Psilocybin and Spirituality
Recently Johns Hopkins Medical Center put out a call for full-time members of the clergy to volunteer for a scientific study measuring the question: “Can psilocybin help deepen spiritual lives?”
Not knowing too much about the topic I wrote to them and expressed interest.
It turns out that I met all the criteria and was a perfect candidate for the study. But when I looked closer I read what this was all about. They state that, “psilocybin is a substance found in certain ‘sacred mushrooms’ and has been reported to occasion unitive and mystical experiences.”
Even though I would very much welcome a unitive and mystical experience I decided that this was not the way for me to go. I am not experimenting on my body with “sacred mushrooms,” even for the noble cause of science.
Aside from the physical dangers associated with drugs, they represent a great spiritual danger as well.
Drugs are the epitome of a false god. They offer a false sense of happiness and a quick fix to real problems. And on top of that people often become enslaved and addicted to the sensation provided by the drug.
What about the religious experience that it provides? Is there a value to a spiritual and mystical vision that comes from a psylocibin?
The relationship between religion and mind altering substances is an old and complicated one.
In parashat Shemini we are told the story of the first day of the service in the newly dedicated Mishkan. It was a great day. Finally, the Mishkan was built and the presence of Hashem came down to the people (9:23). All the people rejoiced at their great spiritual success (9:24).
At that moment, the apex of their religious success, we are told of the tragic deaths of the two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu. “A fire went forth from Hashem and consumed them and they died before Hashem” (10:2).
There are many attempts to explain why Nadav and Avihu were worthy of such a severe punishment.
Here is one of the answers offered by Rashi: They were punished because, “shituyei yayin nikhnesu lemikdash, they entered into the sanctuary after drinking wine” (10:2).
There are at least three textual reasons that connect this severe punishment with the sin of serving in the temple after having drunk wine:
1) The verses immediately following their death deal with the prohibition of drinking wine before entering into the temple (10:8-11).
2) There is an earlier incident, which discusses that Moshe, Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders stood at Sinai and had a mystical vision. The Torah says: “They saw a vision of the God of Israel, and under his feet was something like a sapphire brick, like the essence of a clear blue sky. God did not unleash his power against the leader of the Israelites. They had a vision of God, and they ate and drank” (24:10-11). Presumably whatever they were drinking and eating led to this mystical vision of the Divine. Rashi notes that the language implies that they should have been punished but that God reserved their punishment for a later date (24:11). Thus, we see that this is proof of the problematic relationship between eating and drinking something in order to have an enhanced vision of God.
3) The biggest sin in the bible is the sin of the Golden Calf. Concerning the Golden Calf the last thing we are told before God tells Moshe to descend the mountain as his people are sinning is: “The people sat down to eat and drink and they got up to be merry” (32:6). The sin of the Golden Calf is really a hedonistic celebration of God (32:5). What made it so sinful was that it was associated with drinking to excess.
So we see that there is ample evidence in the Torah to suggest that it is a giant sin to bring the drinking of wine as a core element into our service of Hashem.
Indeed, the Talmud goes even further.
The Talmud suggests that perhaps Kohanim today should never drink wine. The thinking is as follows: Since a Kohen is not allowed to serve after drinking, and since the Temple could be rebuilt at any second, therefore no kohen should ever drink wine (Taanit, 17b).
Rebbe stated that indeed this should be the law, but takanatto hi kilkulo. Sefer Hamikhtam (R. David b. Levi of Narbonne, 13th c.) says that the meaning of this phrase is that ideally Kohanim should never drink wine, but it is just too hard to live life like that. And if we make such a hard decree then they will surely fall.
We do, however, have in the Talmud the example of Abbaye, who we know is a kohen, and the Talmud tells us that he never drank wine (Ketubot, 65a).
In a similar manner we know that a rabbi is not allowed to issue a halakhic ruling after having drunk wine. And indeed the leading rabbi of the city is not even supposed to drink wine on Purim in order to be available to offer a halahic ruling.
These limitations on a kohen and a rabbi as it relates to wine are not merely technical limitations reflecting the concern that the Temple might be rebuilt at a moment’s notice and the kohen will be drunk and therefore unavailable for service.
They reflect something deeper as well.
The reason why the Talmud is specifically limiting kohanim and rabbis is that they are spiritual leaders and there is a deep distrust of using wine as a source of spirituality. There is a strong uneasiness with the concept that in order to come close to God we need to drink wine.
Of course we do drink four cups of wine on Pesach and many drink on Purim as well. But those are the exceptions that prove the rule.
