Author Archives: Rabbi David Nelson

Rabbi David Nelson

About Rabbi David Nelson

Rabbi David Nelson's rabbinic experience includes five years in a small congregation, fifteen years at CLAL, a think-tank and center for leadership education, five years in a community center, and three years as the primary writer and teacher for the Reform Movement's Israel organization. He is now the campus rabbi and faculty member in Religion at Bard College in upstate New York.

Can Halloween Be Made Jewish?

Reprinted with permission from Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning. Provided by the Berman Jewish Policy Archive

Halloween is such a strange time for many Jews.  Rabbis, educators, and day school directors remind their constituencies constantly about how un-Jewish it is, how pagan and Christian it is, how we shouldn’t participate. Aside from everything else, they say, “We’ve got an equivalent celebration of our own!” On Purim, Jewish kids get to dress up in silly costumes and receive goodies from friends and neighbors in the form of mishloach manot!

Meanwhile, these pronouncements are ignored by thousands of Jewish children who enjoy Halloween! What a great holiday! Candy, parties, candy, costumes, and candy! And no one is really aware of the origins, pagan or Christian, of the celebration — unless they’ve heard about it from their rabbi!

Before I go down this path any further I should say, in the interest of full disclosure, that my kids do not do Halloween. I haven’t ever forbidden them from trick-or-treating, but in the environment in which we live it’s a barely noticed ritual. That having been said, I want to re-examine the question of Jews and Halloween.

Other Borrowed Traditions

About 20 years ago, a friend and teacher of mine, Rabbi Everett Gendler, told me that in his shul they make “Ya’akov lanterns.” At the time I chuckled and filed the tidbit away without further thought, but the time has come to dust it off and think it through. We Jews have a long history of borrowing customs and rituals from the culture in which we live. Most of our Hanukkah traditions and rituals were borrowed, our end-of-winter Purim revelry bears a close resemblance to similar festivities in other cultures, and there is a long list of symbols at the Passover seder table that echo ancient pagan rites of spring.

The Jewish quality of these rituals, objects, and customs comes not in their uniquely Jewish origins, but in how we have adapted them to function as vehicles for uniquely Jewish meaning. So, for example, we borrowed a child’s spinning top from our Christian neighbors in medieval Germany. On the four sides of the top were written abbreviations for instructions on playing the game: nicht – nothing, ganz – everything, halb – half, and stell – put. On our tops we wrote the letters in Hebrew: nun, gimmel, hay, shin. But they still provided a digest of the rules of the game. Then we transformed the whole thing into a vehicle of Jewish meaning – nes gadol haya sham – a great miracle happened there.

All-Inclusive Covenant

Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

In the beginning of Parashat Nitzavim, Moses prepares the Israelites to enter the covenant with God. He declares that the whole community–elders, women, children, strangers–will be part of the covenant, “from your woodchoppers to your water-drawers” (Deuteronomy 29:10).

This is a typical biblical phrase. “From x to y,” where x and y represent opposite extremes of a continuum, means “including everyone.” Thus “from young to old” or “from the greatest to the smallest” mean “including everyone.” Our problem is that woodchoppers and water-drawers are not opposite extremes. Both are menial laborers and neither was highly esteemed. What does the phrase mean?

Perhaps these jobs are meant symbolically rather than literally. Let’s free associate. Woodchoppers are literally “choppers of your trees.” The image of trees has echoes of the Tree of Life, the Torah. To “chop” such a Tree is to question, or reject Jewish tradition. On the other hand, the image of “water-drawers” is reminiscent of the verse “u-sh’avtem mayim b’sasson…,” the promise of Isaiah (12:3), “You shall draw water joyfully from salvation’s wells.” The image is of one who drinks deeply from the wellsprings of Torah.

Understood this way, Moses is declaring the covenant to be inclusive of all, the pious and the rebellious, the faithful and the confused. The text warns us never to be so complacent about our commitment or devotion, or so sure of our faith, that we see the covenant of Israel as closed to those who are not convinced of its value or sure of its feasibility. Rather we must learn from the later verses of the parashah and approach such Jews with the assurance that the Torah, in its broadest sense, “. . . is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Deuteronomy 30:14).

The Nazirite–A Sacred Volunteer

Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

Numbers, chapter 6, presents the laws of the nazirite, an individual who has, by a vow, taken on a special sacred status. For the period of the vow, the nazirite may not have contact with any dead body, or consume any grape products (be they intoxicants or not), or cut his/her hair.

Many have observed that these restrictions are similar to those of the kohanim, the priests. But, in fact, the nazirite’s restrictions are even greater than the priest’s. An ordinary priest is permitted contact with the dead of his immediate family. Only the High Priest shares the nazirite’s absolute prohibition regarding contact with any dead.

Furthermore, priests are prohibited from drinking intoxicants while "on duty," in the sanctuary, but they are not prohibited from doing so at other times, nor are they forbidden to consume nonalcoholic grape products. Finally, priests were not allowed to shave their heads but were required to trim their hair. So it appears that, for the period of the vow, the nazirite’s sanctity surpassed even that of the High Priest.

Often we think of the early period of Israel’s covenant life as one in which God dealt out sanctity and special status on a rather arbitrary basis. The Israelites were chosen from among all peoples; they had no choice. The priests inherited their priesthood; they had no option. Even the prophets felt compelled to speak in God’s name.

But in the nazirite, we have a model of sacred status–with increased responsibility–entered into voluntarily, by any man or woman willing to accept the terms of the challenge. Such voluntarism in accepting responsibility for kedushah, holiness, is a valuable model for our age, when all coercive elements have faded from our Judaism and our participation and commitment are strictly a matter of choice.

Flooded With Violence

Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

The story of God‘s eradication of humanity with the flood is well known. The decision was based on God’s deep disappointment with humanity’s immersion in chamas, violence. God attempts to rectify the situation by regenerating humanity through a single tzaddik (righteous person)–Noah, and his family.

A midrash relates that God had created and destroyed several worlds before this one because all were flawed. Yet after the flood, God decides never to destroy the world (by flood) again. Why?

Perhaps the answer lies in Noah’s response to the flood. When the waters dry up, Noah leaves the ark. We expect some expression of gratitude to God for having been spared. A song, perhaps, or a dance. Instead, Noah builds an altar and, unbidden, sacrifices some animals to God. God smells the pleasant barbecue smell and then decides never to destroy again “…since the devisings of humans are evil from their youth” (Genesis 8:21).

God realizes that even Noah, the finest of his generation, whose intentions are unimpeachably pure, expresses gratitude with a violent act. Violence, apparently, is a built-in part of humanness that cannot be corrected in any new improved model. The hardest part of the realization is that this deep-rooted violence is no less a reflection of God than any other part of being human. God, after all, has tried to solve the problem of violence with violence.

In response to these sobering realizations, the mandate of vegetarianism (Genesis 1:29) is rescinded as unrealistic. We are permitted to kill for food, but only in a restricted and controlled manner, and we must never kill each other. God makes a covenant, a promise, never to destroy again, to live, forever, with the imperfections. God seals the covenant with a rainbow, a wonderful symbol of weaponry turned into a commitment for hope and peace.