundwork for some Jews’ continued support of cannabis use through the 20th century.

“In the medieval period in Europe, Jews were not allowed to own land,” Portnoy said. “They were restricted to certain occupations; they weren’t permitted to join professional guilds. Because of this, Jews had to scramble to make a living.”

Jews turned to the black market to make money, which created an “ingrained sensibility among Jews that risk taking in the business world was useful,” Portnoy argued. 

This intrinsic divergent thinking persisted across centuries and continents and translated to a large Jewish presence in underground and burgeoning arts spaces, such as the comic book and film industries in the mid-1900s.

It could have been the same sensibility that led Jewish beatnik Allen Ginsberg to participate in the first marijuana legalization rally in 1964 and join the U.S.’s first legalization organization Lemar, which stands for “legalize marijuana”. 

Three years later, five Jewish New Yorkers founded the Yippies, a political movement whose central plank was the legalization of marijuana.

But while some Jews thrived during the counterculture revolution that popularized recreational marijuana use, Orthodox Jewish leaders, such as Feinstein, eschewed marijuana use.

“For many years, marijuana with associated with criminal behavior and antisocial behavior, countercultural behavior associated with a whole cultural zeitgeist, which was very much opposed to traditional religion,” said Rabbi Yitzhak Grossman, senior lecturer at Greater Washington Community Kollel in Silver Springs, Maryland.

In the 1970s, Orthodox Jewish leaders opposed recreational marijuana use with “remarkable unanimity,” Grossman said.

One of the central spiritual arguments against recreational marijuana use is found in this week’s Torah portion Kedoshim, which opens with “You shall be holy.”

A technicolor poster has "420" written in a cloud of smoke coming from the inside of a temple.
YIVO’s “Am Yisrael High” exhibit poster by Steve Marcus | Courtesy of YIVO Library

According to Rabbi Yonah Gross, Keystone K kashrus administrator and rabbi at Wynnewood synagogue Congregation Beth Hamedrosh, recreational marijuana as a form of escapism prevents awareness to fulfill mitzvot.

“One of those principles that the Torah gives us is to make sure that you live a life of holiness, and one then has to ask themselves, does this activity then correspond with living that life of holiness?” Gross said.

Even without the spiritual implications of substance use, rabbis considered the physical ones: Because the Torah commands the preservation of life, the potentially dangerous practice of recreational substance use is forbidden. (On the contrary, medicinal marijuana use is permissible because it would allow physical relief from pain and therefore make one more physically and spiritually capable of fulfilling commandments.)

But the argument dismissing marijuana use because it is a mind-altering substance is a slippery one, rabbis admit. In Jewish spaces, alcohol use is often not only acceptable but encouraged. On Passover, many Jews drink four cups of wine at their seder; on Purim, some fulfill the tradition of drinking until they cannot discern between Haman and Mordechai, yet rabbis do not unanimously condemn drinking.

While Gross, who does not condone excessive drinking on holidays or otherwise, argues that some drinking can be sanctioned, as it is usually done in a social setting and differentiates between the chemical effects alcohol versus marijuana has on the brain, Grossman believes that the role of alcohol is more acceptable, partially because it is more deeply entrenched and traditional in Jewish spaces.

The acceptability of marijuana among Jews appears to have a generational and denominational divide, 2021 Tribe12 fellow and medicinal marijuana advocate Gabrielle Schwartz believes.

Schwartz, who does content marketing for a cannabis-related television network, grew up in a Reform community; she first used marijuana as a young teenager under the supervision of her mother, which wasn’t uncommon among her family’s group of friends.

“Nobody that I knew really had this negative connotation towards it, so I never really had a negative connotation towards it,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz’s Reform peers share her beliefs, and among other denominations, opinions on recreational marijuana use differ, just as opinions on Jews getting piercings and tattoos may differ.

For Schwartz, the growing acceptability of recreational marijuana use among younger Jews is reflective of a growing pattern of adapting the religion to one’s own personal and political values, as well to as the changing social climate.  

“As our generation is getting older, we’re doing more of what we want to do. We’re not really necessarily following tradition down to a ‘T’”, Schwartz said. “We’re just following certain traditions that make us feel comfortable, and then we just take it from there.”

Gabrielle Schwartz is a Black women with shoulder-length hair wearing a floral shirt and posing outside with her hand on her hip.
Gabrielle Schwartz is a 2021 Tribe 12 fellow and advocate for medicinal marijuana use.| Courtesy of Gabrielle Schwartz

For larger Jewish authorities, Schwartz said, changing minds on marijuana use will be much slower, but Grossman maintains that the Orthodox stance on recreational marijuana could very well change, though likely not anytime soon.

One hundred years ago, Orthodox rabbis condoned tobacco use, only putting restrictions on its use during holidays, when lighting a fire is not permissible; rabbis only began to change their tune on smoking in the 1970s, when more information was released on the harms of the behavior.

The allowance of greater educational opportunities for women emerged in Orthodox spaces as the broader society prioritized women’s rights. 

“It’s not necessarily that the word of God is not permanent,” Grossman said. “It’s that the word of God has to be applied differently in changing circumstances.”

But recreational marijuana is slightly different than these issues, Grossman said, because the same urgency to make changes isn’t there. Though marijuana has taken center stage on a national level in recent years, rabbis just don’t believe the issue is large enough in the Jewish community to alter their stance.

“It’s very difficult to know whether this is going to be one of those things that we’ll look back on in 50 years and try to understand why we were so adamant that this was going to be a hill that we choose to die on,” Grossman said.


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