The Mechanism of Prophecy: A Conversation on DMT & the Jewish Tradition with Rick Strassman

By Madison Margolin

Why do our brains naturally make DMT? Does psychedelic science prove the existence of God? Where do psychedelic experiences and stories of the Torah intersect? In this interview, we cover these questions and more with renowned psychedelic researcher Rick Strassman.

In the early 1990s, Strassman was the first person in twenty years to receive FDA and DEA approval to study psychedelics—DMT and psilocybin—in humans. A pioneer in the field, he has since written several books on the matter, including DMT: The Spirit Molecule, DMT and the Soul of Prophecy, and published in August 2022, The Psychedelic Handbook: A Practical Guide to Psilocybin, LSD, Ketamine, MDMA, and DMT/Ayahuasca.

Having published more than forty peer-reviewed scientific papers and served as a reviewer for twenty psychiatric research journals, Strassman has also consulted for the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Veterans Administration Hospitals, and other government agencies, as well as for psychedelic start-ups like the Noetic Fund. A member of the Scientific Advisory Board for the Alexander Shulgin Research Institute (named after the late godfather of MDMA), Strassman is also currently an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.

In our conversation, it became clear that despite the far-out nature of Strassman’s work, his perspective on the Jewish psychedelic movement is surprisingly traditionalist and sobering.


Madison Margolin

So you’re familiar with the scope of what I write about—Judaism, psychedelics, and the like. Is there anything you want to start off with?

Rick Strassman

I suppose one thing is, there’s no evidence for the use of exogenous psychedelics—those that originate outside of us, such as plants or fungi, and can be consumed—in the Tanakh. There’s only wine and strong wine—shekhar.1 Even if the burning bush were acacia, which contains DMT, that narrative is only of Moses’s first theophany, the one that begins his mission. One person, one time. It was Moses, too—not just anyone. Neither was he seeking out a prophetic encounter; and when he had it, he tried as hard as he could to refuse it. Finally, there was significant peer-review—he had to convince the elders, the leaders of the community, that it was indeed God who had spoken to him.

There isn’t any evidence among any of the other prophets or prophetic figures that exogenous psychoactive substances played a role in their visions. The presence of endogenous DMT (originating inside the human body) removes the need to find exogenous agents. We know the mammalian brain makes DMT in high concentrations. It increases during the stress of death, at the very least. So we already have built into the system an endogenous, powerful psychedelic that replicates many phenomenological features of the prophetic experience. So that’s one point I’d like to make. We can take it from there.

MM

What led you specifically to DMT research, especially in the context of biblical prophecy? What caused you to put the two together?

RS

I started off with an interest in looking for the biological bases of spiritual experience, and at that time, my points of reference for spiritual experiences were largely based on Buddhist and other Eastern forms of meditation and psychedelics. I was struck by the correspondences between some of the effects of Mahayana meditation and the psychedelic state. So that led me ultimately to doing the DMT study—determining whether or not DMT was inherently spiritual. That is, did DMT, an endogenous psychedelic, possess inherent pharmacological spirituality—or were other factors involved? And if it did produce spiritual experiences, what kind?

The platform I was basing my spiritual perspective on was Zen Buddhism, which is fairly bare bones both in practice and in the experience itself. Satori is an empty state. It’s a fulsome kind of emptiness. Everything emerges from it, but the state itself is what I call mystical-unitive, empty of any discernible content, what Zen calls sunyata. There’s no time, space, there are no words. Usually it’s ecstatic. There’s no personality remaining in that state. However, in contrast to that empty state, I found the DMT experience was full of content, so I had to look elsewhere for a spiritual model.

In the DMT experience, the personality was maintained, there was interaction, there was a relationship between the experiencer and the contents of that state. It required me to go back to the drawing board. And by that time, my Zen community and I had parted ways over the issue of studying psychedelics for spiritual questions. So that freed me up to return to my roots. And I started to look at the Torah, and at the Tanakh. And I was really struck by the correspondence between the phenomenology of the prophetic experience in the Tanakh and the phenomenology of the DMT state. And by prophetic experience, I mean any altered state of consciousness reported in the text: it could be a dream that comes true; it could be inspiration; it could be superhuman strength; it could be a full-blown encounter—speaking with God or with God’s angels; flying through space; overwhelming emotions, etc. That more inclusive definition keeps the experience from being limited to the major prophetic figures like Abraham, or even to the longer list of canonical prophets.

