The relationship between psychedelics and Judaism is far from simple. Speculation abounds regarding psychoactive substances in the Hebrew Bible, yet there is no consensus on the truth of the matter. Many Jewish thinkers have had a huge influence on psychedelic thought. Yet, many have also rejected their Judaism in their approach. Today, however, a strong Jewish strand is emerging on the psychedelics scene. From reviving direct religious experience to healing intergenerational trauma, psychedelics and Judaism have a lot to offer each other.
Madison Margolin is a journalist who has written extensively on the links between psychedelics and Judaism. She sees psychedelics as having a profound impact on contemporary Judaism. “I think psychedelics are invigorating Judaism, they’re reinvigorating our connection to Judaism. They’re kindling a type of fire that we haven’t had in a long time. What’s happening is that people are returning to Jewish practice after having been psychedelically inspired and are making it work for them. Psychedelic consciousness is coming together with a hunger for ritual and soulful nourishment and meaning in one’s life—which Judaism can provide—and in this way we’re really seeing a new, psychedelically inspired Jewish movement.”
A History of Jewish Mysticism and Psychedelics
Judaism is founded on powerful visionary experience, from Moses’ vision of the burning bush to the divine encounters documented in the Book of Prophets. Is it possible that psychedelics played a role in Jewish religious experience from the very beginning?
Psychedelics in Jewish History
The Hebrew Bible opens with the story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. It is a divine substance, conferring knowledge on those who eat it. So it isn’t far-fetched to imagine that this fruit might represent a naturally occurring psychedelic substance. If this were the case, however, the moral of the story would appear to be to avoid such substances, rather than to consume them. But In Exodus, the Israelites find a divine food called manna growing on the ground. It has been argued that manna may have been a psychoactive fungus, possibly ergot, of which LSD is a derivative. The main problem with this idea is that the Biblical story does not describe manna as being psychoactive.
In the same book of the Hebrew Bible, Moses has his vision of the burning bush. He puts the tablets with the Ten Commandments on them in the ark of the covenant, a vessel made of acacia wood. Acacia contains DMT, a fact which led psychologist Benny Shanon to speculate that the ancient Israelites may have known how to prepare their own version of the DMT-containing psychedelic brew, ayahuasca.
Biblical Fact vs. Fiction
There is no real evidence for any of these claims of psychoactive drug use in the Hebrew Bible. What is supported by hard evidence, however, is the idea that cannabis was used as incense. Archeochemical evidence of burnt cannabis was found along with frankincense on the altar of a shrine at Tel Arad, near Jerusalem. This is where the kingdom of Judah would have been long ago. Cannabis may have been used for more than incense, however. In Exodus, God tells Moses to make a holy anointing oil from kaneh-bosm, a plant whose name translates as ”fragrant hemp.” While many scholars argue that kaneh-bosm is the plant calamus (Acorus calamus, or Sweet Flag), this archeochemical evidence provides evidence that this holy plant may actually have been cannabis.
Psychedelics are known to produce mystical experiences, states in which one discovers oneself to be part of a greater sacred reality. However, it is of course possible to achieve direct religious experience without the use of psychedelics. Kabbalah represents a mystical strand in Judaism which emphasizes such experiences. As a tradition, it contains teachings and practices for engaging with mystical states of consciousness. A core text of Kabbalah is the Zohar, a 13th-century text that emerged from mystical traditions in Spain and southern France. The books of the Zohar offer commentaries on the mystical aspects of the Torah, as well as discussions on the nature of God and reality. The work was published by the Sephardic writer Moses de León of modern-day Spain, then the Kingdom of León. However, he attributed it to Shimon bar Yochai, a 2nd-century sage from Judea.
As the Sephardic mystical tradition of Kabbalah spread, it influenced the origins of a new mystical strand among the Ashkenazi Jews of eastern Europe: Hasidism. The Hasidic tradition started in the 18th century with Israel Ben Eliezer, a mystic and healer who was also known as the Baal Shem Tov. This spiritual revival movement began in what is now Western Ukraine. Its adherents have preserved many aspects of the culture that founded the moment. These include particular forms of dress and the use of the Yiddish language. As is common in other mystical traditions, Hasidism teaches the imminence of God in the universe, as well as knowing of one’s own unity with God. This stands in contrast to nonmystical teachings, in which God is something separate from its creation, a God to stand in relation to—rather than to discover one’s unity with.
