Marijuana and Chassidus: Should Jews Get Chai?

By Carly Meisel, Washington DC
Essays 2017

MyLife Essay Contest 2017

It’s 12pm on a Tuesday in sunny Washington, D.C. Four college students sit on a bench in the center of their university’s campus, howling with laughter while passing around a joint of marijuana. As I walk by, I observe that none of them are telling jokes. They are laughing at something unnoticeable to the outside eye; perhaps invisible to the sober. I recall the famous Jewish story of a merchant walking into a busy market. He sees that there are Chassidic Jews dancing in the middle of the square. They dance with profound energy, although there is no music playing. Dancing, shouting, smiling: what is the occasion? Nothing in particular, he quickly understands from the fact that the town regulars are unfazed. Are these two scenes, the one with the college students laughing at the unknown and the Chassidic Jews dancing at the unknown, analogous?

The Situation: Marijuana in America Today!

Let’s first examine the current state of marijuana use. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2015 1 reported that marijuana is the most commonly used drug in America, stating that in the past month alone 22.2 million people had used it. In 2016, 9 percent of 8th graders reported using the drug, and that percentage increases with each grade, getting to 36 percent of 12th graders reporting using it. In college, the numbers grow even more: In 2015, one in every 22 college students surveyed said they used marijuana a minimum of 20 times in a month. These numbers are particularly important, considering the studies that show consistent marijuana usage can lead to a significant loss in IQ and mental capacity. A Harvard report stated that there may be a relationship between marijuana use in teenage years and mental illness.

Is It Kosher? A Brief Look at Jewish Law on the Issue!

Kosher literally means “fit” or “appropriate” for the intake or use of Jew. Technically, if there are no unkosher ingredients in the drug (as it comes from a plant), then it is kosher for a Jew to intake. The real question lies in whether or not the drug is appropriate for a Jew to use. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory, discusses this issue. He writes that marijuana use is forbidden for several reasons, including that it harms the physical and mental health of a person and that it violates the Torah commandment to “be holy.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, wrote that, “The Jewish way is to go from strength to strength, not by means of drugs and other artificial stimulants, which have a place only if they are necessary for the physical health.” These two responses summarize the mainstream Jewish approach on the matter: it may be technically kosher, but using marijuana and its effects are not in line with living life in as Jewish a manner as possible.

The Reasons Why People Use Marijuana

Before we can adequately delve into the Chassidic perspective on the matter, we must first understand why people use marijuana. One college student, a 19-year-old female and frequent user of marijuana, told me that she smokes because, “it lets me get rid of the stress and worry of everyday life. It’s not that I’m particularly happy when I’m high, but I’m free of the things that make me unhappy.” Another student, a 20-year-old male, explained that although marijuana isn’t addictive, he smokes nearly every day. “I’m not addicted to the drug itself, but I have a real attachment to the feeling that it gives me. I have a sense of calm soon after I smoke, and it pushes the worries right out of my head.” Both students mentioned that the benefits they got from using marijuana disappeared as soon as they got sober.

The Foundation of Chassidus & The Chassidic Approach

Jewish sages and Chassidic masters did not write at length about marijuana. It is a paramount idea in Judaism, however, that there is nothing new under the sun, and thus there is much to be extracted from Jewish thought on the issue. Many sources show that one of the top reasons that people use marijuana, as was reflected in the conversation with college students, is to suppress stress and anxiety. Tanya, the premier book of Chabad Chassidic philosophy written by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, otherwise known as the Alter Rebbe, discusses the topic of negativity and stress. In order to understand this Chassidic concept fully, let’s briefly explore origin of Chabad Chassidus. The Alter Rebbe lived in Russia, and he would send financial support to the Land of Israel, which was then under the Ottoman Empire. When Russia and the Ottoman Empire went to war, the Alter Rebbe was imprisoned for treason because of the support he gave poor Jews in Israel. Spiritually, it is said that there was something much deeper going on here: there was a trial in Heaven over whether or not the Alter Rebbe should be spreading too much deep Torah knowledge.

When he was released from prison, he said the verse, “He redeemed my soul with peace from the battle that came upon me” repeatedly. This verse is very significant to the meaning of Chassidus itself. It was written by King David after going to war with his son, Avshalom. Avshalom rebelled against King David, but by the end of the war, Avshalom’s men stood with King David, at which point he said, “He redeemed my soul with peace from the battle that came upon me.” The war was completed with total unity, which is better than victory. True peace is when two sides come together as one. Chassidus explains this in terms of our world: at face value, most physical things deny G-dliness. A simple object or mundane concept does not seem divine. Chassidus teaches that, on the contrary, G-d is part of everything and thus we can take the most seemingly low and materialistic thing and turn it into an opportunity to connect with G-d. Just as King David and Avshalom’s two sides came together as one, so too can Jews unite the seemingly lowly with the most holy, creating ultimate unity.

