Moses Tripping Hippie Rembrandt

And now for something completely different.

In an article published this week in the philosophy journal Time and Mind, an Israeli professor, Benny Shanon, made an explosive claim that is bound to shake the foundations of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. the claim: Moses was tripping on Mount Sinai. And, so were the Israelites, rapturously dancing around the golden calf while the father of the nation was on the mountain.

And so it leads me to ponder: Was Moses the first hippie?


In case you forgot

Exodus describes the momentous event of God giving the Torah to Moses thus:

“And all the people perceived the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the voice of the horn, and the mountain smoking.”

Quoting from the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, “the ‘perceiving of the voices’ has been interpreted endlessly since these words were first written. When Professor Benny Shanon, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, reads the verse, he recalls a powerful hallucinatory experience he had when he visited the Amazon and drank a potion made from a plant called ayahuasca. One of the things that happens when you drink the potion is a visual experience created via sounds.”

Indeed, the good professor is an authority on the subject: “I experienced visions that had spiritual-religious connotations,” he says. Since that time, he has used it hundreds of times and has published a book about the plant. Can you beat that for sound, scientific proof?

Hypotheses have been around for 20 years connecting the beginning of religions with psychoactive materials,” Shanon says. He believes the Israelites used two plants in Sinai and the Negev: one of them is wild rue, a hallucinogen used by the Bedouin to this day. However, this plant is not similar to any plant mentioned in the Bible.


The acacia tree

The acacia tree also has psychedelic properties, Shanon says, which the Israelites could have used. The acacia is mentioned frequently in the Bible and was the type of wood of which the Ark of the Covenant was made. According to Shanon, he drank a potion prepared from a species of acacia while he was in South America, which caused similar experiences to those produced by the ayahuasca.

Shanon also sees signs of a hallucinogenic vision in the story of the burning bush.

“Moses looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed,”

Shanon quotes from Exodus 3:2: Time passes differently when under the influence of the plant, he notes. “That’s why Moses thought the bush was not consumed. It should have been burned in the time he thought had passed. And in that time, he heard God speaking to him.”

Now, acacia is indeed well known to Israeli kids. We used to take the seeds out of the pod, split them in half, spit on them, and leave them under the teacher’s desk. What we created was the first “green” stink bomb. An enzyme in the saliva digested a protein in the seed, which, in turn, causes the release of sulfur dioxide, a gas that gives rotten eggs their characteristic odor. Needless to say, the teacher would be overcome with waves of nausea and escape the classroom. Except that, in this chemical warfare, we were finally defeated: One teacher left the room, locked the doors from the outside, and let us “stew in our own juices.” Little did we suspect that this malodorous fruit can give you a religious experience of the highest order. Personally, I experienced only extreme disgust and overwhelming nausea.


Am I being too skeptical?

Maybe. But here is the opinion of Dr. L. Brnd from San Diego:

“A characteristic of psychotropic agents is that they produce disordered thinking, paranoia, and hallucinations. There is a stark difference between a visionary and a hallucinator. Crackpot theories arise all the time after taking hallucinogens, Timothy Leary was a pathetic example. However, Moses did not hear ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’. Nobody designs, say, a new computer chip after a psychotropic drug-induced vision. And the Ten Commandments do not represent weird disordered thinking, but logical and considered visions for a moral life. If Moses had followed the edicts of hallucinogenic plants, we would to this day be wandering around in circles in the desert inspecting our navels, as this guy is doing. He does acknowledge that he arrived at his unprovable, untestable, illogical ‘theory’ after taking that Amazon plant over 100 times. Well, testability is the difference between philosophy and science, so at least he has the proper audience for this silly junk science.”


A Jerusalem Post reporter summed it up succinctly:

The headline should read, “Nutty Professor at Hebrew University on drugs! Tenure revoked pending a psychological evaluation and drug rehabilitation.” The next headline probably would be: “Amy Winehouse, fresh out of rehab, sues Hebrew University over a psychology correspondence course that taught her that mind-altering drugs are Kosher.”

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


  1. “Nobody designs, say, a new computer chip after a psychotropic drug-induced vision.”

    Really? What about the legacy of Steve Jobs, LSD-taking hippie, and many of his peers in the computer industry? See The Young Steve Jobs Took LSD — Yes, Jobs Dropped Acid — and He Also Became a Buddhist; Jobs Was a Hippie Hero! Note especially the section entitled “Acidheads=successfully creative computer geeks?”

    More to the point about Moses, of course this is not testable science. Nor are the propositions that Moses was a real person or Jesus walked on water. But respectable neuroscience is discovering particular brain activity associated with religious experience. See ‘God spot’ researchers see the light in MRI study. Might psychoactive substances trigger such activity? Subjective descriptions of many users suggest the answer may be affirmative.

    That in no way dismisses the authenticity of the experience, nor does it necessarily disprove the existence of God as an actual being or “higher power,” as opposed to a purely human mental construct. Perhaps certain mental states, perhaps including drug-induced ones, render people more sensitive to communication with God.

    As to your comment that “the Ten Commandments do not represent weird disordered thinking, but logical and considered visions for a moral life,” who is to say a psychedelic-spiritual experience cannot result in such vision? Our familiarity with the Commandments may blind us to their revolutionary, out-of-the-box nature — not just in their moral precepts but also their written form, (“carved in stone” as the saying goes) and the surrounding Torah context. Out of the box creativity is reported with psychedelic use. Certainly the Israelites were living through a very different world view than their contemporary neighbors, as the frequent stories of conflict with pagan idol worship demonstrate — out-of-the-box views for their time.

    Moses, Jesus, and Mohamed — and Hebrew prophets — as “tripping hippies” may not be an appealing notion, but it cannot be dismissed out of hand, particularly since they reported experiences that are difficult or impossible to scientifically explain otherwise.

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