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Magic mushrooms are all the rage. But are they Jewish?

Rabbi Ben Gorelick prepares food for a Sacred Tribe community dinner at his home in Denver.
Rabbi Ben Gorelick prepares food for a Sacred Tribe community dinner at his home in Denver. Photograph: Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Images/DP

On 10 January, just as the sun was setting behind the Rocky Mountains, uniformed narcotics officers raided an industrial storage facility in Denver’s north end, in a commercial strip between a coffee wholesaler and a plumbing supply store. There, they found scales, petri dishes, grow tents and multiple white miniature freezer units, jam-packed with several pounds of magic mushrooms.

The facility was linked to Benjamin Gorelick, a rabbi who leads the Sacred Tribe, a multi-faith membership-based non-profit, which Gorelick calls a “synagogue”. The Sacred Tribe counts about 270 members and Jewishness is not a precondition of membership. (According to its website, they even welcome “rascally atheists”.) The Sacred Tribe celebrates the Jewish high holidays, hosts breath-work seminars, and routinely congregates for a “sacred sacrament”, in which the mushrooms feature.

Gorelick, 43, was raised Jewish, in New Mexico. He left the south-west (and religion) behind in his late teens, decamping to Alaska to teach mountaineering. In the mountains, he reconnected with his spirituality. He sought a deeper connection to his community and to God. In 2018, he began rabbinical training. He was ordained in 2019. In photos, Gorelick sports a spiky blue mohawk hairdo, bisecting his skull like a punk rock dorsal fin. His fingernails are painted sparkly silver and black. Definitely – and, one gets the sense, rather deliberately – not your bubbie’s rabbi.

While training, Gorelick also had his first psychedelic experience. “That was the first time when I felt, in my body, God and oneness,” he tells the Guardian, speaking from his home in Broomfield, Colorado, about 15 miles north of Denver. The Sacred Tribe is his way of facilitating such experiences with others. The group is donations-based, and he maintains that 90% of its members have never given him so much as “a thin penny” for anything, including access to psychedelic drugs.

Gorelick (who asks to be called “Rabbi Ben”) has been charged with felony possession of a Schedule I controlled substance with intent to distribute. The Denver district attorney sees him as a narcotics manufacturer. Rabbi Ben insists that his sacraments are (or ought to be) protected by the first amendment’s religious protections. At an upcoming court hearing this Monday, he faces a minimum of eight and maximum of 32 years in state prison. “We didn’t commit a crime,” Gorelick insists. “This is part of 2,300 years of Judaism.”

Sacred Tribe attendees stretch out during a breath work exercise after most took the sacrament, psilocybin mushrooms, at a Sacrament ceremony.
Sacred Tribe attendees stretch out during a breath work exercise after most took the sacrament, psilocybin mushrooms, at a sacrament ceremony. Photograph: Andy Cross/Denver Post

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In the US, religious groups have secured the right to use psychedelic drugs, under the first amendment’s protection of religious freedom. A unanimous 2006 supreme court ruled that a New Mexican Christian church, the União do Vegetal (UDV), could legally host ceremonies featuring DMT-containing ayahuasca. In How To Change Your Mind, his bestselling 2018 chronicle of the current “psychedelic renaissance”, Michael Pollan called the ruling a “watershed event”. It made crystal clear that the government was in no position to impinge on “sincere exercise of religion”.

“He’s practicing in the lane of what seems like sincere religious belief to me,” says Danny Peterson, a DC-based attorney advising on Gorelick’s case. “The question is not whether Ben’s actions constitute violations of controlled substance laws. They do. The question is: is the government committing a new crime by enforcing these laws against him? And they are.”

Gorelick’s fellow travelers seem similarly sincere. Yehuda, 24, flew to Denver to partake in the Sacred Tribe’s psychedelic sacraments. (“Yehuda” is a pseudonym.) He was raised Jewish and had nurtured an interest in Jewish mysticism, including the Kabbalah. He had never taken a psychedelic before congregating with Gorelick and other members of the Sacred Tribe. “The reason that I was motivated to do it,” he says, “was because it was being done as a Jewish religious ceremony.”

Some of the Tribe’s members are more Kabbalah-curious. Sofia (also a pseudonym), 33, identifies as culturally Lutheran and theologically Unitarian, and works at a multi-faith community center. She, too, was attracted to Gorelick’s exploration of the Kabbalah by psychedelic means. She sees Gorelick’s psychedelic exploration as falling squarely within the first amendment’s religious protections. She drank wine when she was 10, at her first communion – a Christian sacrament that contravenes drinking age laws. “I see that as very analogous,” she says.

