Meet the Jewish grand poobah of the First Church of Cannabis

With IRS recognition, gifts are tax deductible for Bill Levin’s new Indianapolis church, which will begin operation the day Indiana’s new Religious Freedom law takes effect

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Bill Levin, setting up the First Church of Cannabis, June 8, 2015. (Cj Parker)
Bill Levin, setting up the First Church of Cannabis, June 8, 2015. (Cj Parker)

Although he grew up at the Reform-affiliated Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, Bill Levin recently founded a church. And not just any church — the First Church of Cannabis, for which Levin will serve as the Minister of Love.

Sound like a joke? Not to Levin, although he tends to refer to himself in church dealings as the Grand Poobah. And apparently it’s no joke as well to government bureaucracy: the church was approved by Indiana’s secretary of state Connie Lawson in March and recognized last week by the IRS as a tax-exempt religious organization.

The Times of Israel caught Levin in a phone conversation in his new premises on the south side of Indianapolis. The area, known for tattoo parlors and head shops, is home to a 150-seat sanctuary that has been used as a church for the past several decades.

Levin, a 59-year-old reluctant carpenter/head shop clerk, and his team of volunteers were in the midst of taking down all the crosses in the building.

“We’re nondenominational. We don’t want the responsibility of saying who, what, where and why God is,” said Levin. To the Cannabiterians, God is love, “and we celebrate love in our life’s great adventure.”

Bill Levin at home, with family menorah in upper right.  (Youtube screenshot)
Bill Levin at home, with family menorah in upper right. (YouTube screenshot)

He said the church is basically “teaching the same things that JC and all the other good Jewish rabbis taught, but without the burden of the magic books.” In his church, there is no guilt, and no sin.

There are other revolutionary anomalies: Church dues are minimal. The 700 or so members have paid some $50 for a year. And grand poobah Levin doesn’t draw a salary.

“At this point in my life, I don’t need money… I don’t need more stuff in my life… I have
clothes that have gone in and out of fashion three times,” said the hipster father of five daughters — and grandfather to a three-year-old.

To free up weekends, services will be held on Wednesdays. (“We don’t want to take away business from the other guys,” laughed Levin.) Instead of a confessional, the sanctuary will have a “life podium,” upon which church members will celebrate lessons they learned in seven categories — live, love, laugh, learn, create, grow, and teach — one for each day of the week.

Instead of a Ten Commandments, the church offers a Deity Dozen, including: Don’t be an asshole; the day starts with your smile every morning; never start a fight, only finish them; and laugh often, share humor.

The First Church of Cannabis's Deity Dozen. (courtesy)
The First Church of Cannabis’s Deity Dozen. (courtesy)

All points in the Deity Dozen, including “Cannabis, ‘the healing plant’ is our sacrament,” are merely suggestions. They aren’t commandments, so, said Levin, there’s no guilt or sin if they go unfulfilled.

Bottom line for Levin: spread love and be grateful for what you’ve got. And today, Levin is excited and grateful for his new premises.

“Everybody has been crying today because we finally got our church. This building has been blessed with tears of joy,” said Levin.

The First Church of Cannabis takes root

The church was founded late March, basically through filing paperwork, making a Facebook page, and starting a crowdfunding campaign. But the timing came, at least in part, in protest to the passage of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

The controversial act was described by some liberal activists as a means to legally counteract the state’s recent same-sex marriage law, and decried in mass media by celebrities and religious leaders, including most Indianapolis rabbis.

Indiana University Law Professor Daniel O. Conkle (courtesy)
Indiana University Law Professor Daniel O. Conkle (courtesy)

Among the few who publicly supported the act was Indiana University Law Professor Daniel O. Conkle. Speaking to The Times of Israel in late March, Conkle, who is also an adjunct professor of religious studies, said Indiana’s state constitution has been “interpreted rather ambiguously by the Indiana Supreme Court with relative inadequacy” on religious minority issues. The RFRA “does provide enhanced protection for religious freedom in a way that is not available in a broad range.”

Since the public backlash, the roundly criticized Indiana Governor Mike Pence urged the passage of legislation to safeguard local ordinances that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. There is still, however, no Indiana state law that prohibits gay discrimination.

Levin and his congregation intend to test how broad a range of religious protections the act actually offers. He’s set his church’s first service for July 1, the day the RFRA goes into effect, and it’s clear marijuana — which is illegal in the state of Indiana — will be in play.

