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A Jewish Mystic’s Embrace of Psychedelics

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A Jewish Mystic’s Embrace of Psychedelics

This essay is part of the Lucid News “God on Psychedelics” project, reported and written by veteran religion journalist Don Lattin. To read the complete series, visit the home page.

Rabbi Art Green’s first acid trip unfolded in 1965, just as the psychedelic revolution was gathering steam. His cosmic vehicle was an LSD-laced sugar cube offered up in Cambridge, Massachusetts by a band of pioneering psychonauts brought together by two ousted Harvard professors, the Catholic-born Timothy Leary and the Jewish-bred Richard Alpert.

At the time, Green was taking a short break from his studies as a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, sitting alongside a lake in western Massachusetts. He now recalls his psychedelic baptism as “mind-blowing and gentle at the same time.”

“I understood that there was level after level after level and mind after mind after mind. You could open it up and open it up ad infinitum. That’s what the mystics had been talking about. It was very clear to me. They talk about God as the ein sof, the endless. I saw this endless continuum between the ordinary human mind and the cosmic mind.”

Green estimated that he took LSD seven or eight times back in the 1960s and 1970s, and guided LSD trips for another ten to twenty friends. “I almost got kicked out of rabbinical school when someone heard that I was guiding trips in my dorm room,” he recalled. “I somehow covered my ass and got the award for outstanding senior student.”

Since then, the aging rabbi has watched as countless Christians and Jews in the U.S. — both in the 1960s and in the recent psychedelic revival — turned toward Eastern mysticism or Native American shamanism. In his view, this rejection of their Jewish and Christian traditions is “one of the great tragedies of this whole period.”

“Judaism and Christianity had become very domesticated in the West, dressed in very rational and somewhat superficial garb,” he told me. “In the 1960s, a lot of the psychedelic revolution was wrapped up in adolescent rebellion. It was a rejection of 1950s bourgeois complacency. Since the religion of your bar mitzvah or your confirmation in church had been the religion of that bourgeois complacency, you wanted to choose something entirely different.

“Plus, those traditions were very much centered on a personal God figure. The psychedelic experience doesn’t necessarily lead one to that. It can, depending on what you go into it with, but it doesn’t necessarily lead there. If you’re an atheist you want to go to a Buddhist spirituality that doesn’t make you believe in God.”

Rabbi Green went on to establish a countercultural Jewish community in the Boston area that sought to renew and revive this ancient faith. He has spent most of his eight decades on the planet studying the Zohar, the thirteenth-century classic of medieval Kabbalah, along with the eighteenth century Eastern Europe teachings of Hasidic rabbis. He is the author of numerous books on Jewish mysticism, including Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition.

Jewish Maps for Psychedelic Territory

Rabbi Green was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1941, ten years after Richard Alpert, whose psychedelic experiences led him away from his Jewish roots and off to India, where he found a Hindu guru and assumed the name Ram Dass. But unlike Alpert, Green had Jewish maps by which to navigate and understand the psychedelic experience.

Green was also close friends with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the leaders of the mystical Jewish Renewal movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Reb Zalman, as he was known, strayed farther from Orthodox Judaism than Green. “We both did acid and mushrooms,” Green recalled, “but Zalman became a real believer in the New Age…. Everybody was going to take LSD and that was going to change the world. Clergy should become LSD practitioners and give it to their congregation, which will change people’s consciousness. A spiritual rebirth was about to happen. That’s what the Age of Aquarius was all about.

“I was younger and I saw too many people I knew who were tripping and listening to rock music all night and going crazy, or who were tripping and going out on the town. Then there were the followers of (cult leader Charles) Manson, tripping and going out and killing people. I felt psychedelics were a wonderful tool, but very easily misused, and I did not think the New Age was coming. Zalman was a messianic Jew, and by that I don’t mean a Hebrew Christian (as in the ‘Jews for Jesus’ movement). I mean someone who believes redemption is right around the corner.

“I’m a person who believes that the wicked Kingdom of Rome is here to stay. We are going to live in the shadow of evil for a long time and have to create little pockets of light so the light will survive amongst the evil forces around us.”

Nevertheless, Green still believes that the cautious use of psychedelics can open one up to the same higher states of consciousness that are described by Jewish mystics. “There is a chemical component to what we call mystical experience. If that happens in the brain with psychedelics, I don’t see anything inauthentic about that. The problem is that if someone has that experience after twenty years of meditation, there’s a certain gravitas to that experience. If you pop a pill and have that experience you don’t understand what happened or have that gravitas. You don’t have the tools to approach it, to integrate it into your life. But that doesn’t make the experience itself inauthentic. It means that the context in which it takes place is a less serious context.”

Green has been thinking and writing about Jewish mysticism and psychoactive drugs for more than half a century. In 1968, he anonymously published (under the name Itzik Lodzer) an article titled “Notes from the Jewish Underground: Psychedelics and Kabbalah.” During an interview last year over Zoom, Green explained what he meant in that essay when he said psychedelics allow us to see the world “from God’s point of view.” He was in Jerusalem. 