The information content is quite different between the two sets of experiences—the DMT state and the prophetic one—but the phenomenology is strikingly concordant. If you read chapter one of Ezekiel, it’s a DMT trip—visions and voices, out of body travel, and extraordinarily powerful emotions, the angel speaking with him, spinning wheels, lightning, wings, eyes on the wings, and the figure of the chayot. It’s incredibly psychedelic. That got me digging deeper into prophetic experience, which ultimately led to my DMT and prophecy book.

MM

I was actually looking into Ezekiel’s chariot and merkava mysticism recently for a SXSW presentation on psychedelic Judaism. Obviously, everyone points to Moses and the burning bush as the classic “psychedelic” parshah, but what would you say are the most outstanding instances in Jewish text of the sort of psychedelic states that people have experienced?

RS

The three most psychedelic figures in the Tanakh I think would be: number one, Ezekiel; number two, Zechariah; and number three, Daniel.

MM

What’s your reasoning behind that?

RS

They’re extraordinarily visionary. They’re quite DMT-like. Daniel sees the Ancient of Days sitting on a throne, rivers of fire.2 Zechariah is thrust into a world of horsemen, colored horses, carpenters, horns, menorahs, and the like.3 An interesting thing about Zechariah is that the text actually does provide some guidelines for how to extract information from these visions. The angel asks him, “Do you know what you’re seeing? Do you know what this means?” And Zechariah says, “No, I don’t. Tell me.”4 That’s a handy tool to have when you’re tripping—you see visions and there’s a character there, and you can ask the character, “What does this mean?” In Zechariah’s case, the angel says, “Oh, don’t you know?” And Zechariah says, “No, I don’t. That’s why I’m asking you.” So it’s a fairly concrete suggestion about how to deal with extracting information from the visions.

In Ezekiel, chapter one, verse one, there are those lines: “I was standing by the river. The heavens opened and I saw visions of God.” And then a few verses later, “I looked and behold, a stormy wind”—which is a common physical experience of the DMT state: there’s a rush of acceleration and inner tension—“and a great cloud with flashing fire and a brilliance surrounding it; and from its midst came a semblance of a chashmal”—a bronze figure, an electric figure—“and from within the center of the fire there was a semblance of four living beings . . . They had the semblance of a man, four faces and four wings for each. Their legs were a straight leg. Their feet were a rounded foot. They glittered like burnished bronze, human hands under their wings . . .”5

MM

So what evidence is there, what hypothesis could we have about what enabled these biblical characters to get into these states of altered consciousness?

RS

This requires a dive into the mechanism of prophecy, and my model is basically that of Maimonides, which he lays out in his Guide for the Perplexed. Prophecy results from God choosing a particular person, in a particular time and place, to convey His message to. And as a result of that, there is what’s called an emanation, there’s a downward flow from God to the mind of the prophet. As God is immaterial, there needs to be a way to affect the material world, which is the function of the angels.

Aristotle, and Maimonides after him, divided the mind into the imaginative realm and the intellectual or rational realm. So the imagination is the location of things which are perceptible through the senses, and that includes visual input, auditory input, emotional input, somatic input. The intellect is everything other than perceptual information. So according to Maimonides, the imagination is the arena of the visions, and because those visions come from God, they contain divine information. And it’s then up to the intellect to extract that information based on the development of the intellect. The information contained in the visions is the prophetic message which a prophet needs to decipher.

MM

So people talk a lot about the pineal gland as the seat of the brain’s endogenous DMT—does prophecy happen through an activation of the pineal gland? Or what was the physical mechanism that enabled it? God chose these characters to communicate with in this way, but was it just spontaneous? Or some might suggest it was on account of acacia consumption.

RS

A pineal gland source of DMT is uncertain. But in 2019, Jon Dean and Jimo Borjigin at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor found that levels of DMT in the mammalian brain are as high as those for established neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, and that concentrations of DMT increase in the visual cortex of the dying animal.6 This is much more important than whether the pineal gland makes DMT—the brain does! The brain makes DMT and concentrations are dynamic; they increase at death. Armed with these data, one can propose that Godly emanation stimulates endogenous DMT, which is the medium of the phenomenology (for example, the visions and voices, emotions, bodily sensations) of the prophetic state that shares phenomenological features with the exogenous DMT state.

