Alcohol seems to be a part of many Jewish holidays. At Purim we are even commanded to drink so that we can't differentiate between certain characters in Megillat Esther. Is there a Jewish perspective on drugs that would similarly impair our thinking? While some drugs certainly are dangerous to use, many would argue that marijuana - if used in moderation - simply makes the human mind think differently for a period of time, just as a few "l'chaims" do.
Alcohol, in the form of wine and sometimes spirits is used often in Jewish celebrations.It is described in liturgy and other texts as a “symbol of joy”. Therefore on Shabbat and most holidays we say a blessing to sanctify the day over a glass of wine.Purim is an interesting case because of some texts that suggest to drink “Ad lo Yadah” that is until you do not know the difference between blessed be Mordecai and cursed be Haman. There are other times when Jews will also drink a “l’chayim” or two, but in general outside of Purim drunkenness is discouraged.
An interesting connection to your question, is the fact that it is well known that the Chasidic Rabbis of Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries would regularly take snuff (a form of smokeless tobacco that is inhaled through the nose – don’t ask me why that is appealing) and such activity is shown in both folklore and art of the time.
Ultimately Judaism tends to bring us toward what Maimonides called the golden mean – that is moderation in everything. There is no special merit in Judaism for abstaining from alcohol (except as one part of the Nazarite vow in Numbers chapter 6). Furthermore, the sages tell us if we do not enjoy what is permitted, then we are sinning against God, because we are avoiding part of God’s creation. Therefore, imbibing in wine or other alcohol from time to time, as long as one does not drink to excess or become an alcoholic is perfectly acceptable within Judaism.
The same could be said for marijuana except for one crucial difference.In America, the use and possession of marijuana is illegal, and there is a Jewish principle that we follow the laws of the land when they do not explicitly contradict Jewish law.Therefore unless marijuana is legal for use in a particular area, Jewish law would not permit it. In no case, either in terms of alcohol or other “mostly harmless” drugs does Judaism permit usage in order to reach some new state of consciousness or for mystical and spiritual purposes.As for harder drugs, the immediate risk of life and health that those place on a first time user would make them completely off limits to Judaism and its focus on life.
First, violating the law is prohibited and use of these drugs is illegal
Second, the culture that surrounds drugs is different than that which surrounds alcohol. People don’t see alcohol as providing new dimensions to their personalities or opening new spiritual vistas- but drugs often come with those types of cultural associations.
Third, if someone needs a drink to loosen up before every party they attend people recognize that they have a problem. Someone who does marijuana that way is considered “cool”. All of that is problematic.
Fourth, I am also troubled by an attitude that one hears frequently that suggests that a person is less than complete if they haven’t experienced drugs. In Jewish thought, human beings were created as the best of God’s works and we shouldn’t need mind altering drugs to be fully human.
Finally, a famous story has Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court justice telling of how he “discovered the fundamental truth of the universe” while under the influence of a drug that had been administered to him during surgery. When he woke after the drug’s influence had passed, he discovered from some notes he made while the drug was still having its effect that this essential truth was that the room he was in smelled of turpentine.
Judaism sees our intellect as essential to what makes us human. Taking something that so distorts our minds- that so changes this most basic element of human reality- for fun, is very disturbing in light of how Judaism understands what it means to be human.
Answered by: Rabbi --- Not Active with JVO Suspended
Alcohol, as you notice, is a means to celebrate holidays and shabbat, as understood in the psalm we recite on Rosh Chodesh (the new month) “…and wine gladdens the human heart.” There is no command to drink, but (rather) a permission. Even on Purim, the Tamud mentions the custom (not command) to drink until one cannot distinguish between “blessed is Mordechai” and “cursed is Haman,” two phrases whose letters add up (in their number correspondences) to the exact same sum.
But look at Noah in the Biblical story: when he exits the Ark, plants a vineyard and drinks until he passes out, the Bible (and later Jewish tradition) takes an extremely dim view. Jews are not meant to deaden our minds or anesthetize our senses. Any mystical awareness we have that in other cultures might be found through hallucinogenic drug use is accessed in Jewish tradition through study, prayer, contemplation and fasting. These are the “normal” pathways that open the doors to mystical experience, and although they are more difficult to access (they require more effort), they pay off better in that the one who experiences them can replicate his success and can take back whatever knowledge he’s gained.
While our tradition does not “criminalize” drunkenness and altered states, neither does it approve. Rather, it understands the human need behind it and occasionally excuses us for doing what we can’t pull ourselves away from.
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