Is Halloween Good for the Jews?



by Rabbi Elizabeth Wood

A lot of people talk about the “December Dilemma” of Christmas and Chanukah. Some interfaith families struggle with how to celebrate both, how to respect both traditions, or how to appropriately integrate both holidays under one roof. Other Jewish families struggle simply with the proximity of Chanukah to Christmas – constantly having to defend Chanukah as not being “the Jewish Christmas” or with trying to lessen the emphasis on the gift-giving and increase awareness of the tradition and history of the holiday. Whatever category you fit into, the December Dilemma is a reality of being a Reform Jew in the 21st century.

Some of us might also feel a little bit of strain when it comes to Halloween. Although it is not viewed as a “religious holiday” its origins have a religious background and the tradition deals with things like spirits, the devil, and pagan Celtic festivals in the Middle Ages. Nowadays, Halloween is taken much more lightly by the general American public and is meant to be fun (I think). But, it can often result in dangerous situations and an unnecessary amount of candy and treats, for no good reason. Some people argue that celebrating Halloween is antithetical to Judaism. Others believe that you can do the same things on Halloween as you can do on Purim, and that is makes much more sense for us Jews, religiously. You want to wear costumes, go around visiting neighbors, eat sugary treats and celebrate by being silly? Wait for Purim!

But is that really the answer? Perhaps, as modern Jews, we don’t completely abandon a secular holiday, and try to justify it with a religious one. Perhaps we don’t want to give up a day that is fun or silly, or that the rest of the world enjoys, simply because it doesn’t speak to the religious aspect of our lives that is used to creating meaning from holidays. Perhaps, the solution is to infuse that day with some meaning of our own.

On Halloween day, the junior youth group at The Reform Temple of Forest Hills will be reading stories about the Dybbuk (Jewish spirit), the Golem, and other tales of spirits within Jewish tradition. We want to teach our children that it’s okay to engage in activities on Halloween, but that there are also Jewish perspectives to be considered. Perhaps you and your family can make costumes that have a funny Jewish theme to them. And then, you can reuse them when Purim rolls around a few months later.

Or, if you’re really stuck, the URJ has a great resource on ways to make Halloween feel more Jewish as a family, without completely abandoning this day altogether.

Is Halloween good for the Jews? Is it against everything we believe in? Is it just another dilemma for us to work through in our modern world? Or, is it perhaps another chance for us to get creative, think outside the box, and continue to build meaningful Jewish lives in our modern world? You decide.

Rabbi Elizabeth Wood is the associate rabbi educator at The Reform Temple of Forest Hills in Forest Hills, N.Y.

This piece was originally posted on Sects and the City and published on this blog in October 201o. The original comments are included below. Please add your own and continue this ongoing conversation!

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24 Responses to “Is Halloween Good for the Jews?”

  1. avatar

    Halloween is such a secular holiday that I feel it’s unnecessary to find a way to make it “feel more Jewish.” I fully understand the Christmas/Hannukah dilemma and think there are a lot of important conversations to have then.
    But an issue with Halloween? This sounds like an argument from the Orthodox. Can’t we Reform Jews just enjoy secular American holidays without reverting to the ghetto mentality that everything we do has to in some way connect to Judaism? I’m all for Jewish pride but come on folks, it’s 2010.

  2. Larry Kaufman

    I hardly think it’s a sign of ghetto mentality to remember when we lie down and when we rise up that we are Jews, which in no way compromises that we are Americans.
    Thanksgiving too is a secular holiday, and when we sit down to our all-American turkey dinner, we still recite the motzi. (My grandson wanted to know, when he was eight, when I was going to hide the matzo.)
    Rabbi Wood seems to have given us a creative and useful way to use Halloween, regardless of its origins, as a teaching/learning moment. I will be interested to see what she has to say about St. Valentine’s Day.