MM

Well if all people have this capacity, then is the “Godly emanation” the reason why only some people have had this prophetic experience and others haven’t?

RS

Well, potentially, but that hinges on God’s will. The information contained in the prophetic state is divine. So the occurrence of prophecy—the person, time, and place where it occurs—is divinely determined, as well. Even though any person might be capable of it, it still ultimately is God’s decision who experiences prophecy.

MM

So this whole concept, then, is predicated on a belief in God?

RS

Well, the Bible itself is predicated on that.

MM

Right. So would you say that the research that you’ve done with DMT would indicate or presume or give evidence towards the existence of God?

RS

No, not necessarily. The DMT state, at least in my studies, was people’s brains on drugs—which were pseudo-prophetic, I suppose, if you want to continue the analogy of prophecy. Like, the “mystical experiences” in current-day research—those are pseudo-mystical experiences or mystico-mimetic. They share phenomenology, but the context is divorced from traditional understandings of spirituality. In a traditional context, any spiritual experience confirms—establishes the validity of—what you’ve been training in and studying within the tradition. It’s the beginning of serious involvement with the tradition, not the goal or the end of it.

So you can reproduce the phenomenology of the prophetic state by ingesting DMT, but that doesn’t mean it’s a prophetic state. For example, I have a van Eyck over there, and it’s a really beautiful print—it’s inspiring and it’s colorful and it’s awesome, but it’s not the original, even though it still has an impact.

MM

Would you be able to point to any contemporary instances of prophecy?

RS

The rabbis declared prophecy finished during the Second Temple period, and that may have been as much for political expediency as for theology. There were frequently people proclaiming themselves as the messiah back then. The rabbis did not want to arouse the ire of the Romans, who were controlling Judea, and messiahs call for an overthrow of the status quo. The rabbis wanted to protect the people, so they dismissed any person’s claim to being the messiah. 

They also closed off the Jewish canon so that no new “prophetic” literature could enter scripture, and thus point to so-and-so being the messiah. This contributed to the lack of canonization of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha literature, which was incorporated into some Christian Bibles.

Even so, during the compilation and the redaction of the Talmud, the rabbis spoke about divine inspiration coming from a bat kol—the “daughter of a voice/sound.” This minor form of prophecy is referenced throughout deuterocanonical literature, the Zohar, Lurianic Kabbalah, and Hasidut. In the post-Temple reality, it was accepted that people could experience “prophetic states” (in quotes), but not receive actual prophecy—even though the reports of these experiences resembled classical high-level prophetic experience. So prophecy as a phenomenon didn’t die off, I think, but what one might call mainstream prophecy did; it became something no one really talked about. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that the Hasidim aroused so much opposition. Their highly explicit public claims of attaining prophetic visions worried the traditionalists, like the Vilna Gaon.

MM

So it seems like we could distinguish prophecy into, say, big P Prophecy and little p prophecy. But according to Hasidic thought, which encourages an unmediated personal relationship with God, it seems prophecy, or at least the prophetic state, is a communication with God that’s available to anyone. What is the difference then between a regular old conversation with God—in light of practices including but also beyond hitbodedut7—versus the prophecy of those like Eliyahu?

“The message of prophecy isn’t necessarily foretelling or predicting the future. That really isn’t an essential defining characteristic of prophecy.”

RS

Maimonides cataloged eleven different degrees of prophecy, with Moses’s as the highest.8 Below that, there is a lot of latitude, especially at the lower rungs, where the ability to teach partakes of prophecy, artistic inspiration, unusual courage or strength, and so on. Thus, an everyday old conversation with God, strictly speaking, could be prophecy if it were divine in origin. You’re communicating with the divine. You need peer-review, though. I think another reason prophecy was officially terminated was out of concern for the pernicious issue of false prophecy. How do you know you’re not just speaking to some bad spirit or just talking to yourself?

