Sunday 28 January 2024

458) Why is Judaism no longer sufficient - again?


I always wonder why some religious people, besides their wonderful virtues, often fall for vices. In a previous article, we looked at the question of smoking and Halacha [see Kotzk Blog: 069) Cigarettes and Halacha Don't Mix:]. I concluded that article by suggesting that we also need to address the incidence of drinking alcohol which is quite endemic in many communities. Alcohol is ubiquitously accepted as the norm, sometimes to the extent that it is abused. Some battle to get home after shul on Shabbat mornings. 

Sadly, it now seems another scourge is sweeping through our religious communities and that is the use of drugs and other substances, of course, presented in more acceptable terms like psychedelics, mood enhancers and the like. 

Some rabbis I know turn a blind eye; some ‘understand’ the value of these substances but refrain; and others participate. Today, you can go to a pre-Shabbos ruach (spirit) session, to prepare for the onset of the holiness of the day. Music will be provided but you must “bring your own mood enhancers.” You can even go to talks where speakers will try convince you that hallucinogenics are an integral, de facto part of Halachic Judaism as if they were just another of the mitzvot Jews are required to do “to get close to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.” I often hear it presented through the lens of technical Chassidic terminology. And, so I’ve been told, “every professor today” is researching and endorsing the benefits of these substances (this from religious people who don’t usually like what professors say). 

The problem is that, in the past, drinking in shul was usually the proclivity of the men, but now women also want to be inspired and uplifted like the men-folk and, while reciting Tehillim, “experience what the psalmist is really saying.[1] Today, gummies are often passed around the other side of the mechitzah as well, as substances become egalitarian. At a Bar Mitzvah celebration, one mother was not sure how she arrived or how she was going to get home to her family. In another case, someone was given substances at a shul Kiddush without knowing what it was and landed up in the care of paramedics. 

These are all people who are religious and many have been brought up in religious families so we can’t blame it on the outside influences of Baalei Teshuva. When I hear of such events, I always wonder what is wrong with Judaism that it needs to be enhanced by drink and substances. Where does this emphasis on the need for artificial, automatic, non-internalised and intense “experiential” Judaism come from? We have the Torah, we have Halacha, a huge literature and many good rabbis. Why is this not enough? Why do we need to stoop to the level of common folk who don’t have Torah, and who are looking for shortcuts to experiential nirvana to escape the drudgery of a meaningless life? Has Torah and Judaism stopped working and lost its meaning that it needs to be enhanced? The number of people I know who need to be “enhanced” is astounding and growing as hallucinogenics are becoming the new and improved formulation of Jewish mysticism. 


This article based extensively on the research by PhD Candidate, Samuel Glauber[2] does not deal with hallucinogenics. Instead, it explores Jewish interest in the occult (the supernatural realm) during the early twentieth century. I use Glauber’s article to emphasise my point, that for some reason, Jews often turn to some vogue phenomenon a hundred years ago it was occultism to enhance their need for spiritual experientialism. I am intrigued by why people with such a rich tradition have to turn to such devices. 

Occultism in twentieth-century Jewish Poland

Glauber has studied the paper trail left by Jewish newspapers, a century ago. These newspapers carried a surprisingly large number of advertisements for lectures on theosophy, practical sessions with spiritual mediums, and opportunities to open the soul and mind to past and future experiences. Glauber opens a fascinating window into little-known aspects of Jewish life in Poland before the Holocaust: 

“[T]he sheer number of advertisements found within general-interest newspapers denotes the great popularity of occultism among Jews in Eastern Europe in the early-twentieth century” (Glauber 2024:3). 

Jews were looking for “assurance, and the possibility of belief in a higher reality” (Glauber 2024:1-2). However, instead of turning inwards to their tradition, they turned outwards and looked for answers and experientialism in the occult. 

Framing the occult as a science 

Like our modern searchers for the new ‘highs,’ the Jews a century ago also couched the occult in scientific terms: 

“A salient feature of these currents, evident in the advertisements from the Jewish press in Poland considered here, was their attempt to engage hidden dimensions of reality from within the discursive [erratic and deviating] boundaries of modern science…[and they] sought to capitalize on the epistemic [rational][3] authority of modern science” (Glauber 2014:2). 

Ironically, already from the 1860s, members of the Haskalah (Enlightenment movement), who were usually considered the more rational Jews, dabbled in séances, and practised hypnosis and other activities on the authority of ‘science.’ 

