These Rabbis Say Weed Can Be Kosher

As legalization takes hold, some Muslims and Christians are getting tripped up. But Jews may find pot and faith to be perfectly compatible.

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Apr 13 2015, 6:30pm

Photo via Flickr user Brett Levin

According to the standardized yet fuzzy psychedelic philosophy I share with many other stoned defectors from social convention, weed and organized religion don't mix. Cannabis sparked my curiosity in many ways, and one of them was the way it made me think about the Islamic restrictions of my upbringing in a new way. The reasoning behind the ban on inebriation in any form made sense—who would adopt a centuries-old belief system when a natural substance allows us to imagine completely new modes of being?

For some marijuana fans, the spread of legal weed will mean that more and more previously unquestioning faith-keepers will light up, and that means that more and more of them may have a hard time reconciling commandments about sobriety with the beauty and power of pot.

For at least one major religion, though, there is a lot less to reconcile.

In February, Rabbi Moshe Elefant announced a partnership with an as-of-yet unidentified Colorado company to bring Kosher edible weed products to New York under the state's new medical marijuana law. Among its many self-immolating features, the Compassionate Care Act bans the smoking of weed, leaving patients to vaporize cannabis concentrates and consume edibles. For patients who are religious Jews, Rabbi Elefant's venture addresses the concern of eating marijuana products prepared in a non-Kosher kitchen.

As for reconciling a once taboo substance with the teachings of Judaism, Elefant put it simply, telling MUNCHIES earlier this year, "Judaism is insistent upon the fact that we take care of ourselves... so if a doctor prescribes marijuana, there's no reason not to take it."

That's a simple, pragmatic answer—the last thing I expected from a religious leader on the subject of weed. In my experience, most Muslims are opposed to weed just as they're opposed to alcohol. As legalization spreads, devout Christians are faced with the quandary of justifying ritualistic alcohol use while still remaining largely opposed to a statistically lesser evil. So what makes Jews so cool with weed?

"Anything that can be demonstrated to reduce suffering, especially of a bodily illness, or one of the mind, would be more or less kosher," Dr. Ajay Chaudhary, a lecturer on religious studies at Columbia University and founder of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, told me on the phone. "Well, I mean 'kosher' in the colloquial sense, in this case," he clarified. "If it's going to save a life, or even alleviate suffering, or you're dying of starvation, even a ham sandwich on Yom Kippur is OK."

Compared to the other major monotheistic faiths, Jewish doctrine favors the preservation of life and health over the strict application of its own laws through a principal called pikauch nefesh.

"Essentially, it says, 'And you shall live by these commandments,' and the rabbis interpreted that to mean, 'You shall live by them and not die by them,'" Rabbi Eli Freedman from Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia told me. "This means you are allowed to break any commandment—except three—to save a life. You can violate any other law."

As long as a Jew doesn't kill anyone, engage in any sexual misconduct, or bow down to a false idol, he or she can do pretty much anything in the name of saving or improving a life. As Rabbi Freedman puts it, "Say if I had a disease where the only cure is for me to eat like 20 pounds of bacon. Baconitis, or something. Even if I was the most Orthodox Jew, who had never come close to a pig in my life, I should eat that bacon to save my life." Islam has a similar concept, allowing people under duress some leeway in their decisions, but modern interpretations tend to be a lot harder edged, like this one from religious televangelist Zakir Naik that starts with, "The pig is the most shameless animal on the face of the earth."

"Judaisim doesn't really have the ascetic streak that you'd find in Christianity or eastern religions," according to Chaudhary. Jews are meant to enjoy the life as well as their spiritual pursuit, and any moderation or discipline should improve that experience. If that means one refrains from cannabis because it's an intoxicant but then discovers that it could improve life, there's no shame in blazing. As Chaudhary puts it, "Things that give you pleasure, things that intoxicate, aren't necessarily viewed as pure evil... Trust me, there's plenty of guilt in Judaism, but it's not generally the kind of body guilt you'd associate with Christian religion."

As for guilt in the secular sense, Jewish medical marijuana patients still have the paradox presented by " Dina De-Malkhuta Dina," a rule stipulating that Jews must obey the laws of the land they live in as long as they don't conflict with Jewish law. "Some rabbis will say [marijuana] against federal law in the US, so it's against the law for Jews," Chaudhary says. "But now that it's legal, it's a different thing. It raises questions: Is smoking it harmful for your body? What are the effects of marijuana on the mind? Is there a social concept that exists to handle this? Alcohol gets you extremely intoxicated, but we've built these long standing social structures to deal with that, and we haven't done that with pot yet."

According to some interpretations, Jews can't use medical marijuana even in a legalized state until federal law becomes consistent. But Freedman, the Philadelphia rabbi, disagrees.

"As a rabbi, I say go for it," he says.

Related: Watch VICE's Hamilton Morris explore unique strains of cannabis and corruption in Swaziland.

In the last century, cannabis went from being a crop to a narcotic to a medicine to something vaguely like alcohol. For millennia before that, it was a benign plant growing in the background of the shared mythologies of every Abrahamic religion. It was so unremarkable that an opinion on it was never even clearly stated in scripture, leaving scholars to debate the matter eternally. Yet the mindset spurred by a relatively recent legal prohibition has somehow fused itself into modern interpretations of religion. Laws are turning back in weed's favor, but it's not easy to make a case for reforming longstanding beliefs.

Still, Kosher edibles would be a great first step.

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