Thursday, March 06, 2008

Mind Blowing Torah

[Woodstock Festival 1969]

A fellow blogger mentioned in a comment yesterday an interesting article published this week in the first issue of “Time and Mind: the Journal of Archeology, Consciousness and Culture”. The article is written by Dr. Benny Shanon, professor of cognitive psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel). In this article, Professor Shanon speculates that the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20) may in fact have been a national memory of a hallucination caused by the ingestion by the Israelites of certain chemicals found in plants common in the Sinai desert. Those chemicals are specifically Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is a hallucinogen, together with a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MOAI) which allows DMT to be absorbed when taken orally. DMT is found in Umbrella Thorn acacia (Acacia tortilis) and in Gay acacia (Acacia laeta). MOAI is found in the seeds of the Harmal (Peganum harmala). These plants are all native to the Sinai and in fact acacia wood is mentioned frequently in the Bible, for example Exodus 25:5.

In my humble opinion, there are several problems with this hypothesis.

The first problem is whether amounts of DMT sufficient to cause hallucinations can be extracted from the Umbrella Thorn or Gay acacia using methods available in pre-modern times. I am not aware of anyone having attempted this. On page 66 of the journal, Professor Shanon relates that he did succeed in having a having a “psychological experience” using a liquid made with boiled jurema (Acacia jurema) and harmal, however I am not certain that the same method would be successful with Sinai acacias, which may have a lower DMT content. I am surprised that Professor Shanon did not investigate this issue further.

The second problem is that if such an acacia/harmal concoction was widely used in the Middle East c.1300 BCE, it seems odd that it is never mentioned in the Bible. Indeed it is never mentioned anywhere historically

The third problem is that as with any hallucinogen, DMT causes different people to have different reactions at different times. If the camp at Mount Sinai had been a DMT fueled gathering, it would probably have closely resembled the Woodstock Festival. This is considerably different from the Biblical account where everyone experiences the same things. DMT/MOAI beverages are commonly used in certain areas of South America, however no national revelations have ever been recorded.

In conclusion, although Professor Shanon’s article has received some media coverage and it will surely be appreciated by some secularists, I think that upon close examination, it merely is another example of shoddy scholarship that seems so common in fields such as Bible criticism and evolution.


badrabbi said...


I actually agree with your conclusion that the Sinai revelation was not a product of hallucinogens.

I think that the whole suggestion might be an insider joke.

I also think that the Sinai revelation never happened.

jewish philosopher said...

I was really a little surprised to find a secular Israeli professor who believes that Moses was an actual person. Maybe some sanity still remains in Hebrew U.

DrJ said...

I agree that this is an idiotic theory. In the US no respectable academic would publicly come out with such nonsense and keep his job. Here in Israel, on the other hand, anything goes, especially for post-zionist humanist leftists, whose goal in life is to publicly deconstruct the basis of the Jewish nation.

On the other hand, I agree with badrabbi-- we have no need to resort to such ridiculous theories. Every nation has its fantastical stories about its ancestors, that's just how things worked in days of old, with no press, internet, communications, science etc...

Nowadays "new" nations also form using their own unique stories to unify them, just without the supernatural, but using historical distortions or inventions instead (the Americans, Albanians, Palestinians, etc). In days of old, when people believed in magic, it would be easy to believe in supernatural events.The stories may have some kernel of truth, but they becomes wildly distorted.

Just think about how in 2 generation, the Palestinians have invented their own history, of heroism, suffering, origins, etc. Their national identity is now defined by this. There is no question that they believe it (along with their fellow antisemites among the nations) even though the historical record says otherwise.

So now imagine primitive peoples' existence and its easy to see how stories got "invented". The "collective revelation" argument just doesn't hold water.

jewish philosopher said...

If the Torah were a fraud like other religions then there should be some historical account of how it was authored and how it was accepted by some and how some rejected it, similar for example to the New Testament, Koran and Book of Mormon.

On the other hand, with the Torah, an atheist is forced to say that this process was completely and successfully erased from history by a perfect, international conspiracy. In other words, Ezra the Scribe basically invented Judaism out of thin air; however all remaining historical sources depict all Jews as always having been believers in the Torah.

I find that it is plausible to say that Yasser Arafat lied and he was really Egyptian not Palestinian. I would say it is implausible to say that the Palestinians are all really immigrants from Romania who have made up a story about being Arabs. Little lies involving a few people (let’s say the resurrection of Jesus) are plausible; big conspiracies involving tens of thousands of people with no one dissenting are not.

natschuster said...

I understand that when a person is under the influence of hallucinogens, then he is incapable of rational thought. Thereis no way that he could put together a work of laws, ethics, aand history like the Torah. Some historians feel that the oracles at Delphi were the product of hallucinations caused by toxic gas that leaked up through fissures in the rocks. The "prophecies the oracle would give were just incoherent rantings. The priests would interperate them based onwhat the listener wanted to hear.

Unmolested Altar Boy said...

"with the Torah, an atheist is forced to say that this process was completely and successfully erased from history by a perfect, international conspiracy."

As amusing as it is to see Jacob Stein use an argument frequently deployed by holocaust deniers to exonerate Hitler, I can tell you from my research for my MA, which focused in the 20th century that I frequently unable to gain information or discover the origins of documentation and written records because someone failed to document them, toss them in trash, or they were misplaced or archived in the wrong location.

alex said...

The following opinion is amusing:

The Biblical Hebrew term qěnēh bośem, literally "reed of balm" (Exodus 30:23 ), probably refers to cannabis according to some etymologists.