Science seeks rabbis to do ‘shrooms
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Science seeks rabbis to do ‘shrooms

Johns Hopkins University study looks for religious leaders willing to imbibe psychedelic substance psilocybin

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

'Magic mushrooms' containing psilocybin (Amanita77/Wikicommons)
'Magic mushrooms' containing psilocybin (Amanita77/Wikicommons)

Scientists at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland are looking for rabbis willing to turn on, tune in, and drop out for the sake of science… and spirituality.

A call went out on February 1 for religious leaders — among them practicing rabbis — for a study looking at whether the effects of psilocybin can deepen spirituality. Psilocybin is the naturally occurring psychedelic substance found in some 200 species of mushrooms, known commonly as “magic mushrooms.”

The mind-altering effects of psilocybin include euphoria, visual and mental hallucinations, changes in perceptions, and a distorted sense of time. The substance can also cause adverse side effects such as nausea, paranoia and panic attacks.

Most germane to the study is the fact that psilocybin has been associated with unitive and mystical experiences, which the Hopkins scientists wish to explore further with leaders from all religious traditions.

In the explanatory material sent out with the call for participants were quotes from such leaders, including the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the founders of the Jewish Renewal movement.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (screen capture: YouTube)
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (screen capture: YouTube)

In the excerpt taken from a chapter Schachter-Shalomi contributed to a 2005 publication titled, “Higher Wisdom: Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics,” it appears that the rabbi endorses drug use as a shortcut to achieving a mystical high.

‘I think to understand the depth of religion, one needs to have firsthand experience… I think the psychedelic path is sometimes the easiest way’

“I think to understand the depth of religion, one needs to have firsthand experience. It can be done with meditation. It can be done with sensory deprivation. It can be done a number of ways. But I think the psychedelic path is sometimes the easiest way, and it doesn’t require the long time that other approaches usually require,” he wrote.

While Shachter-Shalomi was known for experimenting with illicit substances, beginning with LSD in the 1960s, it remains to be seen whether any rabbis involved in congregational life or Jewish education today would be willing to take a day off to consume some ‘shrooms — even for the sake of research. (How exactly would they explain their absence to their congregants and students?!?)

This is not to say that Jews, including outwardly conservative ones, are not acquainted with psilocybin or other mind altering substances. There are accounts of contemporary young Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn getting stoned out of their minds. There are also historical ones of Jews getting high on more than just prayer.

Some have even posited that Jewish drug use goes as far back as the Israelites as they wandered in the Sinai desert, with the suggestion that Moses’ parting of the Red Sea was a drug-induced hallucination.

Psilocybin was originally tested in a controlled academic setting at Harvard University in the early 1960s. Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert (who later changed his name to Ram Dass), and others tried to prove that the psychedelic substance could be useful in clinical psychiatry. However, as public abuse of magic mushrooms, LSD and other hallucinogenic substances grew, laws were passed against their production, sale and use, putting an end to the academic experiments.

More recent psilocybin research at Johns Hopkins has involved 200 people, according to a 2014 report. The scientists claim that they can, with reasonable safety, induce mystical and life-changing experiences in people by administering the drug to them under controlled laboratory conditions. Participants have had at least one day-long session during which they were given high doses of psilocybin.

Psilocybin has been associated with unitive and mystical experiences, which the Hopkins scientists wish to explore further with leaders from all religious traditions

“Two-thirds or more of the volunteers reported one of their sessions as among the most meaningful experiences of their lives and attributed to it positive changes in their mood, behaviors, and overall well-being,” the researchers reported.

The psilocybin research underway at Johns Hopkins involves studies of the effect of the substance on cancer patients, in quitting cigarettes, and meditation.

The new study involving religious leaders is yet another facet of the research.

“We will examine the effects of the sessions on the individuals personally, including any deepening or other changes in their relationship to their tradition, and on their vocational lives,” the researchers said in their report about the research involving religious leaders.

We suppose that since Johns Hopkins maintains strict confidentiality for all human research, it would be possible for a rabbi to slip out for a day to “receive psilocybin in day-long contemplative sessions conducted by trained, supportive staff in a comfortable, living-room-like setting,” as the call for participants states.

Volunteers must be between 25 and 80, have no personal or family history of severe psychiatric illness, and have no recent history of alcoholism or other drug addictions.

There are surely some adventurous rabbis out there who fit the bill.

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