This Saturday, the day after Valentine's day, synagogues all over the world will be studying the Torah portion Ki Tissa, Exodus 30:11-34:35. It's likely that most people who are asked to comment on the portion will focus on the dramatic story of the Golden Calf that is told in the portion.
I'm going to follow a different path. My focus is on a detail in the beginning of the portion that describes the laws concerning the holy tabernacle. I want to talk about one ingredient in the recipe for the anointing oil used to sanctify both the tabernacle and the priests themselves. (Exodus 30:22-33).
The Torah: A Women's Commentary explains that the oil used to anoint sacred objects as well as the priests was to be made of four precious spices -- myrrh, cinnamon, cane and cassia -- combined with olive oil.
The common English translation of the third ingredient, replicated in most English versions of the five books of the Old Testament, is "aromatic cane." However, a different translation appears in The Living Torah where Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes that some sources identify "fragrant cane" -- "keneh bosem" in Hebrew -- with the English and Greek word "cannabis" referring to the hemp plant.
Kaplan's reference is significant. The Ben Yehuda Hebrew-English Dictionary, written by Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, defines the Hebrew word "kanabos" as hemp, a botanical relative of marijuana.
While the portion establishes severe penalties for use of the holy oil on profane objects or laypeople, it does not prohibit use of any of the separate ingredients. Punitive laws passed in the past century have distorted, demonized and suppressed the long history of the practical use, palliative power, and creative and spiritual contribution of this versatile plant.
Medical research is only now rediscovering the healing potential of cannabis, and many are taking action to make it available to those who might benefit from it. In 1999, the Women of Reform Judaism passed a resolution on Health Issues calling on its sisterhoods to support legislation that would permit marijuana to be prescribed for critically ill patients and to be used to conduct research.
And, in 2003, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a Resolution on the Medicinal Use of Marijuana calling for advocacy to change local, state and federal law to permit the medicinal use of marijuana and ensure its accessibility for use by patients under medical supervision and for further scientific research.
Now, more than 15 years since our movement first articulated a policy stand on this issue, medical professionals and members of Congress are calling for change in Federal drug policy that reflects the unrecognized potential of the cannabis plant. Their action also points to the failure of policy that has criminalized cannabis here in our country and, through the extension of that policy, around the world.
The story of the Golden Calf speaks of the people of Israel being stiff-necked and stubborn. I urge all people of faith to consider whether we are being stiff-necked in stubbornly insisting that cannabis is an "evil weed" when it may, in fact, be something quite blessed and beneficial.
The ancients had no problem using this plant along with other healing herbs and medicinal plants. Perhaps it was because of its many potentially healing properties that they chose to invest this particular plant with holiness by blending it into the sacred oil.
If we value rather than vilify the healing power of this versatile plant, we can improve our world by making it a more compassionate, just, and holy place.