NEW YORK — Spiritual leader Ram Dass was born Richard Alpert, a nice Jewish boy from Boston. But in 1963, the former psychology professor was expelled from Harvard, along with his colleague Timothy Leary, for experimenting too liberally with psychedelics. He says, however, that through psychedelics, he has found God.
Dass recounts to The Times of Israel a particular acid trip he took exploring his Jewish roots: “I remember taking LSD with Zalman and his talit was wrapped around us,” Ram Dass says of tripping with the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, father of the Jewish Renewal movement. “We were suddenly in the place where Judaism and drugs were here as one.”
While psychedelics and Judaism seemingly lack any connection, the Jewish predilection for integrating the surrounding world into the Jewish fold — think Yiddish, borscht, and singing Adon Olam to a Prussian marching tune — apparently also applies to getting high.
“Being refugees and being persecuted over the centuries, all we could take with us was our minds,” says Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). “There’s also this sense that Jews are people of the book, of education, and psychedelics are part of that personal growth.”
A current Johns Hopkins-NYU study that administers psilocybin (the main chemical in magic mushrooms) to religious professionals underscores this point. Within a few days of soliciting participants, dozens of rabbis applied — though many couldn’t participate because they had already tried psychedelics.
Other research at NYU, Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and MAPS has proven that psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy can occasion a universal “mystical experience” helping patients heal from PTSD, addiction, and end-of-life cancer anxiety.
“The scientific study of the mystical experience offers salvation for the human race because it can point to this commonality, and our shared humanity,” says Doblin.
At the same time, that mystical experience can have a deeper Jewish flavor — depending on the user. For instance, the phrase “LSD: Let’s Start Davening” (along with “POT: Put on Tefillin”) became popular among Jewish Grateful Dead fans and Shlomo Carlebach community members in the ’60s, and has since been used to get people excited about prayer.
But that animated Jewish spirituality may come from walking many different psychedelic paths.
After leaving Harvard, Alpert traveled to India in 1967 where he met his guru Neem Karoli Baba, who gave him the spiritual name Ram Dass, meaning “servant of God.” He went on to write the bestseller “Be Here Now,” bringing his guru’s teachings back to the West.
Though his father helped found Brandeis, a Jewish university, Ram Dass himself never felt spiritually connected until he had tripped acid nearly 400 times.
“My belief is that I wasn’t born into Judaism by accident, and so I needed to find ways to honor that,” says Ram Dass, a self-proclaimed “HinJew.” “From a Hindu perspective, you are born as what you need to deal with, and if you just try and push it away, whatever it is, it’s got you.”
Psychedelics, he says, opened up his planes of consciousness.
“They made me closer to God within, plowed through the other stuff and brought me to identify with my soul,” he says.
Psychedelic Jewish spirituality is relevant to Orthodox Jews, as well. After publishing “Be Here Now,” Ram Dass was crossing a square in Jerusalem when two black-hatted haredi men approached him.
‘They said, “We just read your book, dropped LSD, and that’s what drew us into Orthodoxy”‘
“They walked with me,” Ram Dass recalls, “and said, ‘We just read your book, dropped LSD, and that’s what drew us into Orthodoxy.'”
In the ’60s, then-Chabadnik Zalman Schachter approached the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, asking for a blessing before dropping acid with Timothy Leary at an ashram in Massachusetts. The Rebbe offered him many “L’chaims [for a] good meditation and a good retreat.”
Schachter, despite the taboo surrounding the drug, was very open about using LSD and discussed it extensively.
“The psychedelic experience can be not only a challenge, but also a support of my faith,” Schachter wrote in Commentary Magazine. “After seeing what really happens at the point where all is one and where God-immanent surprises God-transcendent and they merge in cosmic laughter, I can also see Judaism in a new and amazing light.”
Many believe that psychedelic plant-based medicines have catalyzed mystical experiences recorded in religious texts. The late Dan Merkur, theology professor from Toronto, theorized that chemicals comparable to LSD were in the manna (the edible substance God gave the Israelites during their travels in the desert), while Hebrew University’s Benny Shanon proposed that Moses inhaled vaporized DMT (a psychedelic chemical present in plants such as ayahuasca, which is also found in the brain) from the burning bush, leading him to his initial prophecy. Various others believe cannabis was present in holy incense and anointing oils.
Dr. Rick Strassman, University of New Mexico psychiatrist and author of “DMT and the Soul of Prophecy,” studies the similarities between these reports and the effects of DMT.
