JULY 5, 2018 – “The leaves of cannabis make one happy,” wrote David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra, the chief rabbi of Cairo in the 16th century.
Cannabis leaves may have made Cairo Jews happy 500 or so years ago, but what do they do for the Jews of 2018 in Massachusetts where, as of July 1, recreational use is legal?
“I love it,” said a Jewish college student from Swampscott. “It’s made such a positive difference in my life. My anxiety has completely gone away. It’s made me more introspective, and it’s helped me understand and come to terms with a lot of things. It’s made me feel like things are gonna be OK.”
Other Jews feel differently. “It’s scandalous that by referendum we’ve allowed something that’s been under-studied and whose effects we don’t fully understand,” said Rabbi Benjamin Samuels of Newton’s Congregation Shaarei Tefillah. Samuels is also a member of the Boston Beit Din, a rabbinical court that issues rulings based on Jewish law. “There’s ample evidence to believe that some of the chemical components may be detrimental to the brain, especially the developing brain.”
As with any issue, Jews have a lot of opinions, and they aren’t afraid to voice them. In the case of marijuana in Massachusetts, a hot-button topic at the intersection of law, medicine, and money, Jewish fingerprints are everywhere. They’re prescribing it, selling it, investing in it, fighting for it, fighting against it, blessing it, declining to bless it, and yes, they’re also kicking back and smoking it.
The Jewish religion has a long history with the plant, and there are numerous references to it in ancient and medieval texts. Dr. Yosef Glassman, a geriatrician and rabbi, can point to several examples. According to Glassman, the Book of Exodus lists kaneh-bosm, which translates from Hebrew as “fragrant cane,” as one of the spices that God instructs Moses to use as anointing oil. Glassman also points out that the Torah lists cannabis as one of the best ingredients to “beautify” the wick of Shabbat candles, and that the Mishna comments on the mixing of cannabis leaves with other plants, forbidding them near grape vineyards. And Maimonides, the famous medieval rabbi and scholar, wrote that “cannabis oil provides benefit for cold, earaches, heals chronic illnesses, and dissolves obstructions.”
Maimonides was just one of many Jews who view marijuana as a useful medicine. “Due to federal scheduling and subsequently limited research, there are actually relatively few randomized placebo-controlled trials for cannabis treating specific conditions,” said Dr. Ryan Zaklin, an internist in Salem who certifies patients to receive medicinal marijuana. “However, there are many cases of patients who report cannabis being used to manage many different medical conditions.” Support among Jews for medicinal marijuana is so widespread that the Orthodox Union has even blessed many medicinal products.
Zaklin was one of many to point out the leading role Israel has taken in medicinal marijuana research. “Israel is one hundred percent the mecca of medical cannabis,” he said. “They’re furthest down the road, and are leading the charge of where things are going.” In 1964, Raphael Mechoulam, a professor at Hebrew University, was the first to isolate THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, and CBD, a chemical compound responsible for much of its therapeutic benefits. Mechoulam’s crucial discoveries helped establish Israel as a leader of medicinal marijuana research, and Israeli scientists are now researching how it can treat pain in the elderly, autism, Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s, cancer, and many other debilitating illnesses.
Since marijuana is a plant, it is technically kosher. “Just like broccoli or carrots, it wouldn’t require kosher supervision,” explained Rabbi Michael Ragozin of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott. However, broccoli, carrots, and cannabis would all lose their kosher certification if non-kosher bugs or additives interfere with the growing process. Kashrut is also dependent on the status of the civil law, so if marijuana is illegal, then it is not kosher.
Even if it’s technically legal, and therefore kosher, support among Orthodox rabbis for recreational cannabis is limited. Many still refer to a letter written in 1973 by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a leading scholar of the 20th century. Feinstein wrote that a man using cannabis violates the Torah because it “destroys his mind, and prevents him from understanding things properly.” Feinstein argued that its use contradicts the mitzvah of taking care of one’s physical and mental health. According to the Talmud, one should only pray with a clear head, and Feinstein believed marijuana would prevent that.
Still, Rabbi Sruli Baron, director of Tobin Bridge Chabad in Everett, doubts that Orthodox Judaism will unequivocally forbid recreational marijuana usage. “Moderation is key whenever indulging in any mind-altering activity,” said Baron. “Any substance, or dosage of a substance, that causes you to lose control is contrary to Jewish law.”
More secular Jews, however, are enthusiastic proponents, and have spent their careers fighting for legalization. A strain of marijuana is named after Jewish activist Jack Herer, and the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the foremost pro-legalization organizations in the country, was established by Ethan Nadelmann, who is the son of a rabbi. Steve Epstein, a Georgetown attorney, founded the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, which has fought for legalization since 1990. With recreational use finally legal, Epstein is less than pleased with the way the law has turned out.
“It’s a legal haze – nobody knows what they’re doing,” he said, explaining why even though recreational marijuana has been legal since July 1, there won’t be any retailers for a long time. “They submitted to peer pressure – they copied what other states have done. They should’ve learned from other states that if you’re going to require testing, you need testing labs, but they don’t have the testing labs up and licensed. It’s just going to be a mess.”
This might come as a disappointment to Greater Boston Jews who looked forward to the convenience recreational retailers will bring. “I’ve lived in states where it’s legal and states where it’s illegal,” said one user who grew up in Swampscott. “It goes from buying from some guy to becoming a part of the daily routine, like, ‘I gotta get milk, pick up my skirt at the dry cleaner, and go get two pre-rolled joints.’”
Some Jews, like Epstein, believe that legalization will correct the unfair treatment of minorities, who have been arrested at a much higher rate for possession than their white counterparts. “In Lynn and Lawrence, people have way less than an ounce, and they’re being charged,” said Epstein.
One Jewish user from Swampscott compared smoking a joint at the end of the day to relaxing with a glass of red wine. It begged the question: Will cannabis ever have a place at synagogues on the North Shore?
In Berkeley, Calif., and Denver, Jews recently hosted Seders and Shabbat meals with cannabis-laced matzah ball soup and challah. Could that ever happen here? Not in the near future, say area rabbis.
“I don’t anticipate a program that includes the use of cannabis, even legal,” said Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead. “As opposed to wine and even spirits, which are used regularly in Jewish observance and celebration, they can be utilized without the express intent of having a mind-altering experience, whereas when it comes to cannabis, that is the intent, and I don’t see that as a positive.”
“Legalization is not enough, and it would have to be condoned by the presiding rabbi,” said Rabbi Baron. “Even wine is trending in the other direction. With the awareness of the dangers of substance abuse, people are focusing inwards and looking for enlightenment independent of the use of substances.”
Still, some think it might happen. “We’ve already moved forward so quickly,” said a Swampscott native. “I really wouldn’t recommend it on Yom Kippur, though. You’d get ten times hungrier.”