Will they get away with it? In an Indianapolis Star article, Indiana University law school Prof. Robert A. Katz pooh-poohed the grand poobah’s plan.

“If the past is any guide to experience, he’s not going to get very far. That’s mainly because these people, while they are nice and delightful, are from a legal perspective that I think most judges would view them as goofballs,” said Katz.

The IRS, however, has already taken Levin’s church seriously and seemingly expedited its much sought-after tax-exempt status. According to an oped in Forbes, “There are many tax advantages of church status and an IRS determination letter. Even compared to other tax-exempt organizations, church status is the crème de la crème.”

Make an aroma soothing to the Lord

Other religious organizations in the United States already use marijuana as an “entheogen,” or a chemical substance for ceremonial or spiritual purposes. Interestingly, some churches trace the herb’s use back to a biblical phrase found in Exodus 30:23, “kneh bosem,” usually translated as “sweet calamus,” whose letters the hemp faithful read as “KNH BSM” or cannabis.

In an email exchange with The Times of Israel, Deaconess Anne Armstrong of Rhode Island’s The Healing Church described sanctifying a worship site at a public park, writing, “We circled the park seven times, carrying a live cannabis plant, waving a frond from a mature plant like a lulav, and raising holy smoke.”

Will cannabis be legal in Israel? (photo credit: Kobi Gideon / FLASH90)
Illustrative photo of a marijuana bud (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Armstrong, who is Jewish and ran for governor of Rhode Island on a cannabis legalization platform, said the state was historically “a refugee from the religious bigotry of the Puritans in Massachusetts… The very first synagogue in America, Touro Synagogue, stands in Rhode Island as a monument to this tradition of religious tolerance and sanctuary.”

Armstrong said the state and city governments understand and protect her church’s worship. While “we have only the Federal Government’s obstinacy to overcome,” Indiana must “face the bigotry of their state and local authorities as well.”

“Our Canon, Alan Gordon, has spent the past 20 years researching KNH BSM and other entheogens in the T’N’Ch [the Hebrew Bible], and I have spent similar time researching scriptures of the common era. We would be delighted to offer our expertise to our brethren and sisters in Indiana, should the need for scriptural exegesis and apology arise,” said Armstrong. (Gordon is also Jewish.)

You had him at ‘Shalom’


Growing up, Levin’s Friday nights and Sunday mornings were spent at the Reform temple. “You know, what we all had to do,” he said.

‘Moses was lost in the desert for 40 years without a GPS. We live in a world where you can’t relate to being lost anymore’

“I always had a problem with going over the old books. Religions don’t take the time to say this is what did happen and talk about how it reflects on our life now,” he said. “Moses was lost in the desert for 40 without a GPS. We live in a world where you can’t relate to being lost anymore.”

In conversation, Levin is a real trip as he slickly speaks about the need for a modern religion and his church’s creed of spreading love.

“We welcome everybody in the world here — as long as you have the celebration of love in your heart, you’re welcome,” said Levin.

Bill Levin, the Minister of Love at the First Church of Cannabis, is expressing his freedom of religion. (courtesy)
Bill Levin, the Minister of Love at the First Church of Cannabis, is expressing his freedom of religion. (courtesy)

He said the emphasis is being honest with God, and with yourself, and promoting the health benefits of cannabis in the worship service.

“It’s a love generator,” he said.

He acknowledged that he’s treated as somewhat of a clown in the international media where he estimated he’s been interviewed recently at least 50 times. He’s featured prominently on television, including CNN and Fox News, and in thousands of print articles.

“Until they see the love that we’re inspiring worldwide they just don’t get it,” he said, shrugging it off.

Levin recommends saying “I love you” when entering or leaving a room, and likens it to the Hebrew “Shalom,” a word he always liked for its parallel meaning of “peace.”

Asked if saying “I love you” as often as Levin does cheapens the expression, he said, “I would rather have someone automatically give love. It spreads it, celebrates it.”

He gives an example: “When I stub my toe, I jump up and down and scream ‘I love you! I love you!’ Everybody in the room starts laughing and it builds positive energy.

“When you walk into a room and say ‘Hi, I love you,’ there’s positive energy,” he said. “Be positive! Celebrate life’s great adventure.”

And as he sensed our conversation was coming to a close, the grand poobah gracefully exited stage left, saying, “I love you. Thank you for the warm smile that I hear growing all over your face.”

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