By Rabbi Moshe L. Kuskin
Recently, I attended a wedding of the son of a friend of mine. I barely knew the son but attended in order to be “m’sameach” and “m’chazek” (bring joy and strength to) the father. Ostensibly, I understood that the Chosson, the groom, was very religious, but I was in for quite a surprise when I came to the wedding hall. Whether these were friends of the chosson, or friends of brothers of the chosson whom I had inclinations to believe were much less religious, I witnessed what can only be described as the underbelly of “frum” (religious Jewish) society.
Maybe my shock was due to the insular (Baruch HaShem) life I lead, exposed constantly to b’nei Torah, chassidim , Talmidei chochomim andyeshivalite, but before me stood an array of people I had never seen before. First there was the young man who, while wearing a yarmulke which did not seem was of the type he had put on just for this occasion, exclaimed that this was the first time he had worn a suit jacket in two years. Then came the boys and girls, bearing some trappings of religion, who were hugging each other hello and socializing, and finally, arrived the boy with disheveled, long hair and no yarmulke, looking every bit like the typical hippie immersed in the spiritual darkness of hedonism and drugs. As a matter of fact, although I left the celebration early, I was told that the acrid scent of marijuana wafted through the room where the celebratory dancing was taking place. Oh, and not to forget the curious fellow, who although outwardly dressed as a religious Jew, wished me “good Shabbos” even though it was close to midnight on motzoi Shabbos.
Could this be the current state of the “hamon Am,” the Jewish masses, I thought to myself, in shock? Has our community sunk to this level that we are almost indistinguishable from secular non-Jews? It was only after I viewed a curious documentary about Jewish teens at risk who had rebelled against their upbringing and “fryed out”—had become irreligious to one degree or another, did I realize I was looking at people straight out of this documentary film. And, so, for anyone who might be in limbo, as these teens at risk obviously were, with only tangential ties to Torah and Orthodox Judaism, at best, I feel motivated to write an exposition on how to truly “expand your consciousness,” as members of this group seemed inclined to want to achieve. Now, maybe, their use of marijuana was no more than hedonistic escape, just as one would get drunk, but, nonetheless, their choice of poison was one which supposedly “expands” the mind rather than stupefies it, though we will address that illusion momentarily.
So, if you will indulge me, let me engage in a bit of a polemic against the now ever-growing and widespread use of recreational marijuana. I will get a bit technical, but I think doing so will help drive home the point. The main psychotropic ingredient in marijuana is a compound called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). It has been shown that both the timing of a person’s initial exposure to marijuana, as well as the frequency of use and dose of the active ingredient, are critical. When marijuana first become popular for its recreational use among college students back in the 1960’s, the marijuana that was being used contained a concentration of the active THC product that was far lower than what is being used today. In fact, newer forms of marijuana are some 25 times more potent than what was being used just a decade ago. This is important to keep in mind because many older studies used marijuana with lower concentrations of THC. Yet, they, too, found that the drug caused psychiatric and behavioral problems.
Current research conducted by Louisa Degenhardt and Wayne Hall looked at six longitudinal studies (following people forward in time from their initial marijuana exposure, rather than looking back) carried out in five different countries. The researchers concluded all of these studies demonstrated that regular use of cannabis raised a person’s risk of developing symptoms of schizophrenia. Degenhardt and Hall write that the first convincing evidence that marijuana could precipitate schizophrenia was a study of 50,465 Swedish individuals who had begun using marijuana at age 18. The researchers in that study followed people for 15 years and found that those who began their drug use before age 18 were 240 percent more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than those who never used the drug.
Social and Psychiatric Problems
Another recent study of 247 first-episode psychosis patients from six psychiatric hospitals found that regular use of marijuana for five years frequently occurred before any symptoms of psychosis had developed, suggesting that the psychosis was caused by the marijuana. Scientific studies of THC — the psychotropic ingredient in marijuana — have shown that it produces an “a-motivational syndrome” that is characterized by: apathy, social withdrawal, narrowing of interests, lethargy, impaired memory, impaired concentration and disturbed judgment, as well as reduced occupational achievement. The drug also negatively affects learning, short-term memory, working memory, executive function (concentrated thinking and directing one’s actions), abstract ability (creativity), decision making, and attention. Studies using marijuana’s parent compound, THC, found it could cause distorted sensory perceptions, altered body perception, feelings of unreality, depersonalization, and extreme slowing of time even when used in healthy individuals.
