25 October 2018

By Editor | Blogs

Oct 25

Dear Friends,

Cheshvan offers many blessings for rabbis. Allowing a bit of a lull after the high holy days, Cheshvan is usually quite an enjoyable time in the annual calendar cycle. Yet, there is one major exception: there is nothing I dread more than the annual social-media debate among friends and family over whether or not Jews should be celebrating Halloween.

Perhaps a more acute argument in America, this annual late-October past-time of deliberating the halakhic acceptability of Halloween never fails to be incredibly aggravating. The amount of en vogue think-pieces that have proliferated in the last few years is exhausting: there’s (British) Dan Friedman’s scry, ‘Why All Jews Should Hate Halloween and So Should Everybody Else,’ the Jewish Book Council entered the fray with the confusingly-titled, ‘The Reason Jews Shouldn’t Celebrate Halloween is Exactly Why We Should,‘ and then there’s the alarmist paean, ‘Which is Worse for the Jews: Halloween or Christmas?’

Really sorry to clog up your browser tabs with this sort of drivel! The reason this all bothers me so much is not because I think that Halloween is a great holiday, or that it has some secret Jewish history- it doesn’t. Contemporary (that is, American) Halloween is simply a very superficial version of much older Celtic customs, the ancient Samhain, and the more modern Catholic All Saints’ Day. Usually it’s observed in the least-interesting way, with far more offensive costumes and high-sugar sweets than seasonal spiritual contemplation of death.

Despite that, Jewish invectives against Halloween really irritate me because they’re so new. Jewish parenting literature in the 1950s and 1960s never even mentioned Halloween- not because it wasn’t a big deal, but because it didn’t bother anyone. Jews who were struggling to sort out how they should adapt to the broader culture around them were far more concerned with responding to Christmas and Easter and making Jewish holidays interesting than staging a mass revolt against a silly and harmless relic of a far-distant pagan past.

Halloween returned to be a major part of the North American cultural calendar largely because of two unlikely culprits: child psychology and LGBT liberation. Halloween became a mainstay of the Greenwich Village LGBT community, who explored it as a symbol of changing identities and shifting selves. Meanwhile, gurus of pop-psychology proclaimed Halloween as an essential exercise to help counter the emotional repression of children.

In response to these two factors: an interest in the emotional needs of children and a struggle for recognition in the LGBT community, Halloween became public enemy number one for the newfound ‘Orthodoxy’ which grew after the Second World War. The rejection of Halloween for Jewish children is not actually about defending Jewish custom, but about isolating Jewish families from a non-Jewish culture which was perceived by the self-proclaimed Orthodox reactionaries as decadent and profligate.

As a result, I maintain the pre-reactionary position of most Jews to Halloween: do it if you want to. If the spooky themes and fancy-dress boundary-breaking appeals to you, feel free to celebrate Halloween in style without worrying about whether or not it is ‘permitted’ in Judaism. It is exactly the sort of narrow thinking that Halloween is meant to push against that decries it as the ultimate enemy.

Yet, perhaps we shouldn’t get carried away either, or else we’ll turn Halloween into this:

Shabbat Shalom (and Happy Halloween),

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