05/02/2013 11:00 am ET Updated Jun 30, 2013

The Religious Guide to Responsible Marijuana Use


In light of the great American controversy over marijuana decriminalization (medicinal and/or recreational) and this Saturday's annual Global Marijuana March, I feel a clerical responsibility to ask all of us invested in religious education and guidance traditions: What is the virtue of church and temple if not to educate, and keep all our children from any kind of doom at all, as much as possible? All the martyrs to cautionary example, like the priest-shamans Nadav and Aveihu, the biblical sons of Aaron who overdosed on the sacred itself, to die and consecrate the Holy Tabernacle of Israel with their blood. From their unavoidable folly (how could they have known what was gonna be too much? They had never had so much!), a cautionary example emerges -- not to stigmatize, forbid or criminalize the precious and irresistible divine experience, but to put some useful council about how to go and enjoy it without dying.

So too it is with everything that man has discovered that made them feel any kind of better at all: We have discovered that almost anything that made us high will kill us, or at least wear us down a bit, once we do it wrong, in excess. It could be how you chew your food, or it could just be knowing to stop significantly before your tummy starts to ache. This is the main discipline that temple experience communicates to all man: how to chew, how to taste, how to surrender to the helpful, and when it's time to ring the bell and leave back to the work of the world. How to appreciate breath, silence, song, etc. But what it is that made synagogues and churches so entrenched in America, Europa, Asia and the whole world is certainly, in part, the "L'chayims": the wines, liquors and pastries, along with the beans and pickled foods that brought together the social network that kept our humanity intact after all of our dispersions from wherever far away our families came from. The more traditional our nourishment, the more the nature and caution of it and it's excess could be known.

One of the main things I learned in temple growing up was how to drink -- responsibly, focused with awesome intention, for the sake of my G-d, who delights in my joys for his sake, and for the sake of my people, appreciative of what I love with me everywhere. But about halfway through high school, I started to wonder: Why haven't I grown up with a tradition of responsible cannabis use as I have with other things, like magical healing doves or copper serpents or clove-riddled citrons or the smell of freshly wine-doused beeswax candle or wine? And the simple answer is because the Empire made it Illegal, so that whatever tradition there was, could not be shared publicly at all, and that was one of the tacit agreements made with Babylon for the sake of living within her.

Because ultimately, although every major world civilization has tended to move away from popular recreational cannabis use, rarely have civilizations needed to go to the trouble of fighting a whole war against it. An influential Papal bull here, a fatwa there -- nothing too serious generally -- maybe because people weren't invested enough in it to die for it (and maybe they actually did, burned as witches and pagans, as so many people committed to their medicines and lifestyles have been). Was there a world-wide market for it? Without tax records, we might never know. But the use of cannabis in the Bible sure implies that there was.

The argument that the Kineh Bosem mentioned in Exodus 30:23 is more likely to be cannabis than calamus is simple: Who likes calamus? Who keeps it in their house? Who makes perfume out of it, enough so that they would be inspired to smell this reed and exclaim "Hey! This is some Fragrant Cane!" The biblical standard for the rare few spices included in the holy anointing oils of Exodus 30:22 is simple, but obscure: "head spices," bisamim rosh. What means "head spices"? Rashi helpfully elaborates with one word: "important" (khashuvim). What defines the importance of an herb? The Ramban helpfully elaborates on Rashi's terse definition, that "head spices" are the ones sought "in every city and every kingdom." Does that sound more like marijuana or calamus to you?

Traditionally, everywhere in the world, the popular slang term for cannabis tends to also be the most generic word for herb, grass, tree or growing vessel that is available. Fragrant cane certainly fits that description, especially in its original Canaanite. "Bosem," as we see in the Havdalah ritual, could mean anything that smells nice, but tends to be one particular kind of thing most hopefully of all. But who is responsible for the re-translation that exiled the use from popular tradition? And here we come to the question, ultimately, for who is it that killed the Goddess? Greek patriarchy, forcing away natural herbal ecstasy, or Israelite Pharisaical caution, trying to hide the secrets of the Davidic initiation, pouring niacin into everyone's ecstatic mad kool-aid, calming the world party down quite a bit, perhaps even being part of the legendary slaying of the lion of prophesy; disguising or dismissing the triggers that made a dangerous and irresistible prophetic clarity and priestly confidence so natural. Like the origin of so much of Judaism and Greek Wisdom, it's not completely clear. When in doubt, blame the bigger empire?

