Does Jewish law (Halacha) permit the use of medical? Yes. At the very least, a
strong argument can be made that it does. Whether governments should permit the
use of marijuana for medical purposes is another question. The answer to that
question depends upon a complex of factors to which Halacha doesn’t speak with
precision. But should any community decide to legalize marijuana as a treatment
for pain under appropriate medical supervision, that decision would find strong
support from the sources of Jewish law.
I base this conclusion, first and
foremost, on the fundamental Jewish teaching that the practice of medicine
(refuah) is a mitzva, the fulfillment of a religious duty. The Torah does not
explicitly command us to engage in the practice of medicine (though it assumes
that we do; see Exodus 21:19). But the rabbis of old derived such a duty from
several scriptural sources.
Perhaps the most well-known is Leviticus
18:5: “You shall keep My statutes and laws, by the pursuit of which a person
shall live.” To this, the rabbis add (Talmud, Yoma 85b and elsewhere): “and not
die” – that is, one is not obligated to fulfill the “statutes and laws” of the
Torah when doing so would place one’s life in danger.
From here, the
rabbis learn the overriding mitzva of pikuach nefesh, the preservation of human
life, a duty that takes precedence over virtually all other mitzvot.
Mishnah (Yoma 8:5) provides an example: the Yom Kippur fast is suspended when
“experts,” presumably physicians, declare that such is a medical
On the basis of such examples, the great medieval halachic
authority R. Moshe b. Nachman (Nachmanides, in his Sefer Torat Ha’adam)
concludes that the practice of medicine is an instance of the mitzva of pikuach
nefesh, and his conclusion is repeated in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah
336:1), the preeminent code of Halacha.
If the practice of medicine is a
mitzva, it would follow that any drug, surgery, or other procedure deemed by
“experts” to be medically efficacious is an element of this mitzva and is
This permit covers measures considered “dangerous”
in other contexts.
We find a clear statement of this principle in a
decision by Rabbi Eliezer Yehudah Waldenberg, published in 1977 in his responsa
collection Tzitz Eliezer (vol. 13, no. 87).
Waldenberg, a noted Orthodox
rabbinical specialist in medical Halacha, rules that Jewish law permits the
administration of heavy doses of morphine as a palliative for severe pain. The
relief of pain, he notes, is in and of itself a legitimate medical objective, a
goal that can justify the use of controlled substances in dosages that might
carry the risk of life-shortening consequences, provided that the goal of
treatment is not to shorten the patient’s life but to alleviate his or her
True, Waldenberg’s decision speaks directly to the case of a
terminally ill patient, where the only medical objective is the relief of pain.
Importantly, though, he does not limit his permit to such cases, and his
position is clear: “the undertaking of measures by a physician aimed at reducing
suffering falls under the category of ‘medicine.’” If it is permissible under
Jewish law for doctors to administer morphine – an addictive drug with
potentially deadly side effects – in order to alleviate pain, I can’t see why
medical marijuana, which is arguably much less dangerous to the patient, is not
If, in the opinion of medical experts, marijuana is
a useful and effective palliative for pain, and especially if it is more
effective for certain patients than other available remedies, Halacha would
sanction its use for medical purposes.
The three-fold appearance of the
word “if” in that last paragraph should signal an important caveat.
halachic permit for the use of medical marijuana depends upon the development of
a consensus among the community of medical science that marijuana is a useful
treatment for pain and that, in some cases, it is as good or better than the
That, an act of professional judgment by
competent practitioners, is not a decision that rabbis can make.
when those practitioners do arrive at such a consensus, then Halacha would
accept marijuana, like morphine and other drugs, as “medicine,” an acceptable
measure undertaken in service to a legitimate medical objective.
final point: a community may have reasons of a non-medical nature to forbid the
use of certain potentially useful substances for medical purposes. This is
particularly the case with marijuana, which has long been banned along with
other “illicit” drugs in many jurisdictions. Decisions of this sort lie within
the halachicly recognized authority of the state (dina d’malkuta), and it is not
for me as a rabbi to declare whether any state or community ought to outlaw
marijuana or to legalize it.
What I can say, however, is this: if the
medical community determines that marijuana is an effective and indicated
treatment for pain, Jewish law raises no barriers to its use for palliative
From an halachic perspective, the burden would rest upon the
civil authorities to show why the medical use of marijuana should continue to be
The author is a rabbi and a professor of Jewish law and practice
at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio,
and chairs the Committee on Responsa of the Central Conference of American