The message of prophecy isn’t necessarily foretelling or predicting the future. That really isn’t an essential defining characteristic of prophecy. A lot of the figures in the Bible who experience prophecy do not predict, a lot of the predictions do not come true, and a lot of people that do predict are not prophets—they’re false prophets. Moses states clearly in Deuteronomy that if a false prophet predicts something and it comes to pass, but they say, “Let us go worship other gods,” that person is a false prophet, even if their foretelling came true.9 Prophecy is defined by its message and whether it’s consistent with the text—and the text is clear about what its essential messages are: one God and the Golden Rule. If anybody claims to have prophetic inspiration, but they teach something contrary to those two tenets, they are, by definition, a false prophet.

MM

Returning to your research, would it be too simplified to say that evidence of endogenous DMT in the human brain means people have a unique capacity to have mystical experiences that feel like a divine interaction? How would you sum up your research, as if explaining it to a five-year-old?

RS

You can’t explain it to a five-year-old.

MM

Ten-year-old?

RS

You could explain it to an eighth-grader, a thirteen-year-old, a bar mitzvah. When you put together an informed consent document for research, it needs to be understandable by somebody in eighth grade. I’d explain like this:

The fact that we have DMT in our brains means that everyone is capable of experiencing things that feel divinely inspired. But that doesn’t mean they are divinely inspired. They just feel divinely inspired. One of the hallmarks of the DMT effect and psychedelics in general, but especially DMT, is the feeling that what you’re witnessing is more real than real. And that’s because it feels more real than real. But that doesn’t mean it is more real than real. It feels that way. So it may feel divine, but that doesn’t mean it is divine.

MM

What scientific evidence, maybe through the study of psychedelics, do we have for the existence of the soul, for this divine spark within? Is there a way to define the soul in scientific terms?

RS

I don’t think so. And I think if you do, you raise the danger of conflating religion with science. 

The first thing I learned about the soul was that you can only sense the presence of the soul through its actions. You can’t really sense it by itself. The soul enlivens us—that’s the most straightforward or the most concrete example. Without the soul, we’re dead. We’re just a bunch of chemicals. But with the soul, we move around, we seem to have free will. We think, we act, we feel, we perceive. Without the soul, none of that is there. So you can sense the soul through its actions. If you think you feel the presence of the soul itself on psychedelics, the soul apart from its actions, I think that’s all you’re really doing: you’re sensing something that you call the soul. But strictly speaking, I’m not sure if sensing the soul itself is really possible. There are those who say that their psychedelic experiences convinced them that consciousness is indestructible and continues after death, or that “death is like a big psychedelic experience.” However, there’s no scientific foundation for statements like that. It’s faith-based, not science-based.

MM

So one of the main attributes of the “mystical experience” is a feeling of oneness, a kind of universal quality and shared empathy, or a feeling of some sort of shared matter with others or the world around us—whether it’s a spiritual connection or something else that’s common among living things. This whole concept of “we are one” or unity . . . what does that mean then? What is that actually referring to?

RS

I don’t think it’s true.

MM

Okay . . .

RS

We can increase the strength of our personal opinions through psychedelics. We might wish for all to be one, and then we trip and we say, “It really is all one.” That doesn’t mean it’s true. That means you’ve tripped and you’re more convinced of a belief that you already had, the truth of which you weren’t quite sure of.

In the Tanakh, there are no reports of “all one,” except regarding the children of Israel. In fact, it’s the opposite—the Jews live apart. In Zechariah, it’s said that in the future, “God’s name will be one and God will be one.”10 But we are not there now. Jewish psychedelicism promoting the belief that “it’s all one”—that we all agree on our fundamental beliefs—is a result of interfaith dialogue, made more meaningful through psychedelics.

Using the argument that “all religions have mystical-unitive experience as their foundation” as a way to conflate Judaism with other religions is not supported by the text. There are no mystical experiences in Tanakh. Rather, it’s someone having an interaction, an encounter, with God. Psychedelic Jews need to spend more time with the Tanakh and less with Hasidut and Kabbalah. Go back to the source and learn about Jewish particularism, rather than trying to be like everyone else.

MM

Tell me if this is a mischaracterization of what you said, but it seems anti-perennialist.

RS

It’s completely anti-perennialist.

MM

Yeah, because especially, I’d say, a Hasidic-leaning critique or response would be that God is one. But God is also everything. To see God within everything in this sort of fractalized way—which again could be a Hasidic or Kabbalistic way of looking at things—you’re saying that’s maybe too out there or not based on tradition.

