Interviews

Magic Mushroom Rabbi Unfazed After Arrest, Believes Psychedelics Are a Religious Right

The Sacred Tribe follows a Kabbalah-centered form of Judaism that includes psychedelics.
The Sacred Tribe follows a Kabbalah-centered form of Judaism that includes psychedelics. Flickr/daanibaer
Rabbi Ben Gorelick seems way too calm and cheerful to have a felony drug charge hanging over him. The founder of Sacred Tribe, an underground psychedelic synagogue that's not so underground anymore, Gorelick turned himself in to police in January after his Denver warehouse was raided; he's currently trying to gain a religious exemption as he fights a charge of possession with intent to manufacture or distribute a controlled substance.

Gorelick has become a face of religious psychedelic use in Colorado, arguing on behalf of his synagogue's right to include mushrooms as part of its sacrament. On top of breath work, ecstatic sound, movement and self-immersion, his Kabbalah-centered faith has included mushrooms in ceremonies for thousands of years, he argues.

He's not hating on Grateful Dead shows or the rising popularity of psychedelic-based medical treatment, but Gorelick worries that people could forget the religious space for psychedelics as legalization movements spread in states like Colorado, where such a ballot initiative could be voted on this November.
In fact, he seems much more concerned with that than with his current legal case, which is still playing out in Denver District Court.

"Nobody is coming here just for mushrooms. It's more expensive and a bigger pain in the ass here," he says. "They're not hard to get ahold of, nor are religious organizations hard to find."

We sat down with Gorelick to learn more about Sacred Tribe, as well as his psychedelic sacraments and current fight to gain a religious exemption to use and administer mushrooms in Colorado.

Westword: What made you want to become a rabbi?

Rabbi Ben Gorelick: I graduated from college with science and engineering degrees, mostly never used them, and became a mountain guide. I started a four-year college for mountain guides with my now ex-wife and ran that for twelve years. Our college basically took people into the mountains for four years to figure out technical skills, and they learned how to climb, sky or mountaineer well enough to become a guide.

It was, functionally, a religious curriculum based on Kabbalah. Judaism and Kabbalah have a process called mussar, which is a kind of interrogative, self-awareness process. I skinned that as a secular process and brought it in to the school. We ended up partnering with the Federal Aviation Administration, and some of what we did became widely adopted in a few industries with high-pressure situations. For example, pilots might know how to fly a plane, but how will they react when they're under stress? A lot of it was a re-skinning of this thousands-year-old religious process, mussar. When our curriculum was adopted in 2014 by a number of guiding industries, I started taking people out to the mountains to break them down physically and build them back up mentally and emotionally. It was sort of like what the military does, which wasn't what I wanted this religious, spiritual practice to look like. So I sold my school and then went to rabbi school.

I thought rabbi school was a good way to build community and connections, but it's not. Rabbi school is law school for 4,000-year-old laws, and the school I went to was about debating how to interpret 4,000-year-old laws in modern times. That's not what I was into.

Is that when you started learning about psychedelics and mushrooms?

About halfway through rabbi school, I really discovered the heart of Kabbalah, which is a deep exploration of feelings and states. You want to feel all of your emotions as deeply as possible. That is our purpose in the world, and it's not more deep or complicated than that. Just feel exactly how you are, without guilt, shame or remorse, and do it in a space of community. If you're feeling sad or grief-stricken, feel it. Don't put it off to the side, bring it out — but in community. It's better to feel sad with a group of people who understand what that feeling is like than to feel it alone. That is really the point of Kabballah: to access our emotional selves. There are six main paths outside of traditional religious practice. Breath work is the prime thing in Kabbalah. Ecstatic sound and ecstatic movements, psychedelic transcendence, immersion in nature and immersion in art are the other five.

In the ’60s, Kabbalah poked its head out again, and psychedelics and breath work were used to advance its religious practices. President Nixon pushed that back underground, but now it's starting to pop up again. We're not the only synagogue using psychedelics as spiritual practice, but they are few and far between. In some ways, the legal scene sorted itself out forty years ago when [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993] was passed in response to folks who were discriminated against for using a Schedule I controlled substance as part of their religious practices. RFRA was passed federally with exemptions, and around 23 states have RFRA laws right now. Colorado isn't one of them, but it has had state laws on the books allowing Schedule I substances as part of religious ceremony. So you have state and federal laws, and then in Denver we have the de-prioritization [of mushroom enforcement], as well as some ballot initiatives coming out that would create a secular framework for all of this.