This concept is further explained in an idea of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism. He teaches that when you see your enemy’s donkey struggling under its heavy load, you must help it. The word for “donkey” in Hebrew is the same word for materiality. Every Jew has two souls: an animal soul and a G-dly soul. Materialistic desires that aim to please the body originate from the animal soul, while desires that aim to connect with God and Torah originate from the G-dly soul. A Jew’s mission is to listen to his G-dly soul as much as possible in order to connect more with G-d Himself. The Baal Shem Tov is referring to the donkey of your enemy as your animal soul. One might think that he should crush his animal soul in order to connect with his G-dly soul, meaning he would refrain from aiding the donkey. The Baal Shem Tov says no, this is not the way of Chassidus. He says that one must help, teach, and transform the animal soul. Help it understand that it is best for the whole person to strive for G-dliness, thus transforming the nature of the animal soul and uniting the two souls into one peaceful union.

To smoke marijuana in response to anxiety or stress is to let the enemy’s donkey (the animal soul) collapse under the weight of its load instead of helping it (transforming it for the better). This is under the pretext that a central reason for using the drug is to reject sadness, anxiety, or stress. Chapter 26 of Tanya elaborates on the quote from Proverbs 14:23: “In all sadness there would be profit.” It explains that, “the phrase … indicates that sadness in itself has no virtue, except that some profit is derived and experienced from it.” The chapter goes onto explain that the way to beat sadness and stress is to transform it into the good, the “profit.” It maintains that in fact, the true purpose of these negative feelings is to create a positive result. This is extracted from the future tense of the word “would.” Sadness is not a final destination; it is a stepping stone to increased joy. With this, Talmud says that a Jew should accept misfortunes with happiness. Even though this may initially sound counterintuitive, it is in line with what the Alter Rebbe explained in Tanya. If profit comes from sadness, one could be somewhat happy in experiencing a misfortune, as he knows that this is an opportunity to transform the negativity into enhanced positivity. On the contrary, using marijuana as a reaction to sadness or stress merely pushes the problems away for a short period of time. In doing so, the user misses the massive opportunity to grab ahold of the misfortune and use it to his or her own benefit. He misses the opportunity to create a union between the G-dly and animal souls.

In response to the question of marijuana use, Rabbi Tzvi Freeman advised that, “The teachings of the Chassidic masters and the kabbalists are great meditation material. Throw your mind into something deep and mind-altering — only that in this case, you are the one altering your own mind.” Here, Rabbi Freeman presents a difference between taking in a drug that alters your mind and being able to make that change yourself. Mainstream psychology reflects this idea in the theory that change from within is much stronger and more lasting than changing pushed upon a person from an external source. Rabbi Shloma Majesky writes, “[Chassidic Jews] have been recognized as people full of joy and inspiration, radiating life and energy. This genuine joy comes from profound spiritual awareness on life and an absolute clarity of direction.” The sense of joy that Rabbi Majesky describes is a lasting, penetrating one. It is the ability to bring together the profane and the holy, thereby sanctifying the mundane. The joy that comes with learning Torah, and especially Chassidus, is eternally internalized, as it is one with both the body and the soul.

Let’s Get Practical: How To Do This

To trade in a joint for a book of Chassidus would be no small feat. The animal soul does not particularly like to be denied of its desires, and therefore it is very difficult for a person to break away from its grasp. Chapter 26 of Tanya presents a parable: imagine two people wrestling one another. Which will win? One might assume that it is the stronger person, when it fact it is the person with more energy. In order to beat the animal soul in a transformative, positive manner, one must utilize his G-dly soul with “alacrity, which derives from joy and an open heart.” It’s impossible to beat the animal soul by way of aiding it, as the Baal Shem Tov prescribed in the parable of the donkey, if the person is sluggish or lazy. In order to stop using marijuana, which provides a seemingly desirable and quick solution to the diagnosis of anxiety and worry, one needs to muster up energy, even happiness, and help the G-dly soul prevail. The victory of the G-dly soul over the animal soul results in a unified victory, as described in the story of King David and Avshalom.

A Higher High

So, are the two scenes, the one with the college students laughing at the unknown and the Chassidic Jews dancing at the unknown, analogous? The merchant from the town square could not hear the music playing, meaning he could not understand the joy that the Chassidic Jews were experiencing. He was not tapped into the level of connection with G-dliness and Judaism that these men were. They were experiencing a pure, intense level of happiness because they felt close to G-d, to Torah, to the inner truths of the world, and to their reason for existing. The students smoking marijuana seemed to also be experiencing great happiness, until one realizes that their joy was implanted by an artificial drug. While their high fades, the high of the Chassidic Jews is strengthened with each passing day. Because the Torah is, “very close to you [every Jew], it is in your mouth and in your heart,” every single Jew can turn on the music 10 of the dancing Jews, elevating themselves to a permanent and internalized high.