jews are failing to lead on marijuana
a huge missed opportunity
A couple of months after the pandemic began, while everyone was hunkered down at home, I tried marijuana. This was new for me; somehow I gone through high school and several university degrees without trying the stuff even once. I’ve never purchased marijuana illegally; I’m one of those people for whom legalization actually impacted my behavior.
I don’t talk about using marijuana all that much, but when I mention it to my friends—many of whom teach at Jewish institutions—it’s like I’ve uttered a secret password that allows them to talk about their own marijuana use. That’s the culture we’re in right now: the taboo is still there, but it’s as thin as lake ice at winter’s end.
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The truth is that you don’t have to look very hard for signs that Jews of all types use weed. Just take a look at SmokeZone, a store located in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Me’ah Shearim neighborhood. The store is so kosher that its certification is displayed on the front door—and yet inside it has weed grinders, just sitting on the shelf next to the vape pens for all to see. The Orthodox Union certifies medicinal THC products as kosher. Other certifiers cover recreational THC, too.
Jews, like everybody else, are living on the cusp of a cultural shift around weed. Legalization of marijuana has made it far more acceptable to discuss the substance in polite society, and while this transition may take a little longer to reach religious institutions, it is assuredly coming. So, given that it’s coming, it’s worth asking: what are Jewish thought leaders doing to help the community think through appropriate use of this substance?
The answer is: approximately nothing. Yes, there are Jewish groups with an explicit focus on mind-altering substances that deal with this stuff—it would be weird if they didn’t!—but your typical congregational rabbi is either unwilling or unable to engage on this topic (Hillel rabbis are in a tougher spot, since the legal age of purchase is 21).
Why the silence? First, opinions about marijuana are still pretty diverse, and they vary by both generation and geography; why stick your neck our when some of your congregants still think that it shouldn’t be legal and don’t expect you to talk about it in the first place? Second, the stakes seem pretty low because, as advocates for legalization will tell you, marijuana is relatively harmless—less damaging to the body than alcohol and less addictive than nicotine—so it may not seem clear why anything needs to be said at all.
To my mind, this misses the forest for the trees (so to speak). Marijuana is a powerful mind-altering substance that, as of this writing, is more popular among Americans than cigarettes. Jews today pray while high, heal while high, learn Torah while high, parent while high, work while high, and relax while high—and yet Jewish leaders are still passing over all of this in silence, as though the stuff were fully illegal. Effectively, they have signaled that they are unwilling to develop communal guidance for their followers on how this substance should live in their lives.
This a worrying sign. It’s worrying not only because Americans are actively building a new, more public culture around marijuana and this is exactly the moment to mold that culture, but because silence about a topic that so clearly calls for religious/moral leadership (e.g. Is praying while high an insult or an enhancement? Is getting high on Shabbat consistent with or opposed to what Shabbat is supposed to be? Is weed a useful communal gathering tool, like alcohol is sometimes, or should it be avoided? How should parents talk to their kids about weed?) suggests a general failure to engage creatively with new trends in American life. (If you think I’m wrong about this, I’d love to hear from you!)
What would leadership on this topic look like? Here are a few suggestions.
Acknowledge that marijuana exists and is being used. Most American Jews live in states where weed is fully legal. If you talk about marijuana as though it’s still prohibited, your followers will just think you’re out of touch.
Certify marijuana products to make them safer. As I have written previously, kosher certifiers are in an excellent position to regulate THC products so that people can actually trust what their labels say, something that the federal government cannot do and which state governments do inconsistently. It is a unique and powerful opportunity for leadership.
Look into the history of Jewish marijuana use, but don’t rely on it too much. Jews do indeed have a modern history with the substance, and the fact that ancient Israelites may have used cannabis in religious rituals is relevant, but neither of these histories represents a full-fledged position on how to use weed today; they were important when the public was debating whether weed should be legal at all, but when people continue harping on them now it feels like they’re fighting the last war rather than engaging with the present.
Experiment, if you haven’t already. I have seen Jewish leaders say some pretty outlandish things about marijuana, things that nobody who has actually tried the substance would say. Unless you have a personal reason to avoid the substance—maybe you have a personal/family history of substance abuse, maybe it’s not legal in your location—it is worth understanding its effects firsthand.
Listen to early adopters. A few Jewish groups are actively and publicly experimenting with the use of marijuana in communal settings. Pay attention to them; learn from their experiences and failures. Support their work. Maybe join them once in a while.
Local guidance is key. America’s patchwork of weed regulation are, in many ways, a huge gift to local leaders (Canada, by contrast, may really struggle here). You don’t need to guess at creating policies that work for the entire country; you just need to understand the developing culture of your local community.
Marijuana is, in many ways, low-hanging fruit for Jewish leadership. Unlike new consumer technologies, there is a long track record of use from which lessons can be learned. Unlike social media, it is not governed by network effects that disempower local leaders. In other words, policy on marijuana use is exactly the kind of subject where Jewish leaders could actually weigh in and have an effect on the culture. High time that they do.
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Reasonable! And Mazal tov on making the leap to cannabis experience. Much of this seems to be guidelines for basic engagement as a community. But what would it look like to really ‘lead’?
BTW the term marijuana is all tied up in bigoted views that led to stigma and prohibition. Try going for one of the hundreds of other teens, or just cannabis works fine (arguably derived from the famous key ingredient of biblical anointing oil, קנה בשם)