Rabbi Ben Gorelick talks to folks at a Sacred Tribe community dinner at the Synagogue, his home.
Rabbi Ben Gorelick talks to folks at a Sacred Tribe community dinner at the Synagogue, his home. Photograph: Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Images/DP

Some outside of Gorelick’s direct orbit wince at the idea that psychedelic drugs are part of some age-old Jewish practice. “It’s just not the case,” says Rick Strassman, research pharmacologist and author of DMT and the Soul of Prophecy. “The only intoxicants mentioned specifically in the Hebrew Bible are strong wine and liquor. That’s it.”

Still, the entwined histories of psychedelia and Judaism run wild with speculation. Strassman’s own research compares biblical mysticism to psychedelic states. He theorizes that certain prophetic visions – like Ezekiel’s description of a many-faced cherub, its wings bedecked with whirligig wheels – are attributable to endogenous DMT, produced naturally in the human body. Others theorize that the burning bush, which commanded Moses to liberate the Israelites from Egypt, was made of acacia, a DMT-containing shrub. Still others wonder how Moses could have inhaled enough vaporized acacia to trip out, without dying of asphyxiation.

Rabbi Ben Gorelick measures out a precise amount of sacrament during Sacred Tribe Sacrament ceremony.
Rabbi Ben Gorelick measures out a precise amount of sacrament during Sacred Tribe Sacrament ceremony. Photograph: Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Images/DP

On a Facebook page for the Jewish Entheogenic Society, a discussion group organized by the Bay Area rabbi Zac Kamenetz, some question Gorelick’s interpretation of Jewish texts and their validity. Even in a religion as decentralized and diverse as Judaism, Gorelick’s approach seems non-doctrinaire. “There are many, many paths,” Kamenetz says. “But for the past 2,000 years, we’ve liked to show our sources.”

The American community of Jewish psychedelic enthusiasts is pretty tight-knit. And Gorelick had, until recently, a minimal presence in that community. Natalie Ginsberg, a policy lead at the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (Maps) and co-founder of the Jewish Psychedelics Summit, had never heard of Rabbi Benjamin Gorelick until his arrest. “I was a bit surprised,” she says, “That I had never come into contact, or heard from him, or worked with him.”

Gorelick’s arrest has thrust him into the spotlight. He has retained Grasslands, a Denver-based cannabis marketing agency, to manage his communications. He’s set up online petitions and crowdfunding campaigns. He’s being positioned as “the Mushroom Rabbi”: a victim of religious persecution and a spokesperson for Jewish psychedelia. A GoFundMe to “Help R Ben Defend Religious Use of Psychedelics” says that the Sacred Tribe’s “regular operations” have been put on hold, a claim which is highly suspect. Yehuda, for one, took part in a psychedelic sacrament in March, after the grow-up raid. Gorelick clarifies that ceremonies have not stopped. But membership, and active participation, has declined.

Gorelick’s legal team does not seem bothered by his image as a newcomer, or even a bit of a pariah, in the Jewish psychedelic community. “His version of certain rituals isn’t really relevant to the legal question,” Peterson maintains. “It doesn’t matter if people don’t like the way he talks about it. Or his haircut.”

But nobody is grousing about Gorelick’s hairdo. His credentials bear more serious scrutiny. Gorelick trained at the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute, a one-year, online “cyber-synagogue”, whose graduates are not recognized by many major organizations, such as Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). In an email statement, a spokesperson for the CCAR says, “The depth and breadth of a rigorous rabbinic education is not possible in just a year.”

Sidestepping more traditional, Torah-based teachings, Gorelick’s interests are almost purely mystical, and Kabbalistic. Called “a mysterious and sacred science” by the 19th-century French-Jewish philosopher Adolphe Franck, Kabbalah was long regarded as an advanced course of study, undertaken only by those with an exhaustive knowledge of the Torah. Kabbalah was revived in America in the 1960s, alongside the first wave of psychedelia, and the reignited western interest in Buddhism, Hinduism, occultism and emerging “New Age” practices.

