Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Legal Marijuana: Ideal Yom Kippur Topic

Mesa Iom Kipur
Exhibit A: Advertisement for Yom Kippur panel discussion on “Judaism and the legalization of marijuana”

September 12, 2013

Legal Marijuana: Ideal Yom Kippur Topic

Most people raise their eyebrows in surprise when they hear the topic for the annual Yom Kippur panel. The more reserved and cautious end their commentary there. The diplomatic will ask politely if it’s an appropriate topic. The outspoken will without hesitation say I’m out of my mind and that such a topic is completely inappropriate for the seriousness of the day. In any case, it’s all wonderful marketing as a growing percentage of the community is talking about it and a surprising (I wasn’t surprised) number of younger people have indicated they will come for the discussion (exactly the demographic the community wants to attract — most have stopped coming to the synagogue altogether).

However, even for the older, serious congregants I believe that not only is the “Jewish perspective on legal marijuana” an appropriate, current, timely, important and even significant topic – I think it is an ideal topic for Yom Kippur for the Jewish community in Uruguay today. I believe that it is important to demonstrate that Judaism, Torah, Jewish Law and values has something to say on the topic. That Jewish Law is not some antiquated relic concerned only with ritual or liturgy, but that it has very clear, valuable, insightful and highly relevant opinions on matters of modern, civil and national concern. It is relevant on matters that preoccupy many Uruguayans today.

I spent long hours last night with my co-panelist preparing for the talk. He is a clinical psychologist with years of experience dealing with substance abuse and addiction. He comes from an almost completely secular background, but very quickly, beyond the technical details of marijuana use and addiction and the pros and cons of the law, got into topics such as personal responsibility, the difficulty but possibility to repent, free will, actions and consequences, communal responsibility, the search for meaning, for purpose. And I’m thinking to myself: “Wow! He just took my speech for Yom Kippur – this is perfect.”

Without meaning to and from a medical/clinical/psychological perspective he touched on some of the main themes of Yom Kippur, on repentance, on introspection, on connecting with our inner selves, on defining who we are as people, on finding a mission in life.

We discussed the details of marijuana use in Uruguay (it’s extensive, comparable to nargila in Israel). The current law is that there is no problem to smoke marijuana. The current law (which is about to be repealed) is that it is illegal to cultivate, distribute or sell marijuana. The planned new law is that the government will take over this business, attempt to make money off of it, cut out the criminal competition, raise the quality of the product and regulate the amount sold. There are both positive and negative examples of the success of such efforts in other countries.

Then we spoke about the particular nature of marijuana addiction as compared to other drugs as well as to alcohol addiction. Who is the type of person most susceptible, the ease and ways of purchasing, the reasons and uses in the general population of Uruguay and other local and international statistics.

He also had a lot to say about both the good and bad aspects of the law. I think this may be of particular interest to the audience, as he has an extremely good handle as to the reality on the ground and the repercussions that this law will have on Uruguayan society.

I gave him what I believe are the Torah views on the subject of legislation of a potentially dangerous and addictive substance, starting from the concern for the individual, the specific Jewish laws that address the issue, the view of Jewish law vis-à-vis the current modern, Western judicial system, enforcement, punishment and individual rights versus community defense.

It was a truly fascinating discussion and I think if we could even replicate part of it for the audience, they will be enthralled, educated and perhaps even inspired.

Our discussion then veered off-topic to many other general, fundamental and esoteric Jewish themes and we spoke late into the night.

I finally kicked him out of the house as we both have a lot of work and significant preparation for Judgment Day. For those wanting to know my opinion on the subject, you’ll have to wait until after Yom Kippur – I’m saving revealing my opinion for the actual panel discussion.

Gmar Chatima Tova!

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