Sunday, November 18, 2018

Ask the Rabbis // Halloween

Halloween

Ask the Rabbis // Halloween

October 26, 2016 in Archives from the past...
4 Comments

Should Jewish children celebrate Halloween?

SEPHARDIC, MODERN ORTHODOX

Since the pagan elements of trick-or-treating have effectively been “neutralized,” is it wrong to allow our children to participate? The Torah’s answer is “yes.” Through its prohibition of “foreign” customs, the Torah draws attention to its own uniqueness. Primitive people found themselves in an overwhelming, mysterious and threatening environment in the face of which they felt powerless and vulnerable. They created religious rituals and superstitions as a way of exerting magical influence over the forces of nature that they could not control physically. Man made religions thus reflected the fears, anxieties, hopes and fantasies of their adherents.

The Torah is designed to challenge and educate human beings at the highest level of which they are capable—morally, intellectually and emotionally. Unlike simplistic folk religions, Judaism is a comprehensive system of philosophy and commandments that must be diligently studied and observed to be appreciated. In the framework of Judaism, a human being’s most sublime faculty—his or her intellect—is not only engaged in religious practice, it is the epicenter of religious experience. This is a far cry from the arena of primitive rituals in which human weaknesses and emotional insecurities beget piety.

In order to emphasize these crucial distinctions, the Torah prohibits us from adopting customs that have roots in idolatrous religions. Rather than sending Jewish children out to trick-or-treat, we should use Halloween as an opportunity to teach them about the features of their heritage that make it truly unique.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof
Magen David Sephardic Congregation
Rockville, Maryland

MODERN ORTHODOX

This is not so much a halachic question; it is a public policy question. Do we want to prohibit or permit this activity?

Historically, Orthodoxy has been suspicious of letting its youth celebrate American holidays for fear that this would lead to assimilation or adoption of “practices of Gentiles.” When I was growing up Orthodox rabbis were critical of those who celebrated Thanksgiving, but as Orthodoxy has acculturated such attitudes have relaxed.

One could argue for prohibition of Halloween because it is associated with witches and ghosts. Judaism has implacably opposed witchcraft or attempted communication with the dead since biblical times. Monotheism is the antithesis of magic. “There is none beside Him” (Deuteronomy 4.35), and no abracadabra tricks can manipulate God to get unnatural results.

That having been said, Halloween is almost entirely a product of American consumer culture, and there’s more mockery than true belief to be found in the ever-popular costumes of witches and monsters.

My wife and I discouraged our children from trick-or-treating—partly out of fear of religious syncretism, but mostly because we did not want them to internalize American consumerist psychology and because eating a lot of candy is unhealthy. But I confess, trick-or-treating is popular in our neighborhood. In order to be good neighbors, we leave boxes of fruits, treats and candy goodies in front of the house with a sign inviting kids to help themselves to one item out of each box. We don’t check if any of the kids are Jewish. Conclusion: If a Jewish child wants to go trick-or-treating for social reasons, it’s not a big deal.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg
President, Jewish Life Network / Steinhardt Foundation
New York, New York

CONSERVATIVE

As Halloween is celebrated nowadays, it is mostly about trick-or-treating, dressing up, having fun and getting free candy, with few or no religious overtones. That said, there are issues about celebrating it that are Jewishly problematic and are worthy of consideration by thoughtful Jewish parents.

There is a halachic prohibition against a belief in sorcerers and magic. Some of this begins with the biblical tale of Saul, who consulted a fortuneteller instead of God about his future. His misjudgment resulted in Saul losing both his throne and his mind.

As long as parents discuss with their children the difference between believing in sorcery and reality, I see no significant objection here. Most of my objections are related to the conflicts that can arise between celebrating Halloween and doing the right thing, Jewishly. For example, for the family that keeps kashrut, there is surely the issue of whether some of the candy and food that their kids will “bag” will meet the Jewish edible standards. But this could be addressed by carefully “sifting” through the candy, and donating all unacceptable items to a food bank for other children who can partake without religious restrictions.

A more serious conflict arises when Halloween coincides with Shabbat, Jewish holidays or Hebrew school attendance. What kind of message is a parent giving to his or her child when he or she is told that to go out trick-or-treating takes precedence over Jewish study or celebrating Shabbat and other Jewish holidays?

Parents may also wish to consider the values suggested by Halloween, such as demanding sweets from strangers. The original saying is in actuality a threat: “If you don’t give me a treat, I’ll give you a trick.”

Can Jewish lads live without these ghosts, goblins and candy? I certainly think so. Will it do irreparable damage to their Jewish identities if they participate? Probably not. But as parents, we should think about the values, priorities and commitments we want our children to develop.

Rabbi Ron Isaacs
Temple Sholom
Bridgewater, New Jersey

REFORM

Though I write as a Reform rabbi, I offer what can be called (in the phraseology of Rabbi Isaac M. Wise) an American Jewish response.

To be completely true to our tradition, the answer is, “No. Jewish children should not go trick-or-treating on Halloween.” Inasmuch as this is a Christian/ pagan holiday—no matter how secularized it has become—it is inappropriate for Jews to observe it in any manner.