Turning outwards, not inwards

Just like their modern counterparts, the searching Jews of the last century did not turn inwards to Judaism because there was a: 

“gradual breakdown of traditional Jewish society and…[instead] occultism appealed as a novel solution to the spiritual crisis of modernity” (Glauber 2024:3). 


Another parallel between then and now was the role of Kabbalah. Like hallucinogenics becoming the new mysticism for today a century ago, Jews connected occultism with Kabbalah:

“Kabbalah…was highly esteemed in many occult circles, particularly among followers of the Theosophical Society, and several well-known early-twentieth-century Polish occultists sought out Jewish instructors to teach them Kabbalah” (Glauber 2024:3). 

Madam Sztumachina

Corresponding to aspects of contemporary culture where proponents of psychedelics give lectures, produce literature and become professional therapists and healers, a hundred years ago there were also: 

“occult professionals and healers…and lectures, and occult literature” (Glauber 2024:4). 

Psychedelics, so we are told, are not drugs. Similarly, a hundred years ago, the famed graphologist[4] and physiognomist Madam Sztumachina took pains to show that her art was not a superstition. It was far more sophisticated: 

“[T]he advertisement concludes with a reminder to the public that the Madam’s séances have no relation to tarot card reading or palmistry, both traditional mantic arts. The text of the advertisement thus differentiates her modern occult specialty, graphology, from traditional divinatory practices” (Glauber 2024:5). 

Thus, by labelling her essentially occultist practices as ‘scientific graphology,’ she was able to allow her followers to persist in their belief that they were on the cutting edge of a new scientific development. Through the Madam’s careful wording, they could therefore engage in occultist practices “without impinging upon the practitioner’s sense of rationality” (Glauber 2024:5). 

The husband and wife psychic team

One interesting advertisement in Polish and Yiddish newspapers was the Jewish psychic Mister Dżek (whose real name was Yankev Kashenmakher), who claimed he could locate stolen goods. His wife worked with him. Her name was Madam Pitya-Athena (whose real name was Tsivye-Dina Kashenmakher). She was an expert clairvoyant, telepathist, and mind-reader who, if consulted, claimed the advertisement, gave the “best advice.” 

Reb Ber Hirsh Rosenblum

In a 1928 advertisement, Reb Ber Hirsh Rosenblum marketed himself as a graphologist, telepathist, and chiromancer[5] who also could advise on business relationships, lawsuits, love, and illness. He was known as a “hasidic chiromancer” and “telepathist rabbi,” and “assumed the persona of a hasidic wonder-worker from Lwów.” However, because his advertisements appeared mainly in Polish newspapers, it seems his target market was not Chassidim but Christian Poles (Glauber 2024:9). 

According to testimony from someone who knew Reb Rosenblum, most of his clientele actually consisted of Christian domestic workers. He claimed that Reb Rosenblum was:


“A galitsianer ‘rebe’ fun kristlekhe dinstmeydlekh” (Naye folkstsaytung, April 24, 1935, 5). 

The Kabbalist M. Wolk-Lanievsky

In 1932, a Grodner newspaper advertised M. Wolk-Lanievsky, who was also a “famous chiromancer, psycho-astro-graphologist, and kabbalist” (Glauber 2024:6). 

Ilya Federovich Morgenstern

The Russian psycho-graphologist, Ilya Federovich Morgenstern, advertised in the Yiddish paper, haTzefira. He promised his audiences that they would find self-knowledge at his séances, and he reminded his followers that without doubt all his practices we “firmly founded on science” (Glauber 2024:7). 

Chaim Szyller-Szkolnik (1874– 1937)

In 1909, the phreno-graphologist Chaim Szyller-Szkolnik promised his clients they would find their “gaystigen ‘ikh’” (“spiritual ‘I’”). He was quite innovative in that he offered mail-in graphology services as well as astrology services. In addition to all this, he offered his own recipe for a hair-loss remedy. His picture appeared in his advertisements with a notably full head of hair (Glauber 2024:8). 

Szyller-Szkolnik partnered with Wolf Messing (1899-1974) and they offered to democratise the world of the occult. They would teach all people how to penetrate that spiritual realm so that they would not have to be reliant anymore on masters, madams and mediums. They promised that: 

“All of Warsaw will come see how men can also be supermen [ibermenshen]; All of Warsaw will come to marvel at how people can guess each other’s thoughts…All of Warsaw must be convinced of the revealed supernatural power within people….[They] will reveal to people the secret of ‘sorcery’ and bring them to an unknown world” (Glauber 2024:11). 