  3. avatar

    Does anybody else think this so-called “December dilemma” and other concepts like it are really SILLY? Christmas is a religious, Christian holiday for the observance of which Western culture has developed many secular dimensions. Clearly, as Jews, we will not ourselves commemorate or acknowledge the theological implications of the Holiday. However, what’s to stop us from participating in secular expressions of Christmas, or even celebrating WITH our Christian friends, family, and neighbors who DO take the Season’s religious message to heart? I believe I remember reading that Rabbi Dr. Emil Hirsch admonished Chicago Sinai Congregation a century ago not to keep Christmas trees in their homes, but that they should feel free to enjoy the musical programs and social events of the Season in the greater community.
    Thanksgiving is a secular holiday with religious origins and undertones, but these dimensions are not particularistically Christian, and thus seem designed to be applicable to all American Monotheists. It seems that Jews have rarely shied away from celebrating Thanksgiving at home, but only recently have we begun to de-secularize it by praying at the dinner table. I think perhaps Classical Reform has shied away from the WASP-style “Thanksgiving table Grace” far less than the rest of Judaism, and indeed, there is one (very nice) such reading in the new UPB Sinai Edition. I am glad to hear that people are “reciting the motzi” as well on Thanksgiving. We needn’t be afraid to synthesize Jewish religious expressions of the American Thanksgiving.
    Halloween has both Christian and Pagan origins, but has become SO secularized by American society that there is no rational reason to be theologically allergic to its celebration by American Jews. I would not recommend re-injecting this particular festival with religion in the form of Jewish expression as we sometimes do with Thanksgiving, but there is certainly nothing wrong with relating Halloween-y themes to analogous concepts in Jewish culture and folklore. We have our own (non-religious) mythology regarding ghosts and the supernatural. I think it might be fun and enriching for our kids to draw such parallels, recognizing that many different cultures develop escapist tactics of “fear for fun”, and a desire to scare each other with eerie stories and costumes.
    Admittedly, as a Classical Musician who enjoys ALL the music of the Season, both Hanukkah and Christmas, I am inclined towards pluralism during the Winter Holiday Season. I take every opportunity I can get to emphasize the parallels and common ground between Hanukkah and Christmas, perhaps more than is sustainable. Nevertheless, I am frustrated to no end by the gruff aversion so many Jews have to all things Christmas. I have yet to meet a Christian who is that allergic to Hanukkah.

  4. avatar

    In recent years, Halloween has become more of a religious holiday in America. Wiccans, some Pagans (panthiests, not the idol worshipping type), and the quasi-religion of Gothic culture all perform specific religious rituals on October 31st.
    This is in addition to the original Catholic notion (dress up as a spook so the spook doesn’t get you), and the Latino-Catholic ritual of “the day of the dead”, November 1st and 2nd, when departed spirits are essentially prayed to, and given gifts of (you guessed it) sweet treats.
    So, Halloween is not a secular holiday. It’s a religious holiday that has been adopted in part by secular culture.
    Bottom line – If you wouldn’t celebrate Christmas, Easter, or Dwalli, because you are a Jew, it would be consistent to refrain from celebrating Halloween, for the same reason.

  5. avatar

    We are an interfaith family. When we moved to a new city 12 years ago, when my son was in 5th grade, I wanted to have a party for his Jewish Day School classmates, but I was apprehensive about using a Halloween theme. However, this was happening just as the Harry Potter craze was really taking off. We had a Harry Potter party, and it was a big hit. We ended up having an HP parties each fall for the next five years. The year my son became a Bar Mitzvah, he used the party as a fundraiser for 9/11 firefighters.

  6. avatar

    Groan. Perhaps we can just let our kids enjoy trick-or-treating without straining to overthink every aspect of their lives.

