Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 29 April 2006 / 1 Iyyar 5766

Cannabis-ing the Grassroots

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Several Readers

Several readers collectively raised many comments/objections regarding our recent article entitled “Merry Wanna?” I would like to present this canvas of opinion below, together with my responses.

Dear Readers,

Some commented that cigarette smoking is also addictive and should be prohibited for the reasons given regarding marijuana.

Response: While cigarette smoking is addictive, and some of the reasons may apply, such as it being unhealthy and might distress parents, these considerations are generally less severe than with marijuana. The other reasons such as leading one to felonies and reducing one’s ability to learn Torah and perform mitzvot don’t seem to apply at all.

Others countered that according to the reasons against marijuana, cigarette smoking should be prohibited because it endangers health. If so, they questioned, why do so many observant people smoke? A similar point was raised regarding the social drinking of alcohol or the lack of exercise and healthy diet that is, according to these readers, common among the Orthodox.

Response: Just because religious people may or may not do something doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right. As the saying goes, “Don’t judge Judaism according to the Jews”. We certainly expect people to practice what they preach, but the reality is that people often fall short of the mark. We all have room to improve. Therefore, according to what I wrote in the article, cigarette smoking, and even casual drinking of alcohol not in the context of a mitzvah, should be avoided. Similarly, in the past we have written about the importance of exercise and maintaining a healthy diet.

Some readers raised the point that marijuana should be forbidden on the grounds that it is illegal. On the other hand, some posited that since it is legal in some places, our attitudes towards it are cultural and subjective. Therefore, positing that it is prohibited according to the Torah appears arbitrary.

Response: The first point is true; in addition to the reasons stated in our article, a Jew may not transgress the law of the land. Therefore, the use of an illegal drug involves an additional Torah prohibition of transgressing the law of the land. On the other hand, a country whose legal system permits it doesn’t mean it’s permitted for a Jew. The Torah law has to be abided by, even if it seems impertinent in context, or even if it’s permitted by society at large. This applies to all the laws of the Torah.

One reader asked whether marijuana might be permitted as a pain-killer.

Response: The use of marijuana in medical treatment and pain relief is an exception beyond the scope of our article, and what we wrote does not necessarily apply to such a case. It would appear that this would have to be addressed on an individual basis, and there might be reason to permit it, as in the use of morphine, etc.

One reader objected to our use of the case of the rebellious son, considering it extreme and creating too harsh of a tone for the modern person, and particularly for today’s youth who are accustomed to using drugs and don’t see anything wrong with it. Similarly, he found our tone “dogmatic, insensitive, depressing and punitive”. While he may have agreed in general about the prohibition, he claimed that way the subject was presented was not conducive to kiruv.

Response: Admittedly, the reference to the rebellious son seems severe, and that law itself was perhaps never even realized. Still, the idea was just to set a precedence for the severity with which the Torah views addictions that might bring one to crimes such as theft and murder, which are all too often connected with drugs. Certainly, while actually working with youth involved with drugs, one must be original, creative, sensitive, positive and encouraging. However, the point of the article was not to treat addicted youth but to put forth a brief educational summary of the Torah’s attitude toward drug use in general, and marijuana in particular, to the general public, which is one not primarily of drug users. Those who are users and take issue with what we wrote are kindly requested to contact your local cushy kiruv rabbi.

One person, who identified himself as a rabbi, argued that our reasons for prohibiting are not conclusive, and that occasional use, without telling parents, obtained from a safe source, for the purpose of relaxing should be fine. And in fact, he claimed, many tzaddikim throughout history did so.

Response: 1] The overwhelming majority of occasional users eventually use more drugs more often. 2] Is it appropriate for leaders to encourage youth to do such things and hide them from mom and dad? 3] At some point in the chain, a safe source is in contact with the drug culture. Shall we encourage one Jewish child or person’s relaxation to the detriment of his friend? 4] The person offered no support for his outlandish claim that many tzaddikim have smoked marijuana throughout history.

One modern commentator suggested that one of the ingredients of the anointing oil listed in the Torah, “kaneh bosem” which literally means “fragrant reed”, was cannabis. As far as I know, this idea is purely conjecture based on the reference to fragrance, and the purported phonetic similarity between otherwise different languages, i.e. “kaneh bosem” = cannabis. While this may be possible, it is only one opinion, is inconclusive and is not, as far as I know, based on traditional sources. In any case, “kaneh bosem” was only one ingredient mixed into oil and anointed. It was not in the incense, nor is there any mention of it being smoked.

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