RS

Well, it isn’t Jewish, at least according to the fundamental text, the Tanakh. It’s more Eastern, Gnostic, or nature-based.

MM

Interesting, okay. I wish we had a Hasid in the room for this conversation.

Switching gears a little bit, what is the purpose of endogenous DMT in the brain? And without the introduction of exogenous DMT—through taking DMT or ayahuasca or whatever—how can we activate it and what is its purpose?

“On a more physical plane, DMT increases the growth of new nerve cells, increases the complexity of connections among them, and helps protect against the effects of low oxygen levels in the brain.”

RS

Well, the easy answer is we don’t know. We’re just starting to study that. DMT levels seem to go up when you’re dying. So it may mediate some of the features of the near-death experience. There are studies starting to look at whether DMT levels rise in REM sleep, during dreaming.

You can start to hone in on the role of a particular neurotransmitter by looking at the effects of drugs that modify its activity. For example, for serotonin, the SSRIs11 are involved in impulse control, mood, and anxiety. So if the SSRIs increase levels of serotonin and help with impulsiveness, anxiety, and depression, then you could assert that endogenous serotonin mediates those mental functions of mood, anxiety, and impulsivity. As for the stimulants, they increase levels of dopamine, and dopamine is involved in reward, pleasure, and drive. So you can assert—extrapolating from amphetamine, which activates or modifies dopamine activity—that endogenous dopamine is involved in activity, drive, reward, pleasure, those kinds of things. So what’s the hallmark of the DMT experience? Well, everybody comes back and says that it was more real than real.

So it is tempting to think that if there is an endogenous DMT neurotransmitter system, it is involved in mediating our sense of reality. If levels go extremely high, then things open to a whole different realm of consciousness. If your levels go down, which we don’t really know much about, it could be that things seem kind of flat, two-dimensional, gray, boring, or dull. We just don’t know much about what the state of low DMT activity is like, but we do know what it’s like when your levels of DMT increase dramatically after it’s administered.

On a more physical plane, DMT increases the growth of new nerve cells, increases the complexity of connections among them, and helps protect against the effects of low oxygen levels in the brain. So DMT could be an endogenous first-aid response or first responder to brain damage. People are looking at it for stroke rehab, maybe traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s, etc. That’s a completely different pole of the spectrum. It’s either mediating your reality, or it helps grow new nerve cells. The jury’s still out as to what the exact function of endogenous DMT is.

MM

Do you see a role for the activation of our endogenous DMT? And what is the role of DMT in Judaism, past and present?

RS

We don’t know right now if there is any way to stimulate endogenous DMT except by dying. In dying animals, DMT levels in the brain go up, but other than that, we just don’t know. But still, it makes sense that nondrug states resembling those brought on by administering exogenous DMT are mediated at least in part by endogenous DMT—like dreams, the alien contact experience, the effects of certain kinds of prayer and meditation. If those experiences are DMT-like, then it makes sense that endogenous DMT is involved. But we don’t know for sure. That is what certain strains of current research are looking at.

Now, the effect of exogenous DMT (either smoking it or drinking ayahuasca), and I think psychedelics in general, is to increase the function of the “imagination” in the Aristotelian sense. Typically, psychedelics make previously invisible things visible. Those “things” could be completely internal, or they could be external, or some combination thereof.

Returning to Maimonides and the idea of perfecting the intellect along with the imagination as a preparation for achieving prophetic states—traditionally there were numerous ways you could refine your intellect through study and leading a virtuous life, but there wasn’t much offered for developing your imagination. Maimonides and Aristotle believed the imagination was a function of your brain health, and the most you could do was avoid damaging it through disease, bad diet, alcoholism, and things like that. But now we have means—through psychedelics—of strengthening and stimulating the imagination. If a perfected imagination or stimulated imagination is necessary—but not sufficient—for receptivity to prophecy, then psychedelics would be one way of doing that.

In my prophecy book, I talk about using DMT in Jewish practice or in prophetic-oriented practice. Let’s say, for example, if the prophetic state were associated with endogenous elevated DMT, then you could take DMT and study Tanakh, and you would be in a state that resembled, at least phenomenologically, the state in which the text was received—if you assume the Tanakh was a prophetically received text. By more closely approximating the state in which the text was revealed, you could therefore attain a greater intimacy with the text and the state of mind through which it was received.