  7. avatar

    A fine article Rabbi Liz!
    In raising our son, our approach has been to celebrate the fun aspects of the holiday — dressing up and taking a tour of our neighborhood — without any involvement in the death themes. No ghouls or gore at home, and the costumes chosen must also be usable for Purim (so no skeletons or vampires or zombies). Visiting haunted houses or attending Halloween parties is fine.
    I also like your suggestion of reading Jewish monster stories.
    I have participated as a guest in Christmas, Easter, Ramadan and Dwalli celebrations and have found that such experiences enrich my own observance as a Jew. I also think that it’s possible to strike a balance between regular participation in the larger culture and a deep commitment to Judaism.
    Rabbi Kari Tuling

  8. avatar

    @Jordan Friedman
    Emil Hirsch took it for granted that his congregants would have Christmas trees — and rather than tell them they shouldn’t, he gave them “permission,” saying “I would have you celebrate Christmas…not as a compliance with Christianity, but as a protest against the very Christianity that claims to have given us the spirit of good will.”
    Later in the same sermon, he said, “Let us then on Christmas day be moved to think not merely of our children but of the children that are starving in this year abroad of Christian grace and Christian salvation. May God imbue us with the right spirit, the right Maccabean spirit of being true to Judaism, hospitable to every true thought, no matter by whom uttered, to be not merely imitators of the immoral customs of neighbors….”
    The sermon whose text I have quoted was delivered sometime between the start of World War I and 1925, and I cannot imagine a contemporary rabbi being as critical of Christianity as it was being practiced, or not practiced, as Dr. Hirsch was.
    The same sermon, by the way, debunks the miracle of the oil and censures the glorification of Judas Maccabeus or any other general — and still comes out with a ringing endorsement for the celebration of Chanukah.
    Meanwhile, I cannot imagine on what you base your theories about changes in Jewish celebration of Thanksgiving, especially about a differentiation in Classical Reform households. Having said that, I must admit to a sense that something was missing at Thanksgiving during the period of my life that I lived in a Classical Reform environment: my CR in-laws did not serve pumpkin pie for dessert — and even though I did not at that stage in my life eat pumpkin pie, I felt the absence from the table of something that seemed as much part of the celebration as the turkey.

  9. avatar

    Larry,
    I really need to track down a book of Hirsch’s sermons. He seems to have known what he was talking about. I must have been thinking of somebody else, then, when I remembered the sermon in which congregants are encouraged not to have Christmas trees in their houses.
    As far as Thanksgiving is concerned, in the experience of my own family and other families I know, it has been a tradition for generations to have a traditional American Thanksgiving meal and a large family gathering, but it has not really been a religious event in the same sense that Passover, Rosh Hashanah, or Hanukkah dinners at home can be. The “differentiation” with CR, which was largely speculation since I’m too young to have experienced it, was simply an observation that CR households seem more likely to have included some sort of grace-like theistic invocation or verbal giving of thanks at the dinner table. I base that on my understanding of CR aesthetics and the fact that the UPB has a reading for that specific purpose. My family has certainly never done this, but on the other hand, neither do we do anything of the sort for Rosh Hashanah or Hanukkah gatherings. The only time, sadly, when my family does anything resembling prayer at the dinner table is Passover, and it never really feels sincere. This is curious given that most of my extended family identify as Conservative. I will do better for my own family some day, God-willing. My point in my previous comment was that these days, Turkey day is openly discussed in the Jewish community as a Holiday which it is appropriate to celebrate in a Jewish mode. Many Jewish households across denominations probably do some sort of motzi or birkat hamazon, which would have been strange to conceive of when my parents were my age.
    I have to say, I agree with you–I’m appalled by the lack of pumpkin pie. It’s a quintessential Thanksgiving staple, and I can’t imagine going without it.

