Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Was Cannabis an ingredient in the holy anointing oil described in Exodus?

Jane Marcus, a leader among American Jewish women, has written about the portion of the Torah that was read in services last week. She is only the most recent of many to argue that the King James Bible's translation of Exodus 30:22-33 is wrong and does not make sense. Jane cites some careful scholarship.

I have always been skeptical of many of the claims about Cannabis. The plant and its uses are surrounded in urban legend as well as charlatans. Many people want to believe anything that contradicts the official demonization of Cannabis. About 20 years ago, after I purchased several cartons of hemp paper from Paul Stanford that turned out to not have been made of hemp, I used to joke that the wings of the Wright Brothers' first airplane were made of 100% genuine Stanford hemp fiber. And, not only did George Washington grow hemp at Mt. Vernon, our one dollar bills are printed on 100% genuine Stanford hemp paper, etc. ("That's the ticket!")

Complicating this question, we know that many plants, like many fish, have a variety of names; and that a single name may be applied to a variety of plants or fish. I think it requires a high degree of scholarship to determine accurately and conclusively what plant was being named in a 3400 year old text, assuming that Moses wrote this section of Exodus.

It is also the case that when it comes to religion generally, folks -- both well-meaning and not -- make claims that challenge reason and common sense. Claims of all kind are grounded in various phrases of the Bible. This is not one of those kinds of claims. Indeed, it is quite plausible that the holy oil described in Exodus used Cannabis as an ingredient. We know that oil from hemp seed is a wonderfully versatile and nutritious oil. Extracting cannabinoids from the leaves and buds of Cannabis by including them as an ingredient in an oil would produce a medicinally and psychoactively useful material. But the plausibility of this claim does not make it true as a historical matter.

Of course, religious claims do not require historical confirmation to be religiously valid and accepted as true, and to be granted recognition by courts and society.

I hope that many religious scholars and observant Jews conclude that Cannabis was one of the four ingredients of the holy anoiting oil of Exodus, and that they resume using it in their ritual activities. I would like to see more Cannabis being grown and processed under the protection of the Free Exercise of Religion.

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