Every year at this time we receive a handful of inquiries – some years more, some less – regarding “the Jewish position” on Halloween. As a community school, we’re particularly wary of phrases like, “the Jewish position” or even more insidiously put, “the right – or real – Jewish position” on various subjects and issues. An aspect of Agnon about which I’m quite proud is that our students, families and staff encompass an extremely broad and varied spectrum of levels of observance, affiliation and knowledge – and that accounts for a wonderfully rich environment. You all know that one lesson derived from such an inclusive population is the knowledge that we all have so much more in common with each other than popular (mis)perception would have it.
So with that as a caveat, I’ll tread carefully into the Halloween question. It’s certainly accepted that its origins were initially pagan (Celtic/Irish ethnically; Druid religiously), and its earliest celebrations marked the end of summer with trappings familiar to all of us, like pumpkins and cornstalks.
Around the eighth century the (Catholic) Church recognized that it couldn’t persuade people to disassociate from their old ways (particularly if those old ways had to do with feasts and celebrations), and they fairly consciously incorporated Halloween into the Christian calendar. It morphed into a night on which to honor saints, and “All Hallowed Evening” transformed into Halloween. Even with this foundational change, many of the Druids’ practices remained, such as dressing in scary costumes as witches or ghosts.
Most (an accurate but slightly subjective – and therefore a safe – qualifier) traditional Jewish perspectives say that these origins put Jewish involvement in Halloween outside of normative Jewish practice. The source usually cited for this is Vayikra (“Leviticus”), which asks that Jews not participate in non-Jewish or idolatrous celebrations. That notwithstanding, most Americans – including most American Jews – are likely to see Halloween as completely divorced from its Christian, much less its pagan, roots. It’s equally likely that most would place Halloween into the national/secular holiday category, along with (Saint) Valentine’s Day and Saint Patrick’s Day.
As Jews, we live – fortunately – in a wonderfully open and accepting society; part of that acceptance is a two-way street. We all agree to engage in the broader community; and that community – and the individual elements within it – agree to accept the individuals and groups that make up the whole. One reason why minorities and immigrant groups have become part of the greater American society is precisely because they’ve agreed to take on the practices of that larger group. The English language; Western/American values of individual liberty; and certain customs and small-t traditions are at the top of the list. In that light, it could be argued that Halloween has helped to “Americanize” individuals and groups into the mosaic that is America.
I was never a big believer in the melting pot metaphor; it seemed that the process would result in a bubbling, gray, nondescript mass. The distinct elements that were thrown into the pot would emerge as one indistinguishable blob. Accents and customs and foods and languages… – all these would undergo an erosion of sorts, and what would be poured into the bowls would be a pureed soup rather than a stew. (Sorry, too many cooking shows.)
The salad bowl and the mosaic made greater sense to me – a process and a product in which individual components helped to make the whole, while they retained their own unique shape and color and texture. It’s within that America where children feel proud of their distinct backgrounds and traditions and customs – and religions – such that they are comfortable choosing whether to or whether not to participate in the customs and traditions of the majority. It is clear that Jewish traditional practice and outlook say that Halloween’s origins need to be taken into account, even if the contemporary perception of the day is very different from those pagan and Catholic roots. That’s the foundation of the school’s position as to why Halloween is not “celebrated” by activity or reference at Agnon (or at other Jewish Day Schools).
But what about outside the walls – what about parties and trick-or-treating? Again, as a community school, we recognize that there will be a myriad of family customs and approaches, and while there can be disagreements, there should also be mutual respect. Those who see Halloween as a genuinely secularized holiday, as American as the Fourth of July and devoid of religious underpinnings, have come to that conclusion as thoughtful parents. So too the families that have decided that their children will not participate in Halloween activities; they’re also to be respected for their decisions about what is right for their children.
There are those who have suggested that Purim, with its masks and costumes and feasts, can be seen as a stand-in for Halloween – that Jewish parents should offer a theological version of eat-this-not-that to their children, favoring Purim’s Jewish nutrition over Halloween’s empty calories. Purim actually should stand front and center – not as a substitute, but on its own. It’s an incredibly rich celebration, sophisticated enough to incorporate discussions about women’s rights, and celebratory enough to allow for (to encourage!) nightlong toasting. It is not, however, Judaism’s take on Halloween (which is almost as absurd as the very old-fashioned Chanukkah-Christmas “comparisons”). Absolutely revel in Purim – but wait until February.
Jerry D. Isaak-Shapiro
Head of School