“I am, theologically, a monist,” Green replied. “There is only one ultimate reality. There isn’t God, and the world and God and the self. There is one ultimate reality, and we are part of it. Each of us is here for a tiny flick in evolutionary time. We do what we do, but we are all part of this greater process. We see the world, of course, from the point of view of our own individual self, but there is a way to get into the mind of that One, since we are all part of that One, into the mind of that One. In psychedelic experience there is a way to see the world from the mind of that One. We see it from above or within. I prefer the internal metaphor to the vertical metaphor. Western religion is very oriented toward the vertical metaphor. God is ‘up there.’ God is up there and we are down here. I prefer the internal metaphor. The One is in there and we are the outer manifestation.”

I mentioned that perhaps that’s what Jesus was talking about when, according to the Bible, he says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” Yes, the rabbi replied, or as the Jews would say, “Make for me a tabernacle and I will dwell within you.”

Sam Shonkoff, a professor of Jewish studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley,

said Jewish psychonauts coming of age in the generations following the baby boomers struggle with many of the same issues as those in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Like the previous movements, the current generation continues to grapple with modern disenchantment,” he said. “And like the baby boomers, I suspect that psychedelics will again play a significant role. Jewish mystical states and techniques of past centuries are so foreign to today’s secularized Jewish souls, and it seems that many are once again turning to psychedelics as a sort of jump start for inert engines.”

Shonkoff, who studies modern Jewish renewal movements and works with the new UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics, said there is one big difference between today’s psychedelic scene and the situation half a century ago.

“Psychedelics are so much more mainstream and increasingly aligned with ‘the establishment’ than they were in the sixties,” he said. “On one hand, this could open up potent possibilities for contemporary Jewish renewal. On the other hand, it could devolve into a sort of conformist trend that slips into the soulless snares of capitalism and big pharma. A major question for Jewish psychedelia today is how to tap into the creative forces of psychoactive plants and fungi without losing sight of the distinct gravity of ancestral Jewish sources.”

Visionary Experience in Jewish Tradition

Jewish mysticism begins with a mind-blowing book purportedly written by the Prophet Ezekiel between the years 593-571 B.C.E., when the Jews were living in exile in Babylon. “Then I looked, and behold, a whirlwind was coming out of the north, a great cloud with raging fire engulfing itself, and a brightness was all around it and radiating out of its midst like the color of amber,” the prophet reports. Ezekiel goes on to describe visions of a creature with four wings and four faces, each face half man and half beast. Alongside this fantastical creature was a wheel with rims that “were so high they were awesome, and the rims were full of eyes…”

Yes, it reads a bit like a trip report from the Haight-Ashbury, circa 1967.

How does Rabbi Green explain all this? And how does he think Jewish spiritual tradition can inform the psychedelic exploration and help practitioners integrate that experience into their daily lives?

There’s a long pause as the rabbi closes his eyes and gently rocks his head up and down. “The Jewish mystical tradition has existed for a couple thousand years,” he replied. “There’s great variety in it. There is not one teaching or method…We have ancient texts, going back to the second, third and fourth century about people who ascended to the heavens, through the seven heavens, and they meet angels on the way and have various conversations along the way, and they finally come to the seventh heaven and they praise God and sing in the angelic chorus. The chorus that surrounds the throne of the One.”

 “Those texts are clearly about experiences that some people had. Psychedelics help you understand that those texts are about something real. They are not just fantasy texts, but some kind of real experience, whether the person who wrote the text had the experience or was just in the tradition of the experience. They didn’t, literally, go up in the sky, but there was an experience within them. Later, the Hasidic masters have a way of reading the whole Jewish tradition — all the rituals, all the observances, all the legal formula, as a means of achieving a oneness with God, or entry into the divine self. Psychedelics can be a push off the platform into those experiences. How can you integrate those experiences into your life? The experience is not difficult, but bringing it back into reality is what it’s all about. The Jewish tradition is rich in ritual. But we need to get over worrying about doing it right, the compulsiveness, and use ritual forms as a stable entry into the upper universe, then they can work beautifully. There’s a re-entry phase. The personality has to be built again… a rebirthing process can happen. And having a spiritual guidebook from your tradition, whether it’s Judaism or Christianity, can help immensely.”

Green hopes that Jewish seekers will try to find a place for their faith in the psychedelic renaissance. He has worked with one newly formed organization, Shefa, which seeks to do just that.

 “We want to preserve our path. Jews have been a minority for so long. The sense of self-preservation is just deeply ingrained in Jews. We don’t want to see Judaism swept into a kind of neo-Christian universalist perennialism.”

The rabbi hasn’t tripped since the 1970s. Is he ready to try it again?

“My friends here in Jerusalem are trying to convince me to do mushrooms with them. I probably will, because it seems to be coming up again as an issue. I’m 80 years old and I’m thinking about it. Why not?”

Featured image: Courtesy of Art Green/Hebrew College

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