So psychedelics weren't something you'd experimented with before your religious journey? How did you decide to try this out?

Psychedelics were definitely secondary to religious exploration. I started reading old texts with arguments over the right prayers for psychedelic mushrooms and getting a transcendent experience, which got me interested. I'd never tried breath work, ecstatic dance or psychedelics. I got a copy of Michael Pollan's book How to Change Your Mind, and that made me feel a lot safer about the experimentation. I came out to Denver for a weekend with a mentor while I was still in rabbi school and had my first psychedelic experience. Then I went back to Maine and had my first mushroom experience.

In Kabbalah, we use mushrooms as sacrament, with a number of strains used for a number of intentions. I was dead sober until that point; I'd never even tried pot. I was raised in a "Drugs are bad" place, which is why I was surprised to see those things appear in sacred texts. It made me sit back and assess my place. As I've grown within this community, I've seen psychedelics as a tool to open up more, but it's not the only tool we have. It's a really effective one, though, and it's part of 2,000-odd years of Jewish tradition.
click to enlarge Rabbi Ben Gorelick is currently fighting a felony drug charge in Denver. - COURTESY OF BEN GORELICK
Rabbi Ben Gorelick is currently fighting a felony drug charge in Denver.
Courtesy of Ben Gorelick

How different are the mushrooms you're using in sacrament compared to what's referenced in the texts you read?

The use of mushrooms explicitly is straight out of Kabbalah. There's not a lot taught in sacred Jewish texts that says which strain of mushroom is used for what intention, and that's sort of found out through experimentation. We've actually spent a lot of time looking at that, because a mushroom is not a mushroom is not a mushroom, sort of in the same vein as marijuana. There are at least fifteen alkaloids in mushrooms we know about, and they have effects in your body. Psilocybin and psilocin are the two that cross the blood-brain barrier, but there another thirteen that affect the body. A certain alkaloid can correlate with a highly euphoric space, while another can clear or empty space. So we've done surveys with members to see what their experiences are like with certain strains.

We also sit down one on one with members to see what their intentions are for the night, and they can take strains in line with those intentions. It's not a guarantee, but it will hopefully help push them in those directions.

We've seen psychedelics used in more scientific forms of therapy for depression and other mental illnesses. As more is studied and learned, how will that affect what you do?

I'm not trying to get into medical or therapeutic spaces. They operate under a different paradigm than the religious space does. The recreational space has been here for about fifty or sixty years now, while the medical space came up in a similar time frame — but religion has been using psychedelics since time began. Not just Judaism, but across a lot of religions. The medical space is looking at people who are unwell, people who have treatment-resistant PTSD, anxiety or depression. And of course psychedelics have a place in those spaces, but what gets lost is that we're conceding that people are broken, sick or need medicine.

The paradigm that we're trying to work in is a paradigm of growth and expansion, and opportunities that exist in community. Judaism is fundamentally about community. The idea that psychedelics is a magic pill that solves problems is probably less true, but psychedelics are taken as part of community and support more connections, and connections are what heal us. I think we're seeing the effects of lack of connection as a people on our society, and that's not a reflection of not having enough psychedelic medicine in our cabinets. Psychedelics allow us to be more open to connections that are offered.

Sacred Tribe is not a weekend spa where you drop in, have a psychedelic experience and go home. We are, in that way, a religious community. We come together several times a month. We eat, pray, celebrate and have high holidays together. It's all the traditional trappings of a religious community. It just so happens psychedelics are part of that.

Can you take us through a session?

We don't advertise or anything like that, but if someone finds us, they go through an application process. It's to understand their spiritual journey, and some of it is a medical screening. Our medical director used to work on Johns Hopkins University's psychedelic research team. I do an interview with new members to learn about why they choose us. It's not as if mushrooms aren't available, or there aren't plenty of traditional Jewish practices in Denver. So I want to know: Why us? Our most common member comes from a variety of religious backgrounds — mostly Jewish, but not exclusively. They usually grew up religious, left for whatever reason, but kept that sense of spiritual exploration.

Every ceremony is preceded by a dinner. It's an orientation for new people, but it's mostly a place for us to get to know each other and see how comfortable we are. When they feel called to come to a psychedelic ceremony, they can. Some people don't take psychedelics in their first ceremony; it's a construct that includes breath work, singing and things like that. We have a good five- or ten-minute chat with each person to see where they're at and how they're feeling. I don't always feel like it's the right time for some people, even if they've been coming for six months. On the back end of that, we have a multi-year process that essentially interrogates members' feelings and states over time. What are you doing with these experiences, and how are you taking them back into your life? How are you relating with your kids, your partner, God, or yourself? It's a lengthy exploration.

