The complicated halachahs of getting high

As the marijuana legalization movement gains steam, where does the Jewish community stand?

It’s the end of a long workday and Erez (not his real name) meets me at an uptown Toronto subway station.

We drive to a nearby park, making conversation about work, family and, eventually, about pot. 

“My stuff is really good,” he tells me, indicating the rolled joint tucked behind his ear.

Erez, 32, is soft-spoken, with an air of quiet intelligence. 

He was raised in a traditional Jewish household in Toronto and brought up to be kosher and shomer Shabbat. His family belonged to an Orthodox synagogue and after high school, he attended yeshiva.

There, he said, pot was fairly prevalent.

“I think drugs of all kinds are everywhere,” Erez shrugged.

He continues to identify as religious, observing Shabbat and kashrut and donning tfillin each morning before davening.

He has a stable job, is a burgeoning business owner and smokes pot daily – always after work, but never on Shabbat.

“I think marijuana enables one to become slightly more compassionate, more sensitive and accepting, characteristics that line up with Judaism,” Erez said thoughtfully when I asked if his weed habit interferes with his commitment to Jewish observance. 

While the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the North American rabbinical association affiliated with modern Orthodoxy, hasn’t taken an official position on marijuana use, the RCA’s executive vice-president, Rabbi Mark Dratch, said it’s safe to assume many of his contemporaries support smoking marijuana for medical reasons.

As for recreational smoking, he said, “our concern has mostly been figuring out how to provide pastoral support to people with addictions, but I imagine, as marijuana becomes more legalized and available, we’ll have to make a public statement about it.” 

He subsequently noted that becoming intoxicated or “artificially creating an altered state of consciousness,” wouldn’t be endorsed by the RCA.

Neither the Rabbinical Assembly, which is the international association of Conservative rabbis, nor Reform’s Central Conference of American Rabbis have taken official positions on recreational marijuana smoking, though as early as 2001, it urged its member rabbis to “become better informed about the medicinal use of marijuana and its constituent compounds” and to “urge elected officials to support legislation to reclassify marijuana as a prescribed controlled substance so that it can be used to conduct research and prescribed for critically ill patients with intractable pain and other conditions.” And in 2003, the Union for Reform Judaism, the denomination’s umbrella group, resolved to urge elected U.S. officials to support legislation permitting medical usage.

Still, the growing social acceptance of marijuana in Canada – in June, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that all forms of medical marijuana are legal for those with a license, and federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has called for overall legalization – makes particularly topical questions of where the Jewish community’s leadership lands on the subject.

Specifically, does smoking pot recreationally violate Jewish law? 

And for Jews that smoke, can it be a tool to enhance spirituality or connection with ritual and community? 

Several Canadian rabbis from various denominations were contacted to comment for this article – including Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist – but most declined, saying they didn’t feel sufficiently knowledgeable about the health effects of marijuana or the legal nuances surrounding it.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Beit Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation, an Orthodox shul, invoked the Halachah dina d’malchuta dina – the law of the country is binding – as evidence that smoking recreationally is prohibited by Jewish law, so long as Canadian law deems it illicit.

Still, he acknowledged that the government’s classification of harmful substances is subject to change.

As with cigarettes, he said, “society doesn’t always get it right, but… we have to make decisions based on society’s [current] understanding of how substances interact with our bodies.”

He also noted that smoking weed might violate the command, “Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves” (Deuteronomy 4:15) – meaning that one must guard one’s body from physical harm.

Further, using a substance to the point that it impedes one’s ability to pray is halachically prohibited.

He referenced Purim, when the obligation to get drunk is tempered by warnings about not getting so intoxicated that one can’t properly pray or say grace after meals.

He also expressed concern that marijuana could be a “gateway drug,” potentially leading to a serious addiction.

But Rabbi Korobkin also noted that a number of talmudic passages refer to the benefits of using drugs in moderation.

“There’s a recognition even from the biblical period that people suffer various pressures and depressions, and in order to be able to shake off some things that prevent you from fully expressing joy, it’s sometimes not only permitted, but mandated, to indulge in small quantities of mind-altering drugs,” he said.

Of course, he acknowledged, the Bible’s references to drugs usually pertain to wine, and it’s unclear whether marijuana would be similarly considered.

As for smoking to achieve spiritual connection, Rabbi Korobkin said, “I think it’s conceivable that using certain substances could get you in touch with God. A lot of times people have trouble seeing beyond a rigid, three-dimensional universe, and certain substances let people see beyond the veil of the physical world.”

Sam (also not his real name), 26, lives in Windsor, Ont., and describes himself as a “Sarah Silverman-type, cultural Jew.”

He has a medical marijuana license because of an ongoing health condition, but said the line between smoking pot for medicinal versus recreational purposes is blurred for him.

“It’s not that [smoking] creates a euphoric moment, but it contributes to an overall sense of well-being,” he explained. 

Further, because getting high can open up one’s mind to different points of view, Sam said, it can create a sense of spirituality. 

In the United States, “Jeffthe420chef” (he prefers not to use his real name) has caused something of a buzz, you might say, for catering private or special event meals infused with CBD strains of cannabis (typically used to treat medical conditions) for people with medical marijuana licenses. If an event is being held in a state where recreational smoking is legal and people are looking for a more recreational experience, he’ll cook with THC-infused foods.

The host provides the pot, out of which he’ll make oil, and covers his travel and accommodation expenses, but he doesn’t charge for cooking.

“I feel strongly about it. I believe we’re only in the world a short time and must do what we can to help people,” said Jeffthe420chef, explaining that he’s careful when cooking with the oil to ensure nobody gets “super high.”

Raised in an Orthodox home in Los Angeles, Jeffthe420chef tailors his meals to the law of the state he’s cooking in and the needs of the guests.

His repertoire includes “pot Shabbats” replete with Shabbat rituals, traditional foods – his famous variations include “potzeh balls” and “cannabis challah” – and the dinners attract Jewish guests of all backgrounds, including Orthodox Jews. 

“People can have a spiritual experience and bond in a way you wouldn’t over just a bottle of wine,” he said.

The point is not to get really stoned, but ease pain if one is suffering or simply having a heightened experience. 

“When you’re living day-to-day life, your ego gets in the way… but ingesting the right strain [of marijuana] takes away these barriers and you start seeing things from a whole new perspective,” he said.

Erez and I sit in the park under the shade of a tree and he tells me that getting high doesn’t deepen his experience of Jewish rituals, such as prayer, but neither does marijuana belong to a realm that’s entirely removed from spirituality, or from God.

 “Smoking sometimes stirs up emotions in me,” he mused, “feelings of being grateful for where I am, and to God for putting me there.”