Would LSD Make Bar Mitzvahs Great Again?

Human history is rife with precedent for using drugs to achieve spiritual and moral growth, and there's no scientific reason the modern Jew can't get in on the action.

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Oct 5 2016, 2:00pm

Illustration by Dana Kim

My bar mitzvah was a lovely affair. I remember standing at the bima, singing from the Torah in ancient Hebrew as my beaming parents sat in the front of a packed congregation. Two hundred of my closest friends and family were on hand, and our conservative synagogue had the simultaneously majestic and austere look about it befitting the gravity of such a seminal moment.

But something was missing, and despite a few fond memories, the day didn't live up to my expectations. Like many American Jews I know, I didn't really feel like I changed at all, let alone become a man.

That posed a question I recently returned to after more than two decades: How can modern Jews inject meaning and spirituality into this important coming-of-age ritual? In 2004, a prominent former professor of psychology at Harvard, reflecting on his own bar mitzvah, broached one possible solution—even as he took pains to emphasize he was not advocating it: "If we have only the most superficial of ossified religious rituals, it is because these rites of passage no longer provide direct contact with the numinous. This is where psychedelics can help."

Which is to say maybe what the modern bar mitzvah service is missing is a drug like LSD.

Not everyone I spoke to shares this sentiment, of course. The handful of rabbis I canvassed were in uniform agreement that there's no place for psychedelic substances in the bar or bat mitzvah. That said, our conversations did leave me strangely hopeful.

Rabbi Joe Schwartz of the Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan told me that "the goal of Judaism is to teach each individual to transcend themselves... and ultimately to align themselves with God, as opposed to the cravings, yearnings, and temptations of the self." Rabbi Haim Rechnitzer, associate professor of Modern Jewish Thought at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, explained how Jewish mystics believe "you cannot really grasp the divine if you constantly see only one side of the kaleidoscope, only the outside of the prism, only the break of the light into different colors." And Rabbi Jerry Steinberg of Temple B'nai Shalom V'Tikvah in Ontario, Canada said altered states of consciousness—when achieved naturally—are important to experiencing echad (unity) "at the emotional and spiritual levels."

As I spoke to these leaders of the Jewish community, I was reminded of my own LSD experiences—I founded the Psychedelic Society of Brooklyn—and how essentially Jewish each has been by the rabbis' own metrics.

Now, I realize young teens consuming acid sounds like a rather dangerous proposal. Indeed, even though psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy seems to have potential to treat end-of-life anxiety, addiction, and depression in adults, what does that have to do with mere kids getting something substantial out of their bar mitzvah service? But the fact is human history is rife with precedent for using drugs to achieve spiritual and moral growth, and there's no scientific reason the modern Jew can't eventually get in on the action.

For starters, psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin—a.k.a. shrooms—have been shown to occasionally produce something called a " primary mystical experience"—spiritual phenomena highly correlated with therapeutic outcomes, and reported by practitioners of many of the worlds' great religions. So if what's missing from some modern bar and bat mitzvahs is essentially a sense of the magic of religion itself, or "direct contact with the numinous," as the former Harvard professor—born Richard Albert but now known as Ram Dass, a seminal figure in the history of psychedelics—put it in his essay, then these substances could liven things up a bit.

Indeed, in a 1962 study at Harvard, ten divinity school students took psilocybin before a Good Friday service; eight claimed to have a mystical experience. In a 2006 study at Johns Hopkins, a third of the 36 "healthy, well-educated" volunteers rated their psychedelic session as the most spiritually significant event of their lives.

The idea that young people can benefit from intense, even terrifying experiences is not unfounded. Consider indigenous coming-of-age rituals, where adolescents must prove their courage and strength by living alone in the wilderness. When they return home, teens are often instilled with a newfound confidence that comes with facing their fears—and surviving. Maybe the same process can unfold during in an intense psychedelic trip, which is often likened to an ordeal, a harrowing journey, or even, as Tehseen Noorani, a former psychedelic researcher at Johns Hopkins, once put it to me , "a bout of incomprehensible experiences, perhaps akin to a hazing"?

William Richards, co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Research Group, is sympathetic to this dynamic—with the qualification that he's nowhere near ready to embrace adolescent usage. "You're confronting grief, you're confronting guilt, you're confronting fear, and [as you work through your issues] you're getting wiser and more mature and more confident, and you start to feel like, I am man ," he told me of a plausible experience one might have on a drug like LSD.

Neal Goldsmith, a psychotherapist and author of Psychedelic Healing, offers another reason to give acid-infused bar mitzvahs (and other coming-of-age rituals) serious consideration. "Adolescents around the age of puberty, just like adults at other developmental stages, seem to have the need to go through rites of passage: a deconstruction of their current personalities, followed by—and with the guidance of their communities—a reconstruction of personality at the next level," he told me. Goldsmith believes psychedelics can help with this process by "loosening the mortar between the bricks of the edifice of the childhood structure," so to speak. In a way, they can expedite and facilitate natural processes that might not happen "on their own, or as successfully, or on time," he added.

Of course, even if you're open to the concept of mixing LSD and bar (or bat) mitzvahs, the not-so-insubstantial concern of giving intense drugs to children lingers. I mean, are 13-year-olds really ready for such an intense experience?

There is precedent for adolescents taking psychedelics ritualistically. Some cultures in South America use ayahuasca, while another in Western Africa uses iboga, two psychedelics I would argue to be far more powerful than LSD. In fact, Goldsmith went so far as to say "every tribal culture that has access to visionary plants has used them as part of their cosmology and spiritual practices, including rites of passage."

Compared to some of these other societies around the world, dosing an American 13-year-old with LSD doesn't seem like such a radical proposition. Furthermore, two studies conducted in 2005 and published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs suggest that ayahuasca use among teens isn't just safe, it's beneficial. Forty adolescents who drank ayahuasca ritualistically at least 24 times in the preceding two years were compared to their psychedelically naïve counterparts. No harmful effects were found among the subjects who took psychedelics in one study, and the other found them to actually be psychologically healthier than the control group.

But what would these drugs do for the bar mitzvah, specifically? As a matter of cultural futurism, I asked Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies—and also a Jew—for his thoughts. "I think that's a potential," he told me, elaborating that "encasing these kinds of experiences in the community and in the family, that's the way to get the best results, and that's what we're talking about in terms of bar mitzvahs and other rites of passage."

Doblin's opinion isn't just theoretical; it stems from his own first LSD experiences as a 17-year-old.

"My use of psychedelics was doing what I had hoped my bar mitzvah would do," he told me. "It took courage, it took looking deep into my self, it involved a certain kind of transcendence of the ego, seeing the bigger picture. It had that spiritual element. I felt that it was really very opening and transformative."

My only hope is that in some distant future where LSD is not a Schedule I substance—and new studies have more definitively demonstrated it to be safe for young people—the dream of mixing acid and the bar mitzvah won't seem like such a crazy idea anymore. And maybe, just maybe, young Jews will look at our coming-of-age ritual not just as a rote religious exercise, but a spiritually rich pathway to adulthood.

Daniel Miller is a lawyer, writer, and activist in New York. He has previously written for the Washington Post, Psymposia, and the Forward. Follow him on Twitter.