August 25, 2023

The New Rebbe: On Plants as Teachers

By Ariel Hendelman

Artwork by Jessica Tamar Deutsch

This piece is featured in our new zine, Indwelling: A Sukkot Companion, available to order in print and digital now!

Etymologically, the word psychedelic is a composite of two Greek words: psyche (meaning soul, mind, or spirit) and delos (meaning clear or manifest). On one foot: Psychedelics surface and clarify the inner machinations of our psyche. From this perspective, it seems fairly peshat (literal/contextual) to say that, at its root—Chassidus is psychedelic. The Baal Shem Tov, who catalyzed the Chassidic movement, encouraged his followers to sing, dance, pray with the whole body, and commune directly with the Divine, preferably while out in nature. This eruption of contemplative and ecstatic devotion was radical in the 1700s, introducing new forms of spiritual practice, leadership, and guidance as aspiring chassidim were now journeying to their Rebbe instead of their Rosh Yeshiva, and prayer could happen on the side of the road just as easily as in the synagogue. In its most idealized form, Chassidus sought to provide a direct mystical experience to the (mostly male) masses—something that provoked heavy pushback in its early days. Many Jewish community leaders and members were frightened by early Chassidism’s feral energy and its seeming inversion of traditional values that initially privileged prayer over learning and existential authenticity over rote observance. But eventually, as all fringe movements do, the Chassidic renaissance was normalized, neutralized, and absorbed into mainstream Jewish culture, leaving the proverbial midbar (wilderness) free to wander for those who are so called.

In our times, an emergent plant medicine movement, like the Chassidism of old, offers new containers for healing, ritual, and spiritual experience, beckoning mainstream society toward expanded states of consciousness and new perceptions of reality. The “Decriminalize Nature” measures sweeping the country have lifted the prohibition of entheogenic plants in dozens of localities, while magic mushrooms, ayahuasca, cannabis, and other plant medicines are gradually gaining increased appreciation and legitimacy in the mainstream eye as tools for profound healing and spiritual experience. Both the Chassidic and the plant medicine ethos encourage an unmediated and highly intimate relationship with the Creator, and seek to make the prophetic state, or at least the mystical state, more accessible to more people. Indeed, this ecstatic exaltation and direct experience of unmediated mysticism is often at the core of what many fringe chassidim are intimating when they say during interviews on the topic, “not until I tried psychedelics did I truly get what the Baal Shem Tov was talking about.”

While the more magical practices of the early chassidim may be unfamiliar to many contemporary Jews—like the utilization of healing amulets, the recitation of Divine names, or going into meditative trance states—communing with nature and learning the language of the plants is something that any entheogenic explorer can connect to, and has likely experienced first hand. Activating the homeopathic power of herbs and the healing potential of what grows from the soil is a natural offshoot of the “plant medicine movement,” as contemporary psychonauts may refer to it. Entheogens may function as gateway plants, opening up those who use them to a more embodied perspective or lifestyle that honors and learns from all forms of creation as expressions of the Creator.

While so many people today are seeking out spiritual insight and experience in a time of shifting paradigms, climate crisis, and alienation from the natural world, plant medicine may offer an integral perspective about the nature of reconnection, and reconnection to nature. And the fact that so many Jews, from Richard Alpert (a.k.a. Ram Dass) to Michael Pollan, have been directly involved with the legitimization of the healing power of psychedelics is no coincidence. It may even be a gilgul, or reincarnation, of a new kind of Chassidism—and a whole new kind of Rebbe.

But when we’re talking about the emergent neo-Chassidic renaissance of plant medicine, just who is this new Rebbe? Might the cactus or the mushroom or the vine or the herb itself have taken on the role of spiritual sage, initiator into Mystery, and grounded guide aligned with Source? And might the Chassidic courts have morphed into the sacred medicine ceremonies where seekers come in droves to gather around and share in ecstatic, prayerful devotion— where the “I” falls away and the collective “eye” is flung open?