However, the matter is more complicated. Are there moments when Jews have taken an essentially foreign idea and co-opted it and changed into an authentic Jewish tradition? Of course! And the most obvious example is the Passover seder. So many of our traditions were lifted directly from Roman influences. In acknowledging those antecedents, would anyone suggest that our practices are somehow inauthentic? Of course not!

In this same light, there are few who’would connect the carefree, costume-wearing, candygorging escapades of our children on October 31 with the religious overtones that the holiday once carried. As such, the holiday has evolved into a secular celebration. Therefore, it would seem to be as innocent an activity as celebrating New Year’s Eve or Thanksgiving (both of which once had Chrisdan connotations).

Even in accepting Halloween, do I want our Jewish children to associate the best time of the year (dressing in costumes and getting as much candy as one can carry) with a holiday with nominal pagan and/or Christian overtones? Of course not! Instead, wouldn’t it be wonderful if they thought of the Jewish holiday where children dress in costumes, eat lots of goodies and act in all types of silly and fun ways? (Purim!) But that, I guess, is for another discussion.

Riibbi Arthur P. Nemitoff
The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehiidah
Overland Park, Ka.

RECONSTRUCTIONIST

We could boycott All Hallow’s Eve for its ghoulish associations—and, in medieval Christendom, Jews received more trick than treat. We might avoid this holiday of “pagan” origin, lest we “do as the other nations.” Ghosts of Halloweens past may still haunt us.

Or Halloween could be just a harmless diversion. We might accompany our Power Rangers and Doras around the neighborhood to say that “America is different,” that we feel safe(r) on these shores. Since it usually falls in Mar-Cheshvan, the only holiday-less Hebrew month, we might even make it our own.

Mordecai Kaplan taught that we who “live in two civilizations” must answer as Jews and Westerners both. We live in mostly mixed communities where Halloween is an accepted norm. Our kids have friends, Jewish and non, who will invite them trick-or-treating. Though we reserve the right to withhold children’s immediate gratification, should we put our foot down here?

It’s a tightrope act: Avoiding Halloween may feel like the Jewish thing to do, yet a simmering feeling of “I missed the funnest thing ever” can subtly undermine future Jewish identity. So rather than decree or surrender, we should decide with our kids and engage them in discussion of the values at hand. Secular concerns at Halloween have a Jewish angle, too—moderation, safety, neighborliness, ethics of food—making it a “teachable moment.” We can balance values like kavod (respect), tzedakah, kashrut, briyut (health) and oneg (enjoyment). Options abound: Serve treats, but not go door-to-door? Avoid skeleton costumes? Collect candy, then donate it? Between abandon and avoidance lie many possibilities. Let’s choose wisely, together.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Bethesda, Maryland

RENEWAL

In the American melting pot of shared cultures, trick-or-treating is as religious as a bagel. Dressing in costume for occasions other than Purim is Jewishly acceptable. It makes sense that Jewish schools don’t celebrate Halloween, but it’s normal for Jewish students to want to take part in it.

Halloween is a time to teach piku’ah nefesh—protecting or saving a life. A few examples: When trick-or-treating children should be accompanied by an adult. Teens are safer at a Halloween party than going out alone. Products that are unsealed shouldn’t be eaten. Large amounts of candy can be dangerous to our health.

When Halloween falls on a Friday, hold a party on motza’ei Shabbat. Invite your child’s Jewish and non-Jewish friends and serve delicious, kid-friendly food. More harm is done to Jewish continuity by forbidding youth from observing holidays like Halloween than by supporting the celebration in safe and healthy ways.

Rabbi Pamela Frydman
President, OHALAH: Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal
Baltimore, Maryland

INDEPENDENT

This is a tough one. Jewish children should learn about their own traditions rather than always celebrating everyone else’s. Still, it is far better for a Jewish child to go trick-or-treating than to celebrate an iota of Christmas and Easter.

Why? Because Halloween is probably a whole lot closer to Jewish tradition than Christmas or Easter. After all, Jewish tradition also held annual rituals of warding off evil spirits, or winds, with the approach of major seasonal changes. As the Midrash teaches, “What is the ritual of the barley offering? One waves the barley shoots in its season, first inward and outward to ward off harsh winds that are harmful to the crops, then upward and downward to ward off harsh rains that are harmful to the crops. Others say, first inward and outward to the One to whom belongs all of the universe, then upward and downward to the One to whom belongs both the Upper Realms and Lower Realms.” Even the shofar that we blow so glibly these days on Rosh Hashanah was to our ancestors an implement to ward off evil forces. So if you must take your kids trick-or-treating, employ it as an opportunity to introduce them to the richness of their own tradition.

Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Cuba, New Mexico

HUMANIST

For secular Jews and the Humanistic Jews among them the question isn’t, “to trick or not to trick” but what kind of treats to hand out and how to regulate all that sugar intake. We’re also concerned about which costumes are acceptable and which are not, generally preferring a benign Bob the Builder over a blood-curdling goblin. In short, we welcome Halloween as part of our shared American culture.