Have you been able to hold these ceremonies since your arrest?

We've paused sacrament ceremonies for a while. Obviously the legal system is slow, but I didn't think it was molasses-slow. We're doing everything right. We've talked with the DEA and have a religious exemption that four lawyers have been working on. Fortunately for us, the federal laws are very clear in that what we do is protected, and Colorado already has protections for Schedule I substances in religious practices. Now the state is asking us to tell them what we do as a religious community. We always knew we were going to have to meet this standard. What they want to know is if I'm actually a rabbi, and if people are actually coming to us for a spiritual path — or if this is just one of the least-accessible fronts for drugs. We wanted to do this right, and had an OSHA facility. We had a fire department inspection, and the fire inspector ended up calling the police. The police were there within two hours with a warrant, and they found mushrooms. They were as polite and respectful as police during a raid might be. They didn't blow up the place, but they took the mushrooms. Our chemist was arrested, and I turned myself in a couple weeks later.

What they've said so far is that they're not willing to take our word for it and that they want to learn more about it. So they're interviewing members and understanding the boxes we fit in. I thought the conversation would happen more directly and quickly, but it's happening through lawyers now. That's okay, but it's very slow. At the same time, I'm not afraid of this. It's already been settled at the state and federal level, and they have agreed that religious practices deserve protection. I don't think anyone wants to throw a rabbi in jail for this kind of stuff.

What concerns me about the November ballot initiative is that there are protections for the criminal side and medical-therapeutic side, but Colorado still doesn't have a process to access the religiosity of this. I think the concern [with us] is the slippery-slope argument: They don't want a church of the flying spaghetti monster opening up and allowing people to do heroin. But these laws have been on the books, and it really hasn't been abused. Religious organizations as a whole have their problems, but abuse of psychedelics isn't one of them

Do you worry that you'll be made an example of, given where Colorado is with the prospect of psychedelic legalization?

I think we're in the middle of them trying to figure out how to handle this on the fly. They're not willing to just take our word and let us go, but we're not far enough down the road for me to feel that they're making an example out of us. I don't think they're trying to make an example out of us. There's nothing we do that makes the psychedelic process anything but demonstrably better or safer. I don't think they're against the hypothetical of what we're doing. I think they are trying to make sure that the hypothetical matches up with the reality of what we're doing, which is something I stand by 1,000 percent.

It sounds like you're putting a sizable amount of trust in the legal system to do right by you, which isn't something it usually does in these gray areas.

I don't have any reason to believe someone is out to get us. My experience of the system thus far is people just trying to do their jobs. The police were just trying to their jobs here; they were called to a place where they found psychedelic mushrooms, and they took them away. Then they found out who was in charge and started the process. There's no mechanism for a religious exemption at the state level yet. You have to go through this sort of criminal process to get there. I don't feel like the State of Colorado is out to get us or is discriminating against Judaism, but it can get a little frustrating, because it's been four months, and we've heard little back.

Were you expecting the raid to happen? Was it always a matter of when, and not if, the police would come knocking?

It was a total surprise. On the federal level, the DEA publishes guidelines. When organizations are big enough to get on the DEA's radar, they are invited to apply, which is code for the DEA coming to interview your community and see if you pass muster. The organizations that have had challenges look more like a one-off spiritual experience, where visitors come in for a week or two, do mushrooms, have a phone call afterward, and then go home. We always knew someone would come knocking on our door to ask us to prove our religious bona fides, but the mechanism through which it happened was a surprise. They didn't know who we were, which was as much our fault as theirs. I had so much focus on the federal level that not working on the state level was a mistake I probably made. Colorado just doesn't have a civil mechanism for things, so we're having that conversation in criminal court.

The reason I am where I am in the legal space is because a lot of Native American churches did the yeoman's work in ’60s and ’70s to have some religious exemptions. It was for peyote, but still for Schedule I substances in a religious space. Native Americans have had a hard go, and I'm standing on their shoulders — and, secondarily, the ayahuasca churches that successfully sued the federal government post-RFRA. Organizations like mine owe those organizations for creating those spaces for us to stand on.
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Thomas Mitchell has written about all things cannabis for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate and general news along the way for publications such as the Arizona Republic, Inman and Fox Sports. He's currently the cannabis editor for westword.com.
Contact: Thomas Mitchell