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (affectionately known as Reb Zalman), founder of the Jewish Renewal movement and Chassidic entheogenic explorer par excellence, believed that the new Rebbe of the “Fourth Turning,” as he called it, needed to embody “function over identity.” That is, the character of the Rebbe should lie not in the quantity of their charisma, but rather in the quality of their calling.

“The Rebbe does not so much act as an intermediary between a person and God, but rather merges himself with the person and the Infinite One. The chassid makes the momentous decisions for himself,” Reb Zalman writes in Geologist of the Soul. “The Rebbe helps the chassid to bear the shock of sharing the experience of cosmic consciousness; the complete and yet dynamic oneness of the All. The chassid knows the function of being helped, while the function of God is to be the unmoved source of the energies. The function of the Rebbe is to be the one who re-members . . . who so polarizes the chassid, that he will be at the service of God.”

Artwork by Jessica Tamar Deutsch

This new chassid/Rebbe dynamic is found nowhere more clearly than in the plant medicine journey, where the plant medicine participant is brought panim el panim (face to face) with the inescapable truth that duality is a phenomenological parlor trick; that in fact, all of creation is breathing in harmony and conspiring to re-member wholeness. Like a tzadik whose will is aligned with the Source of Creation because their ego is out of the way, a plant—totally devoid of ego—represents the direct will of its Creator. But that’s only the foundation of the plant’s role as Rebbe, because in its function as initiator, the plant grants its chassid access to a newfound, expanded consciousness.

Rabbi Art Green wrote about the parallels between mysticism and psychedelic experience in his 1968 article, “Notes from the Jewish Underground” (originally published under the pseudonym, Itzik Lodzer): 

“In a psychedelic experience, the “I” can somehow stand aside and watch the “me” at play. The “I” who watches is liberated from the context of the “me” who acts. I no longer think that anything is “real” down there on stage, but I feel truly awed by the artistry of it all . . . The mystic must learn to balance between two standpoints—in order for down consciousness [italics mine] to function, this world (including time, space, selfhood, etc.) must be seen as real, but seen from the beyond, these are all aspects of the same illusion. Assuming that Jewish mystic literature embodies real inner experience, not just a body of empty theosophic doctrine, then they [the rabbis] knew this, just as the psychonaut knows it. The point with both mysticism and plant medicine is that one can come to see the world as it is viewed from above . . . ”

Paradoxically, this “view from above,” as Art Green called it, to which psychedelic plants grant access, connects us more deeply with the world below. By ingesting something that grows from the ground, we ascend the higher realms where we are shown the ultimate truth that the Creator is to be found within creation itself. Like the Chasidic story of the man who dreams of a treasure buried beneath a bridge in a faraway city, only to learn at the end of his long journey that in reality the treasure is hidden under the stove back in his very own kitchen, psychedelic plant medicines open our eyes to the sobering fact that “truth springs from the earth” (Psalms 85:12). 

At a time when psychedelics are permeating almost every segment of society—from medical to economic to legal to cultural to spiritual—and with so many anecdotally and clinically documented reports of people having the kinds of mystical experiences once relegated to the religious literature of yesteryear, it is not surprising that so many seekers across various backgrounds and denominations are engaging in the plant-based spiritual diet. Understandably, as a new social phenomenon proffering direct access to spiritual states and experiences that bypass the normative routes of various hierarchical religious structures, many rabbinic leaders are skeptical or even outright dismissive, insisting that the tried and true path of traditional Jewish observance is the only permissible way to the Divine. Nevertheless, just as Jewish souls in search of depth and transformation used to run to the Chassidic courts, now they are running to small intimate plant medicine circles.