Jewish Mysticism and Psychedelics in the 20th Century
Over the last several centuries, European Jewish communities faced dramatic persecution. This ranged from the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, to the pogroms of eastern Europe and the Holocaust. There is no way of knowing the extent of the impact these horrific tragedies have had on these traditions of mystical wisdom. By the 1960s, the Jewish Canadian poet-turned-musician Leonard Cohen bemoaned the loss of this mystical brilliance. He proclaimed, “Judaism is a secretion with which an eastern tribe surrounded a divine irritation, a direct confrontation with the absolute. That happened once in history and we still feel the warmth of that confrontation, divorced as we are from the terms of it. That happened a long time ago… Today… we cannot face heaven, we have lost our genius for the vertical… we turn towards ourselves. We knock on our own doors and wonder when no one answers.”
At the same time, one method for kindling direct religious experience was filtering through the underground in the West: LSD.
Psychedelic Spirituality Among Jewish Americans in the 1960s
The cultural turbulence of the 1960s resulted in a form of religious revival in the West. LSD provided countless people with instances of direct religious experiences. Many Westerners turned to the East to make sense of these experiences. Some of the most prominent and influential figures in this moment were Jewish. Richard Alpert was one such figure. Raised Jewish, Alpert would go on to conduct research on psilocybin and LSD at Harvard with Timothy Leary.
Alpert traveled in India, looking for a way to integrate his spiritual insights from his psychedelic experimentation. While there, he found his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. Also known as Maharaj Ji to his followers, he gave Alpert the Hindu name Ram Dass, meaning God’s servant. Ram Dass would go on to explore Buddhist mindfulness practices with another influential Jewish contemporary of his, the meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein. Eventually, in his later years he would reckon with the Judaism of his youth.
Exploring Judaism on a Personal Level
Ram Dass initially attempted to find religious models for psychedelic experience in religions other than his own. Huge numbers of Jewish Americans in the 1960s and 70s traveled this journey. They were searching for what they hadn’t found in the Jewish tradition in which they were raised. According to Madison Margolin, “[A] lot of this has to do with Jewish trauma. Especially in the post Holocaust time, people just wanted to assimilate, and there was a lot of internalized antisemitism. If you were coming from a ‘conservadox’ Jewish background, the type of Judaism you were getting at that point in America was really dry, boring and not spiritual (at least that’s how my parents described it).”
“That in and of itself kind of validates all this Jewish trauma: first it didn’t feel safe to be Jewish, and then it didn’t feel cool or soulfully nourishing to be Jewish. So that inspired a lot of Jews to go to India or look into spiritual modalities they didn’t grow up with. A lot of that was inspired by psychedelics. People were tripping and having these mystical insights, and then not really having the container for integration. I think what’s happening now, in this “psychedelic renaissance.” is there’s also a Jewish movement happening. People are having these insights through psychedelics and then they’re going to Jewish religion and inquiring how they can make sense of the psychedelic ethos through a Jewish lens. There are tons of people who are practicing that right now.”
Another contemporary of Ram Dass was Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. He was the father of the Jewish Renewal movement, which aimed to bring mysticism, ecstatic prayer, and meditation back into Jewish practice. In 1962, Shalomi underwent LSD sessions with Alpert and Leary, sessions that would have a profound impact on him. He was not shy about communicating the value of the psychedelic experience. Accordingly, Shalomi would go on to have a profound influence on modern Jewish spirituality. His trip to India to meet with the Dalai Lama is documented in Rodger Kamenetz’s book, The Jew in the Lotus. The documentary of the same name also tells this story.
Psychedelic Therapy and Holocaust Survivors
In 1976, a man known as Ka-Tzetnik 135633 (original name: Yehiel De-Nur) underwent LSD-assisted psychotherapy. At the time, he was under the supervision of Prof. Jan Bastiaans at the State University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Bastiaans was the psychiatrist who had first identified concentration camp syndrome, also known as survivor syndrome. This syndrome is a form of what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Its characteristics include social withdrawal, sleep disturbance, anxiety, and depression. Bastiaans had also successfully treated this syndrome with LSD-assisted psychotherapy. Ka-Tzetnik 135633 was a survivor of Auschwitz, where he was a prisoner for two years. This trauma was followed by three decades of torment, in which he relived the horror of those two years at night. Through LSD-assisted psychotherapy, however, Ka-Tzetnik 135633 found healing.
Almost a half century after Bastiaans’ successful trials, the regulation of psychedelics for treating PTSD is finally underway. Think of the Holocaust survivors who might have found healing through these medicines, but couldn’t because of a politically-motivated ban on psychedelics. This realization brings home the horrific impact of the failed “war on drugs.”
