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September 12, 2013 by

Jews, Drugs, and the Muck of Daily Life

medium_5100760100You are probably as mired in the muck of daily life as I am. I can hardly remember the last time I caught an inkling of magic or mystery. Having kids, a job, a dog to walk, all makes transcendence a bit of a reach. There is just something tugging at my sleeve at every turn. But it’s that very cacophony that makes the need for transcendence so pressing. And as we approach the High Holidays, this quandary has shifted to the front of my mind. This is supposedly a time of reflection, a reset button for the year. I generally take a pretty utilitarian view of religion. So, finding links between the body, the spirit and the psychotherapeutic appeals to me. Spiritual practice and religious connection can be a healing salve in a fragmented world, and fractured personal experience of said world. But how does one bridge the gap between the mundane and the sacred, between the body and mind? And since I’m so very busy and important, do I get to take a shortcut? I find myself tempted, in my haste towards bliss, to reach outside of myself for help from “my friends.” All of which has got me wondering about Jews and drugs, and the magical mystery tour that Judaic practice can be. 

On the one hand, Judaism is largely non-ascetic. One of the more charming qualities of this religion is its perpetual celebration of the here and now, how Jews embrace the material world in all of its flavorful glory. Kashhrut is not about denial, it’s an awareness raising mechanism. And alcohol is written into the liturgy. What’s a Passover Seder or a Purim spiel without the steady flow of wine? There is a religiously sanctioned time to come unhinged, disconnect, and lose yourself in a lushly indulgent moment. So can we take this from disconnection and argue that substances can be used to re-connect? Instead of escapism, maybe they can motivate a grounding or rooting action, underscoring the re-absorbing effects of the holiday season. In this sense, the corporeal sphere of the body becomes (as Tantrikas believe) a field of discovery, a way of experiencing the world and G-d, merging with the organic whole. I guess, ultimately, I’m after a somatic experience of religion, something I don’t usually associate with Judaism.

Can I take this as license to use psychoactive substances? I’m not talking cocaine or heroin here. But I would love an excuse to eat a fistful of mushrooms and go floating through the park. It would seem that so do a lot of other JewsIn this video, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan sort of tosses off the idea that Judaism is an eastern religion. He also talks about Jewish meditation. Essentially—you can consider Torah from multiple angles, both internal and external, and there are infinite levels of contemplation. Think of it as an M.C. Escher text. Kabbalah is about uncovering the secret inner workings of Torah and having a “direction experience of G-d” through meditation. So how does a Jew meditate? Jews meditate on language, savoring words and slowing down to contemplate meaning through the shape of letters and their aural resonance. Prayers, combined with visualizations, become mantra-like, lulling and pulling us towards the divine. Language thus becomes the bridge or prop inducing a meditative theta wave state. But what if you were to get alchemical as well? Take one part liturgy, add two parts bong hit? Kaplan suggests that some of the early sages might have toyed with the use of marijuana or other magic incenses. And there are many ties between hallucinogens, shamanism and psychotherapy (see here). But Rabbi Ariel Bar Tzadok is pretty clear that, whatever the grey area historically, there is no excuse for what is essentially just bad behavior. Leviticus (that eternal buzz-killer) tells us that “Whosoever would enter the presence of G-d without full faculties is condemned to death.”  

Ultimately though, drugs in shamanic practice are just a tool, a way of rising above monkey-mind chatter, but they are external leverage, not internal strength. And as anyone with hallucinogenic experience can tell you, narcotics can induce an inherently un-mindful state. They alter consciousness, but in a way too unpredictable to be used with consistent therapeutic value. So let’s go back to the base presumption with Jews and the body: you do not own this body, it belongs to G-d. These are borrowed elements. Take care of them, and return them to the Earth in good form. On that note, I think my Cabernet has had time to breathe—l’chaim!  

photo credit: Shandi-lee via photopin cc