It would seem, then, that what is popularly seen by misinformed politicians and business folk, as a harmless way to increase revenue from taxes and make a quick buck, is exponentially worse and more harmful then recreational alcohol consumption. Just how devastating marijuana can be to the brain can be explained physiologically. As a person’s brain is developing — even during adolescence and early adulthood — it forms far more connections and synaptic structures than it actually needs. When this happens, the part of the brain involved thickens. Normally, this thickening is corrected by a process called “pruning,” which is analogous to clipping tree branches to allow for healthier growth. The pruning process is controlled by a finely tuned increase and decrease of glutamate, a neurotransmitter in the brain. Cannabis (THC) interferes with this process by inhibiting glutamate. An overgrowth of connections then results in confused signals, which lead to impaired thinking, abnormal behavior, and even serious behavioral disorders.
While use in adolescence prevents pruning of unneeded connections, use in adulthood causes destruction of neurons and brain connections, as well as damaging the amygdala — a part of the brain that plays a major role in regulating anxiety and violence. In fact, it has been reported that heavy, regular users of marijuana lose brain tissue in the amygdala, hippocampus, temporal pole, insula, para-hippocampus, and orbitofrontal cortex — all of which are critical areas for learning, memory, behavior, and social control. This physical destruction of the brain has led to amyriad of social problems resulting from increased marijuana use including a dramatic rise in crime (especially violent crime) and suicidal behavior, as well as the numerous personality and cognitive changes cited above and their attendant psychiatric problems, including extreme social anxiety, depression and anti-social behavior, all of which lead to diminished achievement and sense of fulfillment and well-being.
Diminishing, Not Expanding
So, suddenly, it rather convincingly appears to be that the so-called mind bending, “expanding consciousness” effect of marijuana is but a short-lived experience resulting in actual destruction of neuronal connections and tissue of the brain, leading to overt cognitive impairment. The sometimes extra-intuitive and “spiritual” experiences claimed by some marijuana and psychedelic users is, at best, a fleeting and impermanent “high” and actually destroys brain cells. Yet, users of marijuana and psychedelics desperately seek something outside themselves, something bigger that will give them a “spiritual” connection above their mundane existence and alleviating them of the pain and angst they experience in it. However, few would think to look in their own back yard toward something they view as staid and old fashioned and not relevant to them.
However, the holy Zohar, the main mystical text of the Torah, revealed by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, teaches that “The Al-mighty and the Torah are One.” The Torah is literally the mind of G-d, which is infinite; furthermore, as Rambam (Maimonides) taught, “He is the Knower and He is the Knowledge.” In this physical world knowledge that a person learns and comprehends is something outside of himself and he learns and studies it and internalizes it. Yet, regarding the Al-mighty, there is nothing outside of Him. To say that there is something external to HaShem would mean that, G-d forbid, He is in some way limited. And since there is nothing outside Himself, He is both the Knower and the knowledge, something our minds cannot fully grasp.
But the basic principle we learn from this astounding concept is that when we study Torah, we are literally connecting directly to G-d, since He and His knowledge, the Torah, are one. In fact, the Holy Zohar teaches further, “The entire Torah is names of the Holy One, Blessed be He.” Although the Torah was transmitted to us as words in a format which is comprehensible and logical, if the letters are placed together without spaces and considered as one continuum of 304,805 letters, contained within them are an almost infinite number of combinations and permutations of the Holy names of Hashem.
Is there anything more spiritually enlightening then this?
True Mind Expanding
Furthermore, the study of Mishneh (or Gemara), especially when studied in depth, causes true expansion of consciousness. It creates new neuronal connections in the brain as it forces the person to think in ways that he never conceived of before. Even in secular studies, each time you learn something new and practice it, your brain will either change the structure of its neurons (cells) or increase the number of synapses between your neurons, allowing them to send and receive information faster. All the more so with Torah, the Source of which is infinite complexity and spirituality, allowing for ever and ever more depth of study. Torah, therefore, brings one closer to G-d, providing a palpable experience of connecting to G-d and spirituality. It enlivens the brain, making the individual more dynamic and brings a feeling of happiness and calm. And all these changes remain permanently.