Two decades after psychedelic research ended in America, Dr. Rick Strassman conducted a trial that examined the effects of DMT on human participants. Raised Jewish, Dr. Strassman had spent his adult life studying Zen Buddhism alongside his medical research career. An understanding of the unitive spiritual state of enlightenment, however, did not prepare him for the effects of DMT. “The participants and I were both expecting unitive mystical enlightenment experiences. But only one volunteer had that kind of experience out of almost five dozen.” recalls Strassman.
Relating to the Divine
Strassman’s participants did not find themselves becoming one with the universe. Rather, they related to and interacted with seemingly autonomous entities in an apparently different realm. Remarkably, this other realm seemed more real than everyday reality. Strassman felt that the Zen perspective couldn’t accommodate these experiences, so he returned to Judaism for an explanatory framework.
“I went back to the drawing board and by a number of circumstances, I found myself reading the Hebrew Bible. The paradigmatic experience of the Hebrew Bible is the prophetic experience, which, broadly defined, includes any spiritual experience that any figure in the text undergoes. The text posits that the ultimate spiritual experience in the Bible is an interactive relational one. So it matches those two very important criteria: the sense that it is real, the most real thing one might ever meet up with; and the encounter with God or with God’s angels, which is the apogee of Biblical Judaism.”
In studying the Hebrew Bible, Strassman found that the visionary experiences of prophets like Ezekiel, Daniel, and Jeremiah showed striking similarities to the DMT-induced state. “In addition to the interactive-relational quality, the phenomenology is comparable—they’re both highly visual and emotional. With DMT you feel faint, feeling like you’re flying through the air, shaking tremors, anxiety, a rush. There are auditory as well as well as visual effects. The DMT state is intensely color-saturated, rapidly moving, morphing, characterized by visual phenomena. Daniel’s got rivers of flowing fire. Ezekiel’s got these beings with wings and there are a lot of eyes on the wings. Jeremiah faints, people see angels, they move through space, and the emotions can be quite powerful; there’s fear and trembling.
In both of the states you’re confronted with something extremely powerful. There’s an increased feeling of passivity, being overwhelmed. But you can still interact, which is a hallmark of both states—one’s individual personality is maintained.”
Strassman learned biblical Hebrew so that he could translate the challenging text himself. Then he synthesised his psychiatric and scriptural research into an approach he calls theoneurology. “I developed that as a counterpoint to the reigning model of spiritual experience from a neuroscientific point of view, which is called neurotheology. Neurotheology is basically your brain on drugs. There are a number of stimuli—meditation, prayer, and psychedelics—which stimulate a brain reflex. [This] manifests in a certain subjective syndrome, and is then after the fact called spiritual. The idea is the brain is so designed in order to provide an evolutionary advantage. For example, you might be more altruistic or compassionate. It’s a bottom-up kind of model.
After reading the Hebrew Bible I saw that that isn’t the way that that prophecy is understood. Prophecy is understood as a top-down model. God is communicating with humans. So, I developed a top-down model, which I call theoneurology. It puts the preeminence on the spiritual, the divine. And in that model, you would propose that God designed the brain in order for us to be able to communicate with God. So that expands the reason for the brain being designed that way, which is useful because a lot of the prophetic message doesn’t make any sense from an evolutionarily advantageous lens.”
The Hebrew Bible Through a Psychedelic Lens
Strassman continues to work on his translation of the Hebrew Bible. The original text lacks vowels and punctuation, making scholarly commentary and interpretation highly valuable. He is currently working on a translation of Genesis. Understandably, such a translation from a pioneer in the field of psychedelic research would be a huge boon in the area of psychedelics and Judaism. Strassman is also keen to emphasize that a Jewish model of psychedelic spirituality need not be based in mystical traditions like Kabbalah. “It isn’t essential; it isn’t really necessary, I think. [T]he most valuable application isn’t to experience a Jewish mystical state. I think what’s more important is to revitalize the message of the prophets, the message of the text, and to learn the ethical laws which are embedded in the narratives. That isn’t a part of Kabbalah mystical experience.
And there’s plenty of mystical experience out there. There doesn’t need to be a Jewish flavor. The Hebrew Bible is a unique book with a unique story. It has a unique power, resilience, and applicability. It’s the basis of Western civilization. Kabbalah is not the basis of Western civilization. If you really want to make an impact on society, I think it behooves us to go into the lion’s den. What is motivating a lot of the behavior and beliefs in our world now, it’s stuff that has been extracted and perverted from the Hebrew Bible. If we can enter into that world with a psychedelic perspective, I think it would be a very powerful tool to turn the power of the Hebrew Bible toward a more beneficial outcome.”