On the other hand, if the Torah were revealed through a prophetic state of elevated endogenous DMT, then simply studying the text itself (without the assistance of exogenous DMT) would help you resonate with the state of mind out of which it came. There would be sympathy, as it were—or resonance—between you and the prophetic text, which might then perhaps lead you to experience an elevation in your endogenous DMT. It’s a two-way street. You can increase your own DMT exogenously and attain a closer approximation to the prophetic state, or just by reading the text, you might stimulate your own levels of endogenous DMT. I emphasize might here, because this is highly speculative. However, if studying Tanakh leads you into a state resembling a low dose of exogenous DMT, then perhaps endogenous DMT is mediating those effects.

Still, it isn’t simply that if you stimulate your imagination, you become a prophet. You need to develop your intellect through study, too, and through leading a virtuous life—whether that requires mitzvah observance or not is an open question. I think many people would say yes, but personally, I don’t think it’s essential.

Philo taught that the Torah’s commandments are a codification of the lives of the matriarchs and the patriarchs. So strictly speaking, the matriarchs and the patriarchs lived a Jewish life, even without a written law. But it was their practice of a virtuous life and their openness to prophetic experience that prepared the way and laid the foundation for the Torah’s revelation.

MM

So what do you think of this “Jewish psychedelic movement” that’s happening, and do you have critiques? There are so many things being thrown around, like the way people are talking about the role of acacia in the Tanakh, for example. What’s your feedback?

RS

Well I think the search for an exogenous psychedelic in the Tanakh is misguided. What difference does it really make? If you smoke acacia, or DMT for that matter, does it make you a prophet? Are you Moses? You experienced an altered state—then what? Who are you, and what is the content of the experience; how do you interpret and apply it?

MM

I’ve said before that Judaism itself is like the set and setting. The religion’s framework (especially for those observing Shabbos and the chagim halachically, or close to it) engenders and is the container for an expanded state of consciousness—with or without any exogenous substances. You don’t need drugs to have a psychedelic experience in Judaism; the religion itself creates the conditions for that quality of experience. If that’s true, the only reason to introduce psychedelics would be to give people extra help in getting to that state, because it’s not always so easy to get there independently. What do you make of this?

RS

Halacha is the manifestation of divine communication between man and God. It isn’t a humanistically oriented set and setting. It’s divinely inspired. Judah Halevi said in the Kuzari that the performance of the mitzvah induces an altered state. It’s one of those little things or moments, as D. T. Suzuki used to say, that make one dance. So if you perform a mitzvah, you’re aligning yourself with God. It isn’t that it’s a set and setting. It’s a different language and vocabulary altogether.

MM

When you’re aligned with God, could that be seen as some sort of non-ordinary state?

RS

Well, I mean, the closer you are to God, the more you are in a prophetic state . . . or a quasi-prophetic state; you’re inspired. And prophecy is a syndrome, so to speak. I mean, it’s got phenomenology. There are emotions, feelings, somatic effects, and perceptual effects. But it isn’t the state that’s the most important. It’s the information that you can extract from the state: the soul of prophecy is the message, the information. The information is verbal, and that’s why we need a text. And the fundamental text is the Tanakh.

MM

Well, I just want to say that I really appreciate your perspective. I think the rigor of having to stick to the text is actually necessary. And that’s something that has really bothered me in spiritual movements, especially growing up in a community where people straddled various religions (like Hinduism and Judaism) that they didn’t actually know that much about. There’s no rigor, there’s no groundedness, there’s no ethical code even, because no one’s reading the text. And the effects of that can be quite dangerous.

RS

That’s the danger of the mystical-unitive state—you are free to make it up as you go along. You can have this wordless white light, and you can come down and say, “Oh, what that means is . . .” as opposed to God speaking to you and saying, “Love your fellow as yourself,” or, “You shall surely reprove your fellow so you don’t bear a sin because of him.”12 That’s information attained in a prophetic state, which is quite everyday, quite concrete.

There are three baskets to Buddhism. There are the sutras, which are the discourses of the Buddha. Then there’s the abhidharma, which is composed of the psychological principles, techniques, and structures. But the third one is vinaya, which holds the discipline, the ethics, like how you relate to each other on a day-to-day basis. And who studies vinaya these days, other than the forest monks? So I think that skipping straight to a big experience is now taking precedence, rather than feeling any responsibility to the larger world. Prophets in Tanakh often suffer at the hands of, and for the sake of, the community. They don’t seek prophecy for themselves or for its own sake.

