Recent legislative developments in the State of New Jersey require clarification regarding halakhic attitudes regarding recreational use of cannabis-based products. Decriminalization is a complex public policy question naturally out of the scope of this presentation, but it cannot be, and must not be, conflated with the question of halakhic propriety.
At the most basic level, we should be cognizant of a responsa R. Moshe Feinstein zt”l authored half a century ago1, in which he categorically prohibits recreational marijuana use2 for no fewer than six reasons: (1) its ill health effects, (2) its impact on clarity of thought, (3) the potential for addiction, (4) a violation of Ramban’s mandate of kedoshim tihiyu, (5) the likelihood that it will lead to other sinful conduct and, (6) in the case of children, contravening the will of their parents.
In this brief teshuva, Rav Moshe’s language is entirely unequivocal: “סוף דבר שהוא פשוט וברור שהוא מאיסורים חמורים וצריך להשתדל בכל היכולת להעביר טומאה זו מכל בני ישראל”, “in the final analysis it is simple and clear that it is a grave violation and one must make every effort to remove this source of impurity from the entire Jewish people…”
It is Rav Moshe’s citation of Ramban’s meta-principle of kedoshim tihiyu which I believe requires the greatest emphasis in our generation. Time and again in his commentary on the Torah, Ramban articulates an understanding of the halakhic system which conceptualizes halakhic requirements as a ‘spiritual floor.’ and not the lofty heights to which we aspire. Hence, in his celebrated formulation, one could, in a technical sense, avoid violating any formal prohibitions—as it concerns any engagement with the carnal world—and still live a wholly unredeemed and boorish existence, “naval b’reshut ha-Torah3.”
Ramban4 goes so far as to suggest that the capital punishment meted out to the ben sorer u’moreh, who has not consumed anything that is necessarily prohibited, but lives a spiritually desiccated life, driven by hedonism and pursuit of carnal pleasure, is rooted in a violation of kedoshim tihiyu.
In my experience, deep confusion pervades even the Torah community when it comes to cannabis usage. The relevant question is not merely the issue of an issur cheftza, that is to say, whether the substance contains non-kosher ingredients. There is a separate and distinct question of an issur gavra, concerning the personal behavior involved in consuming mind-altering substances of any kind. And, Rav Moshe’s position on this score is perfectly clear, and as the posek ha-dor wrote, it is incumbent upon all of us, at the communal plane, to remove “this impurity” from the Jewish community.
Simply put, it is entirely inconsistent with the mentality of the halakhic system that one would seek spirituality through mind-altering narcotics. Once in his long and extraordinary life, Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky5 zt”l became inebriated on Purim, in an attempt to fulfill עד דלא ידע. The experience of losing his legendary mental acuity was so alarming and viscerally disconcerting to this giant that he never did so again, and concluded that the Talmudic mandate could not have been meant for our generation in any literal sense.
Al ha-rishonim anu mitzta’arim, v’ata ba l’hosif6: Elements of our community already struggle with a culture of glorification of alcohol that would have been unrecognizable to previous generations whose primary associations with drunkenness were marauding bands of antisemites7, and now is at risk for recreational cannabis usage becoming socially acceptable in the Torah world.
The halachic worldview is rooted in the axiom that life derives all of its meaning from rendering humble, faithful service to our Creator. This experience, equal parts immersive and transcendent, demands every iota of our physical, mental, emotional and, indeed, cognitive capacity. In as much as our love and reverence of Him is fully contingent on our understanding of Him, as Rambam asserted8, mind alternating substances are a spiritual dead end, and worse.
With endless compassion and love for those struggling to extract themselves from any form of addiction, and an iron resolve to protect our children and community at large from these pathologies, let us all move forward in His service, equal parts love and awe, with a clear-headed mind to chart our course.
1 Iggerot Moshe Yoreh De’ah 3:35.
2 It should be noted that the marijuana whose use R. Moshe proscribed was far less potent than today’s version.
3 See commentary of Ramban to VaYikra 19:2, Devarim 6:13, for two examples, in addition to the aforementioned comments regarding nazir.
4 See comments to Devarim 21:18.
5 See R. Yonason Rosenblum’s biography of Rav Yaakov, p. 367. I am deeply indebted to my rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Avraham Twersky, shlita, for suggesting nearly a quarter of a century ago that I read this biography, which I have reread dozens of times in the ensuing decades. Rosenblum’s work is a true testament to Chazon Ish’s reflection that honestly written biographies of gedolei yisrael constitute the most effective sifrei mussar.
6 See Rashi to Shemot 18:2 based on Mekhilta d’Rebbe Yishmael.
7 My grandfather, Ruvin Fridman, z’l, would often tell me of the drunken Latvian antisemites whom he encountered before and during the war. It was not intended as a frontal message regarding abuse of alcohol, but it was sufficient nevertheless. I found this attitude towards excessive consumption of alcohol typical of the older Eastern European Jews, mostly survivos, amongst whom we were privileged to grow up.
8 See the final halakha in Hilkhot Teshuva, bridging Sefer Ha-Madda and Sefer Ahava.