Leading Israeli rabbi backs medicinal use of marijuana

Leading Israeli rabbi backs medicinal use of marijuana

Marijuana, for medical use, has been deemed kosher by a higher authority.

Efraim Zalmanovich, a top Israeli Orthodox rabbi of Mazkeret Batia, a town south of Tel Aviv, declared marijuana kosher for medicinal purposes when issuing a halachic ruling.

If the drug is administered to alleviate pain, the person giving it is performing a mitzva and it is being used in a kosher fashion. But if marijuana is used in an excessive way it is forbidden, Zalmanovich said.

“Clearly, the approval is based on the idea that it is an effective pain relief technique, and that it’s more effective than other types of techniques, and that there would be no other downsides from a societal point of view beyond the scope of the consideration of Jewish law,” said Rabbi Danny Schiff, former community scholar of the Agency for Jewish Learning, who now lives in Israel.

Zalmanovich, an Orthodox rabbi, made the ruling, but the usage of medical marijuana has received endorsement from other spectrums of the Jewish world as well.

“Does Jewish law (halacha) permit the use of medical? Yes. At the very least, a strong argument can be made that it does,” wrote Rabbi Mark Washofsky in a recent article in the Jerusalem Post.  Washofsky is a professor of Jewish law and practice at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, and chairs the Committee on Responsa of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

“It would seem that there is nice unanimity on the subject,” Schiff said.  “I haven’t read [Zalmanovich’s ruling] to know in more detail if there are any slight differences.”

Washofsky bases his argument on Jewish teachings.  

“Perhaps the most well-known is Leviticus 18:5: ‘You shall keep my statutes and laws, by the pursuit of which a person shall live.’ To this, the rabbis add (Talmud, Yoma 85b and elsewhere): ‘and not die’ —  that is, one is not obligated to fulfill the ‘statutes and laws’ of the Torah when doing so would place one’s life in danger,” Washofsky writes.

Israel has a $40 million medical marijuana industry.  About 11,000 Israelis are using marijuana for medicinal purposes, according to the Israeli Health Ministry, including people suffering from cancer, Parkinson’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.  

Some that receive marijuana in Israel are Holocaust survivors attempting to escape the past, even temporarily.

“On a recent afternoon in Kibbutz Naan, near the city of Rehovot, Israel, Moshe Rute took a hefty puff from his pot pipe, with the blessing of the government,” wrote Shira Rubin in a recent article in Tablet Magazine.  “His hands stopped convulsing, and he drifted into the story of how cannabis had done for him something that no person could — help him forget.”

In the United States, 18 states and the District of Columbia have permitted the use of medical marijuana.  Pennsylvania is one of six states with pending legislation to legalize cannabis for medicinal purposes.  In Washington and Colorado, marijuana has been approved for recreational usage.

In Pennsylvania, Jewish groups and leaders, such as Jewish Social Policy Action Network in Philadelphia and Rabbi Eric Cytrin of Temple Beth El in Harrisburg, have actively supported efforts to legalize medicinal use of marijuana and have given testimony before a legislative committee.

(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at andrewg@thejewishchronicle.net.)