MM

 Okay, so to be thorough, is there anything we didn’t talk about that you want to add?

RS

I have a new book out, The Psychedelic Handbook, published by Ulysses Press. It’s a short textbook with practical advice on how to trip. I unpack many of the glossed-over problems with psychedelics. For example, be careful. Be careful who you trip with. Be careful of the dose. If you start having problems, you should get help. I critique the psychedelic newspeak coming out of research centers and diffusing out into the larger culture. Don’t throw away your ability to discern when you’re entering into this world. I’m hoping the book will provide a useful response to the glorification of psychedelics that minimizes their adverse effects.

Right now, we’re talking about them within the Jewish fold. These drugs might be having adverse effects on God’s aim for the Jews. Psychedelics might turn out to be some kind of weird detour. I think you need to keep an open mind. You have to be skeptical.

MM

Well, what I’ve heard a lot of people say is that once they take a psychedelic, they’re like, “Oh, now I get what the Baal Shem Tov was talking about.” But that’s just the Baal Shem Tov, right? Not Judaism as a whole, but the Hasidic take on Judaism. Still, in my reporting over the years, I’ve seen the many positive effects of psychedelics on the practice of Judaism and on Jewish people, rather than psychedelics necessarily changing the religion into some sort of pseudo-neo-Jew-ish cult that is different from Tanakh or basic halacha. But I do hear and understand your concerns. Especially having grown up in a “HinJew” community where people would pick and choose which elements of Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism they wanted to practice—with very little grounding in the actual traditions—I can appreciate why you might want to push back on a certain kind of cultish pseudo-religiosity. Truthfully, in my experience, I’ve seen the benefits and drawbacks of both rigorous adherence to normative tradition and a more free and inventive approach to religion.

In any case, I want to thank you and say how refreshing it was to hear your take on psychedelics and Judaism—it was more sobering than I was expecting.

Footnotes

  1. See Numbers 6:3 and 28:7.
  2. Daniel 7:9–7:10.
  3. Zechariah 1:8–4:3.
  4. Zechariah 4:4–4:5.
  5. Ezekiel 1:4–1:8.
  6. Jon G. Dean et al., “Biosynthesis and Extracellular Concentrations of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in Mammalian Brain,” Scientific Reports 9, no. 9333 (2019).
  7. A secluded form of personal prayer in which the practitioner speaks freely to/with God in their own language, with their own words, about their life and dreams and struggles.
  8. Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, trans. M. Friedländer (1190; repr., London: George Routledge & Sons Ltd., 1919), 241–245.
  9. Deuteronomy 13:2–13:4.
  10. Zechariah 14:9.
  11. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a class of antidepressants, including Prozac, Zoloft, etc.
  12. Leviticus 19:17.

Rick Strassman is a renowned psychedelic researcher. In the early 1990s, Strassman was the first person in twenty years to receive FDA and DEA approval to study psychedelics—DMT and psilocybin—in humans. A pioneer in the field, he has since written several books on the matter, including DMT: The Spirit Molecule, DMT and the Soul of Prophecy, and his newest book, The Psychedelic Handbook: A Practical Guide to Psilocybin, LSD, Ketamine, MDMA, and DMT/Ayahuasca. Having published more than forty peer-reviewed scientific papers and served as a reviewer for twenty psychiatric research journals, Strassman has also consulted for the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Veterans Administration Hospitals, and other government agencies, as well as for psychedelic start-ups like the Noetic Fund. A member of the Scientific Advisory Board for the Alexander Shulgin Research Institute, Strassman is also currently an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. Learn more about his work here.

Madison Margolin is a journalist covering psychedelics, cannabis, spirituality, and Jewish life. She is the cofounder of DoubleBlind Magazine and has written for publications like Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Vice, among others. Also a cofounder of the Jewish Psychedelic Summit and host of the Set & Setting podcast on the Be Here Now Network, Madison has traveled from cannabis farms in Northern California to underground ceremonies in Brooklyn to the shores of the Ganges River and all over Israel|Palestine, reporting on the role of entheogens in religion, culture, and healing. Find out more about her work here, or follow her on social media.