Oskar Wojnowski (1888–1951)

In 1928, Dr Oskar Wojnowski advertised in a Yiddish newspaper known as Tzeit.  His services and homeopathic remedies included “herbs and healing-grasses” (Glauber 2024:9). 

Boris Petrovich Vysheslavtsev

The exiled Russian philosopher, Boris Petrovich Vysheslavtsev specialised in lectures on topics like “Mysticism and occultism: Christian and Indian mysticism, Theosophy, Anthroposophy” (Glauber 2024:12). 

Shimon David Blaustein of Shargorod

Around 1913, Shimon David Blaustein of Shargorod advertised his new Yiddish book on psycho-spiritual development for readers who suffered from low esteem, entitled Gayst un energye (Spirit and Energy). It claimed to include some of the “foremost psychological and occult theories” (Glauber 2024:15). 

The Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists

In 1931, the Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists advertised a public lecture on Mazdaznan. This is a neo-Zoroastrian movement that encourages a vegetarian diet and teaches breathing exercises. 

The Association also hosted a talk by the writer and spiritualist Shloyme Gilbert (1885–1942). The topic was “Do we live on after death?” He went on to deal with issues such as prophetic sleep and hypnotic sleep. He taught hypnosis, clairvoyance and clairaudience, astral ascent (known among Chassidim as Aliyat haNeshama), spirit materialisations at spiritualist séances and the attitudes of non-Jews and Jews towards practical Kabbalah. 

Jewish Fakirs

A Fakir is a Muslim (sometimes a Hindu) religious ascetic who lives on donations. These Fakirs would give talks and conduct occultic performances, particularly in the 1920s. They claimed to have come from exotic places like Cairo and Tibet. However, many of these so-called Fakirs were, in fact, Jewish and they simply operated under assumed oriental personas. One Jewish Fakir who went by the name Ben Ali, promised to manifest “the appearance of living and deceased people” at precisely midnight. Ben Ali was later arrested in 1934 for sex trafficking. 

The soul rejoicing in the discovery of New Sefirot

The older conceptualisations of the Sefirot or spheres (as we understand them today) which was introduced by the Zohar, took on new meaning in the early twentieth century. Elazar David Finkel (1862-1918) produced the first Hebrew book on telepathy, entitled haHargesha meRachok: Telepatiya. He blended Kabbalistic ideas with claims of scientific authority. Kabbalah then, like psychedelics today, was claimed to be endorsed by modern science (a pre-ambler to “every professor today” is dealing with psychedelics). According to Finkel, his book will “bring readers to new sefirot, to a hidden world, the place where spirits and souls will rejoice and at the same time, it is also “upheld by the authority of the greatest professors, scholars, poets, and learned physicians” (Glauber 2024:13). 

Tsadok-Getsel the savvy early twentieth-century social commentator

Tzadok-Getzel was an early socialite and cultural commentator who knew a thing or two about the societal trends of his times. But he knew more than just fashion and trends because his comments are quite inciteful. He saw that the people were facing a spiritual crisis and he knew this by simply looking at the classified sections of the Jewish newspapers. Tzadok-Getzel asks: 

“[D]o you think that nothing can be learned from the advertisements?... Strange images appear in my advertisements. Black-bearded folk with a deep hidden wisdom in their wide-open eyes. Fakirs? Brahmins? Do you wish to arrive at the true meaning of life? Do you wish to dive into the mysteries of being and non-being? Do you wish to know under which star you were born and what awaits you in the future?” (Glauber 2024:17). 

He subtly responds to his own questions. It's very easy to solve these deep existential issues that have bothered all thinking people since the beginning of time: 

“[Just w]rite to ‘Astral.’ ‘P.O. Box 39.’ 


Glauber has researched a rather unknown but significant part of the Jewish world in Europe during the early twentieth century. The advertisements in Jewish newspapers provide evidence of a spiritual malady and show how it was believed it could be easily cured. Jews were under the spell of occultism in all its various forms. They were desperately searching for some form of spiritual meaning and there was no lack of experts who could fill that mystical void. 

It seems that humans, by their very nature, always go through phases of existential angst. The Kotzker Rebbe teaches that under such conditions, it is best to “remain with the question” (tzu bleib mit der kasha) rather than invent solutions. Solutionism can fix a leaky pipe but cannot mend a searching soul. 

It also seems that occultism was the ‘high’ of the early part of the last century. It was framed as scientific and at the cutting edge of modern research. Are we not now, a century later, entering a new stage of the same phase of spiritual restlessness with our contemporary highs which is also promoted as being at the cutting edge of scientific research? 