In 1968, theologian Arthur Green pseudonymously published Notes From The Jewish Underground: Psychedelics and Kabbalah, which analyzed “the awesome implications of drug use for religious thinking”. More recently, clinicians at Johns Hopkins and NYU have put Green’s heady thesis to the test. In 2017, they dosed two dozen clergy (including rabbis) with psilocybin. They were studying the relationship between psychedelics and mystical experiences, which, according to veteran Hopkins researcher Bill Richards, “seem to be at the origin of most religions”. Still, in such studies psychedelics are seen as a chemical precursor to experiences that were traditionally spurred by periods of intense meditation, fasting and prayer – a spiritual catalyst, or performance-enhancing drug.

Rabbi Ben Gorelick, measuring psilocybin mushrooms, the Sacred Tribe’s sacrament, for a Sacrament ceremony.
Rabbi Ben Gorelick, measuring psilocybin mushrooms, the Sacred Tribe’s sacrament, for the ceremony. Photograph: Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Images/DP

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Given the alleged links between psychedelic use and Jewish mysticism, it’s a bit of a mystery why a challenge like this has not arisen before. Gorelick is candid on this point. He may not be the first rabbi to use psychedelics. But he was the first to get caught. “We always knew someone would come knocking at our door.”

Certainly, such first amendment defenses tend to emerge, well, defensively. The supreme court decision on ayahuasca came after 30 gallons of the psychoactive brew were seized by US customs agents. Historic as such rulings are, some activists regard them as a bit old hat, especially in light of broader decriminalization efforts. “It can be harmful if people are not working in coordination with the bigger movement,” says Maps’ Ginsberg. “Implying that certain use should be protected over other use? That’s where I see problems.”

But Gorelick can seem like a casualty of that existing decriminalization patchwork. In 2019, Denver became the first US city to effectively decriminalize psilocybin. The law itself is a bit peculiar: while the drug remains illegal under federal law, local police were prohibited from allocating resources to prosecute use or possession. Still, selling shrooms remains a felony. Such piecemeal approaches produce legislative inanities: how are people supposed to procure the psychedelic mushrooms, which are permissible to carry and consume?

In November, Coloradans will vote on a ballot measure legalizing psilocybin, while also providing a framework for licensed psychedelic “healing centres”. (A similar measure was successfully passed in Oregon in 2020.) “We are including retroactivity in our measure,” says Kevin Matthews, an activist leading the charge. “Any individual who would not have been in violation of what’s included in the measure, can actually actively petition to have the record sealed.”

So, in a few months, Gorelick’s case could be old news. Yet he’s still pursuing his explicitly religious crusade. “They’re trying to create a secular, medicinal, therapeutic structure with the ballot initiative that’s coming out this fall,” Gorelick says, “But it’s not the place where we’re looking to have protection.”

Gorelick’s team thinks his case and cut-and-dried enough to be reduced to a misdemeanor, or be thrown out of court altogether. He is, as Peterson, Gorelick’s co-counsel, terms it, “a church of one”, even if his credentials or approaches may raise a few eyebrows. Of course, a religious exemption can be opportunistic, even if it’s totally sincere. “Decriminalization, legalization … all these other paths are important,” says Peterson. “But right now, none of those keep Rabbi Benjamin out of prison.”

Those who are working to expand legal psychedelic use for everyone, regardless of faith or affiliation, do not want to see Gorelick imprisoned, even if they take issue with his tactics. “As someone who cares deeply about Jewish psychedelia, I don’t want to see anyone in jail,” Ginsberg says. “I do believe we actually have a history of use.”

***

In early June, I meet up with Gorelick in New York, a few weeks before his court date. Seated on a luxe leather sofa in the lobby of a midtown hotel, his once-defiant mohawk has grown shaggier, tufting out from under a kippah, as if wilting under the pressure of his current legal woes.

He’s in Manhattan, he says, to attend a Shavout dinner with a group of Hasidic Jews. Shavout is a traditional holiday celebrating the harvest, which, in some orthodox circles, also marks the occasion of the Torah’s revelation to Moses. These particular orthodox Hasids – followers of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a 19th-century Kabbalah revivalist – had been conducting their own experiments with psychedelics to explore the faith’s more mystical, further-out dimensions. Gorelick was not there to grace them with audience with the Mushroom Rabbi. He came to learn from them, and their traditions. “I kind of invited myself,” he admits.

Even as others pressure Gorelick to show his work – to point out where in Torah, or in Kabbalah, or anywhere in rabbinic teachings, mind-expanding drugs are justified, or even explicitly mentioned – he’s confident in his legal standing and in the future of Jewish psychedelia. “By showing people what is possible in the psychedelic space,” he explains, “it makes it more conceivable to achieve these insights in daily life.”