  10. Larry Kaufman

    Another take on the subject, from Cantor Penny Kessler: http://bit.ly/9DPlNw

  11. avatar
    Suburban Sweetheart Reply October 27, 2010 at 1:41 am

    I’ve never felt uncomfortable celebrating Halloween & was, in fact, shocked to meet, in my early 20s, a rabbi’s son who wasn’t allowed to celebrate Halloween growing up. He had never been trick-or-treating, never dressed up, never carved a pumpkin… holiday joys that remind me of childhood & that are some of my happiest memories.
    I just can’t buy the Halloween-as-religious argument. Valentine’s Day used to be religious, too, right? But alas, now it’s about cards & candy & Hallmark love. The fact is that SO many of the things we do today – holidays & otherwise – initially had religious origins that probably didn’t align with Judaism. But as Reform Jews, we’ve always been about melding societal evolution with religious conviction in a way that works for us & makes Judaism livable & enjoyable & meaningful all at the same time. Personally, I can’t see how carving a jack-o-lantern or passing out Snickers bars to squealing children will ever affect how I feel about my faith.

  12. avatar

    I love Halloween and that growing up in Orthodox day school did not stop me from loving even though we were expressly forbidden to discuss it at all. They used the “wait for Purim” lines and then they created a “Sukkah hop” as we went from sukkah to sukkah. But there is a playfulness and a scariness to Halloween that neither of these capture.
    This year at a Shabbaton, I am teaching on Halloween morning so I decided to discuss Jewish Rage and the Golem. What could be a better way to have fun with Jewish supernatural stories and Halloween. We are American Jews, we can bring all of ourselves to our secular holidays.

  13. avatar

    I fully agree with Jordan and Larry. Pumpkin pie is a fantastic dessert.
    The first time I found a pareve pumpkin pie at a kosher bakery in November, I wanted to say “shechechiyanu” :o)

  14. avatar

    I believe that we are overthinking this. Halloween just a holiday for kids. I, for one, don’t feel the need to find the “jewishness” of every event. Happy Fourth of July anyone?
    The part that made me chuckle a bit was the beginning of the article where Rabbi Wood writes: “trying to lessen the emphasis on the gift-giving and increase awareness of the tradition and history of the holiday”. This could be about Chanukah or Christmas. I have plenty of Christian friends that struggle with this as well. I take it as a reminder that we are all victims of marketing and consumerism – no matter what faith.

  15. avatar

    I agree with those who are comfortable with the notion of Halloween. It has become a very secularlized holiday – especially for children. All they see is dressing in costume and going out and getting candy – they don’t see any religious significance to it.
    Easter and Christmas – those I would have an issue with.

  16. avatar

    Rabbi Wood,
    A similar question was recently posed to Jewish Values Online: Are there any Jewish legal or religious traditions that run counter to celebrating Halloween, traditionally a pagan holiday, but now more or less a secular one?
    You may be interested to read what the rabbis on our Panel of Scholars have to say on the matter, by visiting: http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=207
    JewishValuesOnline.org seeks to solicit questions concerning how Jews should respond to and think about current issues, then provides a multi-denominational perspective through responses from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis.

  17. avatar

    This is a great discussion. Another social action alternative for Halloween is Trick O’Can. Our senior high school students collect cans instead of candy to deposit and donate the money to a local organization. We get about 30 students each year for this event. No cavities or spending money on costumes, just fun and tzedakah.

  18. avatar

    Samantha Friedman said:
    “Are there any Jewish legal or religious traditions that run counter to celebrating Halloween, traditionally a pagan holiday, but now more or less a secular one?”
    She is quite correct that Halloween was traditionally a pagan holiday, but now more or less a secular one, but she left out the Catholic Church, which morphed the pagan holiday into a Christian holiday.
    While I would prefer to take a pass on the merits of this dialogue, I would like to pose a question.
    How is it that in this ecumenical bastion of interfaith dialogue no one seems to know that the night of October 31st is All Hallows Eve and that November 1st is All Saints Day on the Church calendar?
    Religious Catholics actually go to Mass on that day.