Sefer Tanya explains that Torah is the food for the Jewish soul. Any other substitute will only bring temporary satisfaction, at best, and, in the case of drugs will ultimately destroy the soul, the seat of which is in the brain and consciousness. There are a myriad of additional Chazals (teachings of the Rabbis), and verses from Tanach that could be quoted to support these statements, but I have avoided doing so, lest anyone feel I am merely “preaching” at them from the Book. Rather, I wish to stress that all my assertions can be personally experienced by every single Jew. As Job (19:26) averred, “from my own flesh I perceive G-d.”
Women and the Torah
As for women, we know that they are released from the obligation to fulfill any mitzvah (commandment) dependent upon a specific time, such as the recitation of Shema (which must be recited before the end of the third hour of the day) with a few exceptions such as keeping Shabbos and Yom Tov, lighting Channuka candles and the mitzvos of Purim. Furthermore, the Oral law exempts women from the obligation to study Torah which men have (other than those practical laws that apply to her). Hence, women, although they must keep all the 365 negative commandments, the same as men, traditionally have been left with only 3 obligatory, positive commandments.
According to mystical sources, it is said that women potentially are on a higher spiritual level and have a more innate connection to G-d. Thus, they are not required to fulfill all of the 248 positive commandments. Jewish women have long been praised for their ability to speak from the heart and pour out emotions to G-d. The prayers of the Biblical figure Chana and other women serve as the source for many principles of Jewish prayer. And while prayer is one of the commandments dependent on a specific time of day, in which women are not obligated, many Gedolim,leading Rabbis of our generation, stress the importance of a woman davening daily in order to connect to G-d and build faith and trust in HaShem. At the very least, we see the innate connection women have to prayer from Chana’s example, the righteous woman who gave birth to Shmuel HaNavi (Samuel the Prophet).
Jewish women are considered to be endowed with a greater degree of “binah” (intuitive understanding) than men. The Rabbis inferred this from the fact that it states in the Torah that woman was “built” (Gen. 2:22) rather than “formed” (Gen. 2:7) as Adam HaRishon, the first man, was, and the Hebrew root of “build” has the same consonants as the word “binah.” It has been said that the Matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah) were superior to the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) in prophecy. Notably, women did not participate in the idolatry of the Golden Calf.
The three mitzvos that are reserved for women are lighting candles to usher in the Sabbath, challah (separating a portion of dough, usually for bread baked in honor of the Shabbos), and niddah , the fulfillment of family purity laws. We may derive from this that the home is central to a woman’s role in Judaism, and this is her domain. In fact, King David declared, “All the glory of the King’s daughter is found on the inside” (Tehilim 45:14) The regality and nobility of a Jewish woman emanates from her privacy and dignity. This is universally understood to mean a woman’s modesty, particularly with regard to dress, and implies that the spiritual trappings fitting for a Jewish woman, the daughter of a King, are the elevated qualities of character that emanate from her modesty, considered more valuable than the gold of the clothing of the High Priest.
Greatness of Tznius
Especially in today’s world where the temptations in this area are probably greater than they have ever been in history, a woman who practicestznius, modesty in dress and behavior, can achieve great spiritual elevation, for this mitzvah goes to the core of her being. Most importantly, it should be understood that the reason for a woman to dress modestly goes much deeper than social convention and preventing sin. Animals have no spiritual soul. Hence, they do not require clothing. It is the fact that a woman is endowed with a lofty, spiritual soul that tznius is necessary. It is actually the soul that requires this modesty and covering, not the physical body. And the degree to which this mitzvah can bring spiritual elevation to a woman is actually hinted at by the following Gematria:
ּ כְּבוּדָּ֣ה בַת־מֶ֣לֶךְ פְּנִ֑ימָה – “The honor of a woman is found on the inside” (her modesty) has the same numerical value as the verse ֵילְכוּ מֵחַיִל אֶל חָיִל יֵרָאֶה אֶל אֱלֹהִים בְּצִיּוֹן- “They will go from strength to strength (and merit) to appear before G-d in Zion” (Tehilim 84:8), meaning they will attain great spiritual strength and be rewarded in this world and the next (Olam HaBa, the World to Come).
The Real Thing
Judaism offers a true, palpable, spiritual experience and closeness to G-d through Torah and mitzvos. We recite three times a day, “G-d is close to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth” (Tehillim 145:18), and truth—emes, refers to Torah. How sad that there are those who have forsaken it in search of the cheapest and most harmful imitations.
Footnote: Most of the medical and scientific information included in this article has been taken from the research of Dr. Russel Blaylock, M.D., a board-certified neurosurgeon and health practitioner for over 25 years and author of the monthly Blaylock Wellness Report.