Judaism cannot ignore the widespread problem of drug abuse, not only because of its individual, family and social effects, but because drug taking infringes basic halachic principles.
1. The first principle is that we do not own our bodies. They belong to the Holy One, blessed be He (Rambam, Hilchot Rotze’ach 1:4; Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Choshen Mishpat, Nizkei HaGuf 4).
The Torah establishes the principle, “You shall diligently guard your life” (Deut. 4:15); the Rambam says, “It is forbidden for a person to injure himself or another” (Hilchot Chovel U’Mazzik 5:1; cf. Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 420:31).
We are not permitted to harm, mutilate, destroy or even take risks with our body, life or health. Smoking, immoderate use of alcohol, and drug taking all threaten the body which belongs to God. The Talmud insists that “regulations concerning danger to life are more stringent than ritual prohibitions” (Chullin 10a).
Yes, some rabbis refused to ban smoking on the basis that “The Lord protects the simple” (Psalm 116:6), but knowing now how much danger is likely as a result of smoking, halachic opinion is much more negative than before on the subject, and in relation to drug taking the principle would be the Talmudic statement, “Where injury is likely one must not rely on a miracle” (Kidd. 39b). The danger may not always be immediate, but jeopardising one’s long term future is also a major consideration.
2. Man is made in the Divine image (Gen. 1:26) and endowed with free will (Deut. 11:26, 30:15). Under the influence of drugs, as Rabbi Moshe D. Tendler puts it, man “becomes, for varying lengths of time, a lobotomised caricature of this noble creature that bears the Godly image” (“Judaism and Drugs”, ed. Leo Landman, 1973, p.64).
3. Man is made as both an individual and a member of society. Drug-taking affects one’s ability to be a socially responsive and responsible person. The habit needs constant feeding, and the wherewithal has to come from somewhere, often petty pilfering and sometimes quite serious criminality. Several of the Ten Commandments end up being broken as a result.
It also “necessitates contact with the morally degraded elements of our society” – the drug barons (Tendler). The drug addict becomes enslaved not only to the drug substances but also to drug sellers. “To Me are the Children of Israel servants,” says the Almighty (Lev. 25:55), “and not servants to (other) servants” add the sages (Bava Kamma 116b).
4. Using judiciously chosen drugs for therapeutic purposes under the direction of a competent physician is one thing. Resorting to drugs in order to escape from reality, to attempt to become somebody, to heighten one’s mood – that is something else.
Halachah believes that a person who wants a high should find it in the ecstasy of spiritual communion with God, the exhilaration of Torah study, the supreme joy of doing a mitzvah (Eruvin 54b etc.).
True, some attribute to historical figures like the Baal Shem Tov certain addictive habits, but the evidence is scanty, despite Professor Yaffa Eliach’s attempt to show that the Baal Shem reached spiritual highs because he “smoked something other than tobacco” (Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, vol. 36, 1968, pp. 57-83).
Dr Walter Wurzburger warns that for Judaism, “Proximity to God cannot be reached by putting oneself into a trance either through physical or chemical means”. Even when, he adds, “through a supernatural gift of prophecy, an individual is privileged to behold the heavenly mysteries – as Rabbi Soloveitchik put it so convincingly in ‘The Lonely Man of Faith’ – he must ultimately return from his journey into the higher regions of being with a socio-ethical message that is geared to man’s task on earth” (“Judaism and Drugs”, ed. Leo Landman, 1973, p.141).
The severity of the halachah in its attitude to drugs is unambiguous. This is not to say that we are entitled to be holier than thou, judgmental or condemnatory. An imperative of the halachah is “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).
In addressing the drug problem, whatever energies we can harness, as Jews, as concerned citizens, must be utilised constructively and with compassion. And as always we have to exert ourselves to encourage opportunities to “take a trip” in Judaism and our Jewish type of spirituality which is both earth-bound and heaven-bent.