The more common approach is to have one drink at Kiddush on Shabbat and at other sacred occasions.
What is the problem with using wine and psylocibin as a spiritual tool?
The problem with using mind altering substances as a spiritual tool is that the message becomes that in order for you to have a spiritual experience you need to be someone else. Or in other words, in order for you to have a vision of God, you need to move away from who you really are.
You might have an experience that feels good—you might even have an incredible mystical vision--but it is not real and enduring. It is not internal. It is a momentary escape from who you are, but it is not much more than that.
In contrast, the core message of our Torah is that true and meaningful spirituality does not come from running away from who you are but from returning to your true soul.
There is an interesting halakhah that drives home this point.
Although the Torah says you cannot serve in the Temple after drinking wine, the Talmud does state, “natan le-tokho mayim kol-shehu patur, if one places a drop of water into the wine, then one is exempt” (keritut 13b).
On a simple level the halakhah is telling us that if the wine is diluted it is not problematic. But there is also a deeper lesson in this law. The halakhah is telling us that in Judaism true spirituality is not found in wine, but in water.
Water represents birth. Water represents the source of life. Water represents who we are.
The same portion, which begins with the death of Nadav and Avihu, concludes with telling us laws of ritual purity and impurity. We are told that if one touches a sheretz one becomes ritually impure. The Torah tells us that the path to regaining ritual purity is through water. Water represents pure spirituality, as the Torah states: “The only thing that will always remain pure is a spring or a mikveh of water, akh maayan u-bor mikveh mayim yiiheyeh tahor” (11:36).
Whereas wine is seen as spiritually problematic, the source of spirituality in our Torah portion is a body of water that we know of as a mikveh.
Unlike mind-altering substances, which pull us into an outer body vision, the very halakhot of a mikvah remind us that its purpose is to return us to our roots:
A mikveh can be a maayan or a bor, a natural spring or a pit in the ground that is filled with rain water.
So we can use either rain water or spring water to purify ourselves.
An interesting halakhah is that it if it is a spring then it is kosher if the water is moving (zochalin), but if it is rain water, then it needs to be ashboren, still water (Torat Kohanim ad loc.).
No reason is given for this halakhah but I imagine that it is because a mikvah represents stillness, the opposite of turbulence. If it is spring water then we know it is by its nature still and rooted to the ground (even when moving), but rain water must be totally still.
The rabbis say that one cannot build a mikvah on a boat because a mikvah must have ikaro bekarkah, it literally must be rooted in the ground (Torat Kohanim ad loc.).
That is what a mikvah is about. It is about rooting ourselves and returning to our source.
One last halakhah. The Talmud tells us that no other substance other than water can make a mikvah kosher. “Mayim in midei acharina lo. Water yes. Everything else, no” (Chullin, 84a).
The key to spirituality is through water and not another substance.
This week we read parashat Parah which also drives home this same point. In the ritual of the parah what we are basically doing is taking water from a spring and sprinkling it on a ritually impure person. Sure there are other elements involved. But that is the core of the ritual. Once again the Torah is telling us that the key to spirituality is through water.
Water is who we are. Literally it makes up most of our bodies. The average adult is more than %50 water.
By telling us that the path to spirituality is through water and not through wine, the Torah is teaching us the fundamental lesson that true spirituality is about returning to who you really are and discovering your true self.
Since our mikvah has been built I have had the merit of immersing every single Friday that I have been in DC. It is a necessary preparation for my Shabbat. As part of the immersion I literally feel that I am returning to my roots.
That is also what we tell converts to imagine before they immerse in the mikvah. When we are the bet din for conversions, we give people technical instructions about how to immerse. But we also give spiritual instructions. We encourage people to close their eyes before immersing—imagine that the mikvah is a womb, a rebirth, a renewal, a return to your source – a spiritual cleansing.
That’s what I told the wonderful scientists at Hopkins—while it sounds tempting to take psylocibin in the name of science, its just not who I am.
This past week when I stood up and offered words of protest I felt that I was not only offering an act of activism but that I was also offering a prayer with my entire body from very deep inside of me.
The key to spirituality is to go as deep as possible into our souls and allow our true souls to be strengthened.
Although a hallucinogen might give us a vision of something deeply mystical, such a vision is external and therefore that vision will ultimately fade. On the other hand, the more we work on ourselves, the stronger we will become. And that spirituality –which returns us to our source—will be like a tree planting roots that just goes deeper and deeper and makes us stronger and stronger.
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