Where Marijuana and Torah Meet

Legalizing pot in Israel might upset military stability, says author Yoseph Needelman; but then again, it could also bring about peace.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

They may be legalizing marijuana for recreational use in Colorado and Washington – and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to announce Wednesday that he plans to make medical marijuana available to specific patients through a state-controlled distribution system, a complete reversal of his earlier opposition.

But Yoseph Needelman, the author of “Cannabis Chassidis: The Ancient and Emerging Torah of Drugs (A memoir)” says he doesn’t expect a similar revolution toward legalization in Israel.

“Israel is in a different position – we have a feeling that all of our security depends on our constant vigilance. And when it comes to marijuana use, the concern is less about the health of our kids but rather, are our soldiers going to be good soldiers?” Needelman says in an interview at a Jerusalem coffee shop that offers strong fair-trade coffee and sugarless muffins. “The concern is not just over a young guy being high and holding a gun, but not wanting to be soldiers at all.”

Not only that, he argues, but legalizing marijuana use just might spell the end of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. “Decriminalization would be ending the whole war, because neither Jews nor Arabs would be as committed to our identities, and we would be more likely to look for commonalities and creative solutions,” says Needelman, an exceedingly tall and lanky man of 32 who wears a knitted cap that looks half religious, half hipster. “Coffee is nice, but it doesn’t end the war so fast. Grass really does.”

Whether his theories sound fascinating or fantastical, depending on the listener, Needelman has become one of the world’s foremost experts on marijuana and Judaism. Born and raised in Brooklyn and educated in a modern-Orthodox framework, he came to Israel in 2001, among other things, in search of proving what he’d already expected was true – that he would find a bridge between Torah and marijuana, and that some of the great rabbis might have found its use acceptable.
He came, according to his book jacket, “looking for an authentic religious tradition
for how to smoke marijuana rightly, helpfully, more effectively and more meaningfully.” The product of that search is his book, which he self-published in 2009; It was then picked up for publication by Autonomedia Press in 2012. It is published under the Hebrew pen-name Yoseph Lieb Ibn Mardachya.

He says that his largely ultra-Orthodox neighborhood made him have a different viewpoint toward marijuana being illegal.

“Growing up in Williamsburg, there was a sense of their law and our law, and that is so much of what Judaism is in those places,” he explains. “There was a sense of alternative priorities, tribal wisdom, and for me it became a big question of where cannabis was in all of that.”

While there were no explicit endorsements or prohibitions on marijuana in the Torah, Needelman explores the possibilities, starting with Genesis. “Even before God said be fruitful and multiply, he said, I give you all the seed-bearing plants,” he notes, referencing Gen. 1:12. Later, in Exodus, God instructs Moses to make a sacred anointing oil with, among other things, “knei bossem,” which might be marijuana. Rashi, the 11th century French commentator, said this substance was “important,” while the Rambam (Maimonides), who commented on the text a century later, refers to it as a substance that’s “circulated and valued everywhere.”

Closer to the modern era, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov addressed the issue of drug use and was of two minds. On the one hand, it might increase joy, which Nachman famously endorsed. On the other, the point of suffering is to make us pray and seek God, and so escaping to the comfort of medicines may be missing the mark.

A more contemporary decision was issued by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who said that marijuana use damages health, disrupts Torah study and performance of commandments, and even dishonors one’s parents.

Needelman himself has a rather sober analysis of the potential drawbacks of marijuana use.

“Why marijuana been so illegal has less to do with health concerns and more with awareness of what a potentially disruptive force in can be,” he says. “A lot of the problem of marijuana and the virtue of marijuana is that instead of being aware of external stimuli, the user is more aware of internal processes. It’s not necessarily so good for relationships or certain forms of work. To me, the greater hope of legalization is to find better frameworks for use: not during the day, maybe not with the kids, not at work. Not all day every day, unless life is just too painful to experience unsoftened.”

Israel is in the midst of an ongoing debate over whether to liberalize access to medical marijuana. Health Minister Yael German is largely opposed, saying that not enough tests have been done to justify such a move, while advocates of legalization have gained an usual spokesman – far-right politician Moshe Feiglin.

“The more that it’s medicinal, the more they will criminalize and enforce the law against unauthorized non-medicinal use,” Needelman says. “Everyone I knew who sold weed for more than six months got arrested. It’s still that way today. I know people who got arrested last week. It drives up the prices. It’s certainly stricter here than it is in New York. The rule in New York is that as long as you’re white, it’s okay,” quips Needelman, who is also a nutritional counselor and massage therapist. He’s also working on a new book: Pop-Cartoon Kabbalah – integrative theory about characters that appear from medium to medium.

“Israel could be a bastion of safe, legal, cannabis use, in much the same way it is a bastion of feminist empowerment, queer and same-sex rights, and innovative technology, unavoidably appreciated by the whole world, and treasured by the diverse range of citizens living in it,” he says. “The refuge where we can all live well, as a free people in our land, that is something sensible and secure cannabis cannot help but to herald.”

A judge checks on a marijuana sample during a judging session at Uruguay's second 'Cannabis Cup' at a hotel in downtown Montevideo in this June 22, 2013.Credit: Reuters
Yoseph NeedelmanCredit: Ilene Prusher



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