Psychedelics and Judaism Today
Healing Intergenerational Trauma
The effects of trauma are not confined to individuals who suffer traumatic events. The trauma can be passed down the generations. Moreover, this does not occur only through the emotional impact on child development of having traumatized parents or grandparents. Recent research has shown that trauma can even change the epigenetic regulation of how our DNA is expressed, so that it passes on the post-traumatic stress for three generations. MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is one area that holds great hope for the healing of PTSD.
Rick Doblin is another Jewish psychedelic pioneer who has been essential to the revival of psychedelic medicine. Doblin is the Founder and Executive Director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Thanks to the work of MAPS, MDMA-assisted psychotherapy will soon be available for those suffering from PTSD in the coming years.
Healing Contemporary Trauma
The ongoing conflict in the Middle East is one area where many are hoping psychedelic medicine may play a role. While psychological treatment for trauma is no replacement for material change and lasting peace, psychedelics show great promise in reducing human suffering. Israel has already successfully trialed MDMA treatment for PTSD. Additionally, many ayahuasca circles exist in the region.
In 2016, Israeli psychedelic researcher Leor Roseman teamed up with Palestinian peace activist Antwan Saca and Natalie Ginsberg of MAPS to research this phenomenon. In order to explore whether psychedelics might be used to promote peace and reconciliation, they conducted interviews of Israelis and Palestinians who were drinking ayahuasca together. They found that the majority of the individuals they interviewed were taking psychedelics for personal, rather than political, reasons. Despite this, many found that the psychedelic experience cut through the differences of the conflict to their shared humanity. Psychedelics alone are obviously not the answer, however. In an ongoing conflict, many can’t come out of their trauma into a position of safety. As one Palestinian interviewee put it, “How can you heal trauma if the trauma is ongoing?”
A useful resource for those looking to heal from the trauma faced by Jewish communities is TranscendingJewishTrauma.com. This website offers a map of the challenges one can face in response to trauma, as well as guides on the approaches to healing that are available. Another important presence in this area is the nonprofit Darkhei Rephua, which advocates the psychedelic plant medicine path for healing trauma in Jewish communities. The Facebook group Jews for the Therapeutic Use of Psychedelics is a great place to start for those interested in this area. More general access points for those looking to explore psychedelics in a Jewish context include the Jewish Psychedelic Society and Jewish Entheogenic Society Facebook groups.
Another key figure in the area of psychedelics and Judaism is Adriana Kertzer. She is a Jewish Brazilian-American lawyer whose law firm, Plant Medicine Law Group, focuses on the psychedelic and cannabis space. As a side project, she leads the working group Faith+Delics, a group of Jews and Christians exploring the potential incorporation of psychedelics into these traditions. “I started exploring the relationship between Jews and drugs through my Instagram account JewWhoTokes,” explains Kertzer, who derives the most pleasure from acting as a connector in the space. “[W]hat began as a joke is now a deep passion. What are the different ways in which Jewish identity and psychedelics overlap? What does a Jewish psychedelic philanthropic ecosystem look like?”
Integrating Psychedelics into Jewish Practice
In addition to healing, advocates of psychedelics are harnessing their capacity to invoke religious experience in order to bring the mystical experience back into Jewish religious practice. Rabbi Zac Kamenetz took part in a research study in which religious practitioners were given a dose of psilocybin. His experiences have led him to see psychedelics as a valuable tool for Jewish spirituality. His nonprofit, Shefa, is dedicated to integrating psychedelics into Jewish religious practice.
“We know that the medicalization, therapeutic application, or decriminalization of psychedelics will not be the end of the story. With the potential to grant access to encounters with the Sacred, religious traditions must prepare themselves—from their theologies to their liturgies and communal structures—to enrich and be enriched by more access to psychedelic medicine and sacrament.
While we are still several years out from being able to use these plants and compounds outside of a clinical setting, we launched Shefa now because we understand how much work must go into preparing for a psychedelically-integrated Judaism in terms of research, education, and building a network of Jewish guides that are well-traveled in expanded states as they are captured in our mystical traditions and in their own lives. We hope our work will inspire other religious leaders and traditions to walk this path with us as well.”
RS CONTRIBUTING AUTHOR – DR. JAMES COOKE
Dr. James Cooke is a neuroscientist, writer, and speaker, whose work focuses on consciousness, with a particular interest in meditative and psychedelic states. He studied Experimental Psychology and Neuroscience at Oxford University and is passionate about exploring the relationship between science and spirituality, which he does via his writing and his YouTube channel, YouTube.com/DrJamesCooke. He splits his time between London and the mountains of Portugal where he is building a retreat centre, The Surrender Homestead, @TheSurrenderHomestead on Instagram. Find him @DrJamesCooke on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, or at DrJamesCooke.com.