  19. Larry Kaufman

    Amplifying on M.Z.Mark’s comment, Halloween is a shortened form for the eve of Hallows (erev yom tzadikim?).
    The New York Times this morning had an article about communities that don’t want the kids trick-or-treating on Sunday, and are therefore trying to shift the celebration to Saturday or Monday. Kind of like when we Reform Jews who somewhat arbitrarily turned Shavuot into Confirmation now fiddle with the time for Confirmation — on the day? on the eve? on the nearest Friday night? on the nearest Sunday morning?

  20. avatar

    Thanksgiving was also originally a holiday that included religious (Christian) observances. Today, many churches throughout the US have Christian services to mark Thanksgiving. In addition, New Year’s is based on a Christian/Catholic calendar.
    Although there are other reasons for not celebrating Halloween, I am continually bothered by the reasoning that because Halloween has an ancient religious background (one that many Christians might and do find disturbing) it should not be seen today as a secular holiday.
    If you are not going to celebrate Halloween because others in the country or the world may also use the day for a religious service, then I hope that you will not be celebrating Thanksgiving or New Year’s Day (based on a Christian/Catholic calendar) either. In addition, many churches also have religious services to mark Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day. And although I personally don’t know of any, I’m sure there is someone out there that also has services on the 4th of July.
    I don’t see a problem with celebrating Halloween and we plan to do it with our children. I think that with the 364 other days of the year that we emphasize and celebrate our Jewishness, our children can handle one day of silly fun, no matter its origins, and not feel their Jewish identities threatened.

  21. avatar

    EM,
    You are conflating two different issues – celebrating a foreign (to Judaism) holiday, and marking an occasion that is fixed to the Gregorian calendar.
    You are correct about New Year’s Day (and its proceeding eve). Many of us who do not celebrate Halloween also do not celebrate New Year’s. Our New Year is on the 1st of Tishrei, and that is the appropriate time to make resolutions. We enter our year in solemn prayer and reflection – not drunken debauchery.
    However, the Jewish objection to Halloween and New Year’s has nothing to do with a fixed date on the Gregorian calendar.
    Thanksgiving (second Monday of October in Canada, fourth Thursday of November in the United States), is a G-d based day, to be sure.
    However, it neither requires, nor is exemplified by, prayer to any specific man-god or prophet outside of Jewish understanding. As such, the majority of rabbinic authorities allow (and even encourage) participation in Thanksgiving for North American Jews.
    Regarding Halloween, some non-participating Jews will still hand out candy to children who arrive at their doorstep, for the purpose of darchei shalom , peaceful interaction with non-Jewish neighbors.

  22. avatar

    It’s a bit late in the discussion, but I wanted to point out that this year Halloween fell on a Sunday so Saturday night was “Havdalaween”. Yep, you heard right. Us crazy Canucks dressed up, toilet papered the dads (the “mummies” chickened out) and had a general fun time – all ending with a lovely Havdalah. For more info, see:
    http://palter.ca/global/2010/10/30/happy-havdalaween-2/

  23. avatar

    Two years ago, this was a hot enough topic to evoke 22 comments, and this year none. While it may be true that everything relevant has been said, not everyone has yet said it! What kind of Jewish debate is that?

    Meanwhile, I resent the assumption that Classical Reform Jewish households would have imposed more piety on Thanksgiving than would those Jews for whom beginning a meal with a motzi and ending with a birkat mazon was quotidian.

    With Thanksgiving bearing down on us, may I inquire if anyone has developed a home ritual, with or without a Jewish flavor, wherein all participants articulate what they are thankful for this year?

  24. avatar

    Lets not over think this holiday called Halloween! As a conservative Jew who grew up going to an orthodox shul, I had so much fun trick or treating! Let kids be kids since this PC world gets tougher to navigate every day. Celebrate the Jewish holidays with zest and spirituality while letting the kids enjoy secular holidays without “deeper” meaning. Kids grow up way too fast anyway. Just let them stop and smell the…candy corn!

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