“Visions, voices, out of body experiences, physical symptoms, extreme emotions, and in particular that sense that what one was witnessing was felt to be as objectively real or more real than everyday reality,” Strassman describes. “The notion began dawning on me of a ‘prophetic state of consciousness’ that would be experienced by any figure in the text — canonical prophet or nameless mother of Samson — where ‘spiritual’ effects are noted.”
Among Jews today using psychedelics to enhance study and prayer, higher doses may help with visualizing concepts such as Ezekiel’s chariot or angelic beings, Strassman says, noting that because this practice is so underground, it’s important the trips be supervised and carefully prepared.
‘Although something of an altered state is a desired result of Jewish prayer, it has to result from a natural effort’
However, some Orthodox perspectives disapprove altogether of using substances to pray.
“Although something of an ‘altered state’ is a desired result of Jewish prayer, it has to result from a natural effort, not one aided by chemicals,” says Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel, a Haredi umbrella organization.
In any case, it’s an open question whether psychedelics can bring one to a higher spiritual state in a non-prayer situation, Shafran says.
“If a person has used LSD, he can attempt to integrate that into his current and future serving of Hashem, but if you want to improve your davening with a drop or a tab of acid, that’s a no,” says Breslover Hasid Yosef Harari.
For his part, Harari separates psychedelic use into four categories: escapist, intellectual, spiritual, and fun. The point is, in worship, to put in the work, Harari says.
“Show up every day, even when you don’t want to, when you’re tired, when you’re hungry, when you’re under pressure, or when things are going well, when life’s on a roll. What Hashem wants is our effort to come close, not just the feeling of close because I took a pill and now the sky is open,” says Harari.
Acid can transport the user to exceedingly high levels of light and spirituality which would otherwise take even years to achieve — but that evaporates once the trip ends, explains another Breslover Hasid, who wishes to stay anonymous.
‘What Hashem wants is our effort to come close, not just the feeling of close because I took a pill and now the sky is open’
“[Psychedelic users] are usually special souls, they’re searchers, they can find the highest of the highs,” he notes, “but not [ultimately] by using psychedelics.”
Still, he adds, Judaism is about meeting the person where they are. Rather than reprimand someone whose current routine is getting high, embrace their present circumstance.
“That’s the ultimate truth for me or you right now,” he says. “Where we are now, that’s what we can do.”
Drugs aren’t even necessary, however, to have a psychoactive experience, says psychotherapist Neal Goldsmith, author of “Psychedelic Healing.” A sensory deprived environment, such as fasting, can also occasion different psychospiritual states.
“You’re using that spiritual experience as a way to get in touch with our deepest selves, our soul, the God within your deepest psychology,” he says. Through psychedelics or other means, getting to that “spiritually deep place,” Goldsmith adds, “makes us more effective as human beings.”
So while some argue it’s technically not kosher to use psychoactives to serve God, that doesn’t mean Judaism frowns upon using them altogether.
“I think the Haredi world translates into a countercultural world very easily,” says Shaul Magid, professor of Jewish studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. Jews on the Orthodox spectrum commonly attend psychedelic-friendly festivals like Rainbow Gathering or Burning Man, he says.
“It’s a natural thing, the Haredi world itself is countercultural. It’s a world looking for experience, focused on prayer. It’s nocturnal, it’s just people staying up late, singing, and dancing,” Magid says.
‘The Haredi world translates into a countercultural world very easily’
The Baal Shem Tov himself, founder of the Hasidic movement, was an off-beat figure, his Jewish practice a critique of the bourgeois rabbinic culture that characterized 18th century European Judaism. He spent time in the mountains, learning about herbs and plant medicines — which some speculate had psychoactive properties — and acted as both a medicinal and spiritual healer, similar to a shaman.
Today, Jewish psychedelic use may not happen in as organized or ritualistic a sense, in contrast, for example, to how the Native American Church uses ayahuasca, says Magid.
“[The Haredi world] is a very radical world, and when kids leave that world, they seek out other radical lifestyles. They’re often anti-materialistic and interested in spirituality,” he says.
So whether Jews take psychedelics in intentionally Jewish ways, they may naturally have a Jewish experience because of their background.
An anonymous festival-goer and experienced psychedelic user who grew up Hasidic in Borough Park, Brooklyn, says he sees Star of David-themed geometrical images when he hallucinates.
“It could be because when you trip, you see very spiritual symbols and for me, the only spirituality I was brought up with was Jewish,” says the festival-goer. “But every time I do psychedelics, I trip about Judaism.”