Can drugs bring you closer to God?

If psychonaut and observant Jew Madison Margolin had her way she’d be leading Limmudniks in a mushroom ceremony


Madison_Margolin (Photo: Nechama Jacobson)

When Madison Margolin comes to the Limmud Festival, she won’t be able to practise what she preaches. The young writer, whose first book, Exile & Ecstasy, has just been published, has become one of the leading voices in the new Jewish psychedelic movement in the USA, which is exploring the link between mind-altering substances and spirituality.

What happens in American Jewry usually ends up making it to the shores of UK, and cannabis is now legal in some American states. If Limmud had been in Denver, Colorado, where psilocybin – the active ingredient of magic mushrooms – has also been decriminalised, she might have been able to lead festival-goers in a mushroom ceremony. But she can’t yet do this in Birmingham.

A co-founder of the Jewish Psychedelic Summit held two years ago and of DoubleBlind magazine, which reports on narcotics, Margolin has countercultural pedigree.

She also, she says, grew up “surrounded by hippies”. Her father Bruce, who is 82, worked as a lawyer who defended among others Timothy Leary, the psychology professor who became the high priest of LSD in the Sixties. At a certain point Margolin senior decided to take a sabbatical. “He wanted to figure out what life was about before he was too old,” his daughter recalls, and “ended up going to India”, where he “haphazardly met” Ram Dass.

Born Richard Alpert, Ram Dass was the Jewish spiritual adventurer who helped to popularise Eastern spirituality and yoga in the West. Entranced by the East, not a few Jews would abandon the synagogue for the ashram.

Through Ram Dass, Bruce Margolin was introduced to the guru Neem Karoli Baba. “My dad became a devotee of the guru,” she said, “and so the way I grew up was very much this ‘HinJew’ experience of post-Holocaust Jewish devotees of the guru people from New York or California who had been disillusioned with the Judaism they grew up with and instead found spirituality in Hinduism.”

While meditation and kirtans — a type of Hindu chant — were part of the Margolin household, her upbringing also had a “strong Jewish component”. Her paternal grandfather had founded a couple of shuls in Los Angeles, her parents “used a lot of Yiddish” and she went to a Jewish pre-school, then Hebrew school until her batmitzvah. The family had Shabbat dinner and celebrated Jewish holidays.

She always found it “a little bit funny” that chanting HinJews might connect to Sanskrit but not to Hebrew and wondered: “Is the stuff you are looking for in Hinduism and psychedelics or yoga also available in Judaism?”

After Berkeley (University of California), where she wrote papers on psychedelic consciousness, and a spell in Israel, she studied journalism at Columbia University, which brought her into contact with the Chasidic underground.

“Every student was assigned to report on a particular ethnic group and I was given the Chasidim in Brooklyn,” she said. “I was one of only two Jews in the class so they thought I would have easier access. I met a few kids who were on the spectrum of what you’d call OTD, off the derech [the true path]. They were doing all sorts of psytrance parties in upper state New York and all sorts of pyschedlics.”

They were “steeped in the haimishe world,” she said. She would be mixing with people who were “doing ayahuasca circles and singing nigunim, using Jewish songs as the medicine music”.

Ayahuasca, a brew made from two plants, that has long been used by Amazonian shamans, contains the hallucinogen DMT.

She has taken part in ayahuasca ceremonies for Jewish festivals such as Lag Ba’Omer or Tu Bishvat. On one camping trip in the Catskills, “I saw a guy wearing a shtreimel and a bekisheh [frock coat], he was giving out acid and storing the acid in his siddur on Shabbat,” she recalls. On another occasion, there were some Jews doing shacharit with a Sefer Torah and one was “shockeling to the beat of psytrance from someone else’s car”.

“When I met the kids from Williamsburg and other parts of Brooklyn, I said to myself there is no way that Judaism is not factoring into their psychedelic experiences.” She wondered: “Is there a Jewish aspect to their psychedelic trips – especially when you are doing it on Shabbat or in the context of Jewish framework and Jewish ritual. Can you use the psychedelic experience in service of something religious, in the service of God?”

One of the first times she took ayahuasca, “it was Shabbat. We were singing Shabbat nigunim and I was able to feel the spirit of Shabbat in a way I hadn’t felt before, the container of time out of time, a space for timelessness, so to speak… The heightened experience of the psychedelic helped me tune in to the experience of being in Shabbat.”

There is evidence, she says, that “taking psychedelic substances can be a highly spiritual experience… It puts you in touch with your soul on a different level. That can be very healing and informative. When we are more in touch with our souls and less in touch with our egos, how can we infuse that sense of magic into our regular lives?”

But even if the controlled use of some narcotics were shown to bring some spiritual benefit, would not rabbis frown upon them as too much of a short cut to devotion?

It might, she thinks, be “halachically questionable if you have the intention to be davening and you decide to take a drug on top of that because you need to come to davening with a clear mind. If you think substances are going to make your mind not clear, then why should you compromise your prayer? But if you’re on a substance and you incidentally start to pray, that’s another story.”

Besides, a substance doesn’t “necessarily always makes the mind so blurry. It can give you a sharper perception and put you more in touch with your soul-mind than your ego-mind, which is ideal for davening.”

Everything about Judaism is “about changing our consciousness. We have a wine ceremony on Pesach. We use wine all the time in ritual. There is also a precedent of using plant medicine in biblical times.

“On Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, the High Priest would hot-box himself in this chamber and atone on behalf of the Jewish people, There was this entheogenic incense that was supposed to fill the room and it was burning on the coals that were made of acacia wood and acacia is known to contain DMT.

“Substances that alter our consciousness are a very natural part of humanity and also of Judaism. They may be not necessary to your relationship with God, but they can jumpstart you and show you what it is possible.”

What’s more, though they have been long outlawed as vehicles of hedonistic escape and a health hazard, attitudes to narcotics may be beginning to change as a result of scientific investigation into whether some may actually have therapeutic properties. Psilocybin, for example, is being tested as a treatment for depression.

And Margolin has looked at another application: the potential use of ayahuasca for peace-building between Israelis and Palestinians. This  has also been the subject of a research study conducted among others by the Israeli scientist, Leor Roseman when he was a research fellow at Imperial College’s London Centre for Psychedelic Research.

Meanwhile, Margolin, who is 32, is a planning to write a practical guide on Judaism and psychedelics and hopes another summit will happen sooner rather than later. And before she heads off to Birmingham and Limmud, she is “keen to explore the Chasidish scene” in London on what will be her first visit to the city.

As to whether she catches a snatch of psytrance throbbing out of Stamford Hill, well, Limmudniks will have to wait and see what she reports.

Exile & Ecstasy: Growing Up with RAM Dass and Coming of Age in the Jewish Psychedelic Underground, published by Hay House, is out now

​The Limmud Festival runs in Birmingham from 22 to 27 December 

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