Post-Confucian China might have repressed her native proto-Daoist shamanistic cannabis cultures, either through the quill or through the sword, but India eventually found a space for their itinerant cannabis devotees, institutionalizing the Sadhu into existence very early on: an unambitious and property-less holy man who only walks around needing as little as possible, eating the food at whatever temple, or serving in the temple to help prepare food. His only possessions are a cloak, a cup, a pipe and maybe a cane too. Cannabis is very illegal in India for the foreigner and maybe embarrassing for the son in law, but the sadhu is free to wander where he will, smoking what he smokes in imitation of his god, on the day that creation had the poison sucked out of it through Shiva's chillum.

There is something the Hebrews called chassidut ("betterness") that comes along to make any decent but archaic and alienated religion into a tool for better priorities, and it happens when people care enough about their peoples and their sacred priorities to notice that there is a better way to do some thing, and one of those things might be to be able to acknowledge the lord's own special medicine cabinet. The very first imperative that Elohim gives to newborn Adam and Eve is Genesis 1:29: "I give unto you all the seed bearing herb, and they shall be for you for consumption." It's the tree of life that Jah drops on the waters of Marah that took the edge off of the bitter waters there, but when it comes to the overwhelming smokiness of the first collective epiphany on Sinai, that same glow of divinity that once set them free from Egypt begins to destroy them. So they send someone else to go for them, someone who looks like they can handle it.

Alas, Nadav and Aveihu test out the tabernacle, the great hope of taking the esoteric mystery experience of the high prophets and making it accessible to everyone who makes it nearby, and they enter the experience of absolute unity until they can have no self at all. Although the rabbinic tradition is that they don't quite so much totally die, as much co-incarnate into juvenile zealot Phineas at his moment of grace, and together fuse into the composite immortal known as Elijah the Prophet; nonetheless, their dissolution provokes a new ritual right into the heart of the most sacred of temple rituals: the Azazel offering. By releasing a goat "alive" to the fallen angelic sphere of Azazel, the high priest reminds himself and his G-d about how much He prefers the world of vice and physicality to the empty perfection that preceded the first moment of distinct existence, defined by its chaos and hunger. Hence Yom Kippur was invented, the day of atonement from the need to be better into a total acceptance, at least for a moment, of how invested the G-d is in the vulgar and abusive world. Because whatever danger there might have been in the temple moment didn't seem as useful to criminalize, as it did to find a way to make safe.

Cannabis is already so safe, by dint of cultivation or wild nature, but like any other medicine, certainly has its excesses and abuses available. But more than that, it saves lives, saves souls and saves late afternoons. It is not as reliable a panacea as religion aspires to be, but like religion, anyone can use it incorrectly: at the wrong hour, for the wrong reason, in the wrong context, to justify alienation rather than facilitate engagement. Like religion, it's a popular vehicle for what might be part of the only circulation of deep human satisfaction that's available, respected for what it's been experienced to help with, in the short term and over generations.

Our temples -- all of them -- could and should become places where us and our parents and our kids can live and learn to be safe happy humans, responsibly able to co-administrate divine experience, with the help of communities, structures and traditions that have informed all our collective peoples into doing this well this far. Legalization is a first step. Now we need all kinds of counsel for effective and responsible use. I discovered much in my own wide range of Judaisms; if you have a tradition or range of traditions that reach far back enough into old human situation, genuinely aspiring to share any degree of liberation, you'll find some there too. If you find, or grow, some good gospel, please do us the kindness of keeping it and its seeds circulating forever, amen.

Global Marijuana March