The holiday’s pagan origins were co-opted by the Christian Church, when it re-cast an earlier Celtic festival, Samhain, into All-Hallows, meaning All Saints’ Day, which eventually became Halloween. You can rename holidays as much as you like, but telltale signs of earlier, compelling rituals persevere.

As Jews, we’re experts at this effort to submerge pagan Canaanite rituals into grander stories of the Exodus saga, but farmers’ earlier rituals that marked critical seasonal changes continue to show up at our seder. The menorahs that we light at Hanukkah are descendants of bonfires lit at the winter solstice.

Halloween’s attraction, I think, is to be found in its pagan origins. Despite all our vaunted modern and rational ideas, we have permission, even if briefly, to think about dead spirits, demonic forces and the uncertainty of winter closing in on us. Thankfully, those very goblins subverted the Church’s efforts to turn it into a holiday for saints, and it remains accessible for all of us to enjoy.

Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, New York

Tags:
4 Comments
  • Henry Gottlieb 17:34h, 27 October Reply

    WHY ???? ask a rabbi anything

  • Charity Dell 21:04h, 27 October Reply

    I believe the inflation of Hallowe’en into a month-long “season” (complete with new colors added every year and more ghoulish bric-a-brac to decorate your home and yard) is an attempt to satisfy the very simple, human need to celebrate the final autumn harvest in the temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere. American communities have, for the most part, lost the older harvest customs in their communities–traditions that were based upon the rhythms of the agricultural year, when the produce of gardens and farms was brought into cellars, storehouses,
    silos and houses of worship. American communities celebrated the harvest at various times, from late September through early November.

    1. My own childhood church (Black Pentecostal) celebrated an eight-day Harvest Festival every year during the
    last full week of October. (I remember attending this with other church kids with my Hallowe’en costume on,
    if October 31 occurred during that week.) This festival featured processing nightly around the sanctuary,
    loudly singing “Bringing In The Sheaves” and other hymns; we kids were given ratchety noisemakers and
    the adults waved huge white handkerchiefs and Bibles. The church was colorfully decorated with harvest
    colors (no black stuff); hay bales and corn shocks were on either sides of the chancel and pumpkins, gourds
    and apples and nuts adorned the altar steps just below the pulpit. On the final Sunday night, we had a HUGE
    feast and we kids were turned loose upon the altar, to gather all the apples, nuts and candy we could take
    home. I remember joyous voices and joyous faces praising God and we looked forward to this every October.

    2. Years later in 1985, I sponsored my first Sukkot celebration for a small church in Ohio on October 31. This service combined the traditions of my Black Pentecostal celebration with some customs of Hoshanah Rabbah of the first-century Jerusalem Temple. Throughout the years the Sukkot Festival service evolved into a fully congregational format, complete with seven hakkafot around the sanctuary to the song “Ancient of Days”;
    waving Hallel with both lulavim/etrogim and other plants and autumn fruits while reading Psalm 118;
    dancing and singing to music drawn from Jewish folk, Black gospel and Latino gospel salsa; the Simcha Bet-HaShoevah ceremony (seven kids and/or adults) pour out the water while Isaiah 12 and John 7:37-39 is
    read; and the Aaronic Benediction (Numbers 6:23–26) given under the tallit for both adults and younger folks.

    3. I have been able to export the celebration to other churches throughout the month of October, as well as a biblical alternative to traditional Hallowe’en stuff on October 31. The service is fully inter-generational and can be observed at home or in any house of worship during the autumn season. (I’ve also done this for a church in
    early November. We do this service at my home church on the second Sunday of October–before Connecticut
    gets too cold and while the foliage approaches peak color. Great joy for all and kids have told me “This is more FUN than Hallowe’en!” We always had bags of apples, oranges, nuts and candy available for the young fry,
    who typically did not trick-or-treat due to safety concerns.

    4. The Sukkot/Feast of Tabernacles celebration probably would not be used by Jewish families (who will have
    already celebrated Sukkot earlier than October 31); perhaps other ecumenical community celebrations of the
    autumn harvest can be designed by both clergy and secular organizations to provide a creative alternative
    to traditional Hallowe’en.

  • Davida Brown 17:08h, 31 October Reply

    Wow! I’m with Charity Dell…what an awesome way to deal with a questionable practice (masquerading as a “holiday”.) History is rife with pagan/religious hangovers affecting both Judaism and Christianity, which are both part of the Biblical narrative and usually referred to as Judeo-Christian. Primitive Western European practices involving pagan rituals can be likened to Babylonian influences in modern Judaism. Some things like to “stick” and then become part of the practice, such as Christmas, Easter (wrong dates and names based on Biblical facts) and Rosh Hashanah…head of the year and birthday of the world (wrong reference to the month/year and pagan belief.) Jews and Christians share the Hebrew scriptures and they alone give the historical narrative that defines our faiths. Other literature can confirm historical dates and relevant events such as Chanukah. However, Halloween is nowhere to be found in the Hebrew and Greek scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
    What to do? Bring it all before the throne of Almighty God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What would He want? Check it out!

  • Tzvi Freeman 18:06h, 31 October Reply

    I have a rather different response, trying to provide a positive direction. Take a look at: chabad.org/434666

Post A Comment