Today there is much serious discussion (and implementation) surrounding the "reintegration of acid, ecstasy, and other consciousness-altering drugs into Jewish spiritual life" (see link below).

We have no shortage of contemporary Reb Rosenblums, hallucinogenic rebbelech preaching a new mystical gospel and a doctrine with ‘new Sefirot’…and the people in the pews are from the same profile who fell for occultism, only now they are elevated to temporary highs.  

“In Kabbalah-based Torah, we have our own indigenous template dealing with prophecy, and what my personal and Torah research has shown me as part of our ancient tradition is that, prior to the coming of the Messianic era, one will interpret the phenomenon of ruach hakodesh as one of many modes and levels of prophecy” (Rabbi Joel Bakst, author of The Jerusalem Stone of Consciousness: DMT, Kabbalah, and the Pineal Gland (2013) [See Judaism’s Psychedelic Renaissance - Tablet Magazine].

This research is also described as emanating "from the cutting edge of the brain and mind sciences..."

Another contemporary source discusses (and advertises) the kabbalistic use of psychedelics:

"Practices like breathwork, dancing, prayer, and the use of psychedelics can all help us change our states of awareness.... According to Kabbalah, the physical and spiritual worlds are inextricably linked; as in the proverb 'as above, so below,' what occurs in the material realm has an affect on the spiritual realm and vice versa...The world of Atzilut, Emanation, is the first and highest. Everything is illuminated by the luminosity of Ein Sof, The Infinite Divine. The oneness of all is recognized and made clear in this place. The 'mystical experience,' sometimes known as an encounter with the Divine, has been defined by psychedelic researchers to include this sense of unity or oneness as a crucial element...Psychedelics have the knowledge to work with our restricted awareness and open us back up because of their broad nature... They are our guide in the mystical travel through the Four Worlds. To buy shrooms .... head over to.... now."

And, by the way, its 30% off on the first order.  

What is wrong with Yiddishkeit that it needs to be boosted never mind by alcohol but by mood enhancing and mind-altering substances while the leadership turns a blind eye, at best and, at worst, endorses or sometimes even contributes to this trend?

[1] These quotations are from what I have personally seen and heard.

[2] Glauber, S., 2024, Advertising occultism in the Jewish press in Poland, Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, Taylor & Francis Group, 1-26.

[3] Square brackets are mine.

[4] “Graphology is the analysis of handwriting in an attempt to determine the writer's personality traits. Its methods and conclusions are not supported by scientific evidence, and as such it is considered to be a pseudoscience.” Online source: Retrieved 21 January 2024.

[5] A chiromancer is defined as “the practice of telling what will happen in the future by looking at the lines on the palms of somebody's hands” (Oxford Dictionary). A synonym is palmistry.


  1. This is very interesting. It's like always searching for the latest greatest new restaurant to sample fantastic dishes, when a tasty healthy familiar home cooked meal is often the best solution.

  2. Long time reader, and enjoy your post.

    This is not a new topic. I think it is fascinating that you left out, from the Talmud, the hundreds of recipes for various spiritual maladies. The Talmud has a long history of interacting with e.g Shedim and eating weird special plants etc. Many argue that Reuvans' Mandrakes were psychoactive, and that Yakkov consumed them for their fertility enhancing effects. Many of the Ketoret (even if not cannabis), were added to wine and were used as medicinal products; some were psychoactive without a doubt.

    Which is the central issue. Drugs, used in the colloquial sense as a psychoactive, also have medicinal properties. It has always been so. Parsing them apart is futile. (Just read today that many of the common drugs mentioned above, are unknowingly used as parasite control; toxic to those small parasites that invade).

    The fact seems to be, that drugs are part of human life, regardless of religion. And they will be with us for the long haul. These plants and fungi you mention, is simply not capable of being regulated, as we have seen in the U.S. and abroad (in fact, many of our evil enemies use the anti-drug laws to finance great atrocities). Which is probably the reason why the Torah and our Talmudic sages, even having extensive knowledge of various plants and botany, fail to truly lay down any principles. This omission is glaring to me.

    In the end, G-d wants the heart. I believe, that other than the famous evil narcotics (and even that is used in hospitals), using substances to further a healthy psychological life, is commendable. Certainty, if it is used within health boundaries, and used to bring people together in service of G-d's intention, it is useful. Critics are also necessary, to help fence-up proper methods and guard from evil.