That does not mean that psychedelic plant medicine is a spiritual panacea by any means. Plant medicine is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. It illuminates the path ahead, but one still must do the work of walking that path oneself after the acute effects of the entheogen have worn off. Sitting in yichud (spiritual consultation) with a Rebbe is one thing; internalizing their teaching, making it your own, and living it day to day, is another matter altogether. Plant medicine cannot resolve and heal everything for you. At a certain point, you leave the Rebbe’s physical presence and must commit to cultivating the sparks you have received in your own way. 

In a time when entering mystical consciousness is as easy as drinking a cup of plant medicine brew, we run the risk that plant medicine will be taken for granted. This phenomenon could foster a reliance on the plant as the only way to achieve such spiritual heights, or alternatively, it could lend itself to the trendy pastime of spiritual entertainment. Can the Rebbe that is the plant medicine hold, contain, or protect its chassidim when the situation demands it? Where is the kavod—the respect—that is so necessary in such experiences?

Maybe the answer is hidden in plain sight. Maybe the kavod required to integrate such awesome experiences responsibly is maintaining an awe and reverence for the earth itself, its bounty and wisdom. Plant medicines can invoke an experience and appreciation for just this kind of “organismic” consciousness that Reb Zalman so often talked about, reawakening us to our intrinsic embeddedness in whole systems that are greater than the sum of their parts.

Artwork by Jessica Tamar Deutsch

The epiphany of divinity peeking out at us from behind the veil of the physical world is a basic archetype of spiritual illumination. Kvodo Malei Olam: G/d’s Glory fills the earth (from the “Mussaf Kedushah” said on Shabbat). And who better to communicate such an open secret than the plants themselves? Whether one is a plant medicine practitioner, a psychedelic chassid, a priestess, a farmer, or a poet, the theme is consistent: the greatest illumination is the realization that G/d is, was, and always will be right here. Right now. In front of our eyes. Beneath our feet. On the tip of our tongue. As poet Edna St. Vincent Milay so beautifully wrote of her own moment of embodied illumination: 

The grass, a tip toe at my ear,
Whispering to me I could hear;
I felt the rain’s cool finger tips
Brushed tenderly across my lips,
Laid gently on my sealed sight,
And all at once the heavy night
Fell from my eyes and I could see -
A drenched and dripping apple tree,
A last long line of silver rain,
A sky grown clear and blue again.
And as I looked a quickening gust
Of wind blew up to me and thrust
Into my face a miracle
Of orchard breath, and with the smell -
I know not how such things can be -
I breathed my soul back into me…

About the trees my arms I wound;
Like one gone mad, I hugged the ground;
I raised my quivering arms on high;
I laughed and laughed into the sky,
Til at my throat a strangling sob
Caught fiercely and a great heart-throb
Sent instant tears into my eyes;
O God, I cried, no dark disguise
Can e’er hereafter hide from me
Thy radiant identity!
Thou canst not move across the grass
But my quick eyes will see Thee pass,
Nor speak however silently,
But my hushed voice will answer thee,
I know the path that tells Thy way
Through the cool eve of every day;
God, I can push the grass apart
And lay my finger on Thy heart.

(“Renascence,” 1912)

Amen! L’Eitz Chayyim!

Ariel Hendelman’s writing appears in Double Blind Magazine & the Jerusalem Post, among others. She is a Rabbinic student with the Aleph Ordination Program & the Spiritual Leader of B’nai Or, Jewish Renewal community of Boston. Ariel is a deep believer in the practices of chant & meditation for expanding consciousness. Her debut album, Prayers for Fire & Water, is out on Sept 4th.

Jessica Tamar Deutsch is a New York-based visual artist. She earned her BFA from Parsons, where she created her beloved first book, The Illustrated Pirkei Avot. Deutsch is passionate about creating artworks that renew our relationships with ancient texts, and for years she has created paintings inspired by Nachman’s The Lost Princess. She hopes her visual retelling of the story will open readers to new ways of relating with this beloved fable. Deutsch’s The Lost Princess will be released in early 2024 and is available for preorder here.