Should Jewish children trick or treat?

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Each year the discussion surrounding Halloween festivities surfaces in conversations with Jewish educators around the country. Seemingly, regardless of socio-economic background or location, the same issue arises.

So we’ve asked three Jewish educators:

Should we permit our children’s participation in Halloween festivities?

BSL_Headshot.JPGFor me, the answer is clear. Our job is to inform; it is the parents’ job to determine what is permissible for their children. Just as we teach our children how to observe Shabbat and Kashrut, we should teach them about the history of Halloween. What individual families decide to do with this information is, and should be, up to them.

Halloween is viewed by many as a secular holiday, no different than Thanksgiving or July 4th. However for some, the holiday’s Pagan origins set it in another class altogether. Those who think that Jewish children can go trick or treating, including myself, have no problem separating Halloween’s origins from what it has become–an American holiday of collecting candy and dressing up.

Opponents to this idea believe that regardless of its current place in American society, Halloween’s origins are not only non-Jewish but really anti-Jewish.

For me, the argument can be made if this is something that we should be supporting as Jews. With that said, I believe firmly that we must find a balance of our American culture and our Jewish heritage, and there are ways to find a “happy medium.”

Primarily, a family should make the commitment to sending their children to religious school, should Halloween occur on a day when school is in session. If after school individual families trick or treat, I believe that’s fine. Many of us struggle with our own Jewish identity and I am impressed when families can find this middle ground. For each family, what is acceptable is different, as it should be.

As educators, we must teach about the secular world while never casting judgment, something we see too frequently. It is our job to inform, and it is the parents’ job to decide. As long as we are able to maintain this separation, we reacting in the best interest of our students.

Benjamin S. Lewis is the Director of Formal and Informal Education at New City Jewish Center in New City, NY. He is pursuing his master of education in administration & supervision from Loyola University Chicago, and has been working in Jewish education for over 10 years.

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oz.jpgI am working off the basic assumption that, from a Jewish perspective, the celebration of Halloween is not something that we view positively. Whether it is because the holiday has its origins in certain pagan celebrations, or because it was later appropriated by the Catholic church as the evening before All Saints’ Day, or that the values espoused (such as the glorification of death and horror or the vandalism that often takes place that is not discouraged enough), Halloween is a holiday that runs contrary to our value and belief system.

Nevertheless, because it is a holiday that is focused on children–who are often very innocent in their simple desire to dress up, have fun and get free candy–a school must respond very sensitively. To some extent, emphasizing alternative Jewish approaches and holidays that provide similar enjoyment, such as Purim, may be the way to go. For example, in the modern State of Israel, Purim is widely celebrated by even the non-religious public, simply because it is something which they experience positively and as fun. Obviously, that kind of experience is difficult to duplicate in the Diaspora, where we are a minority living among the Gentiles. But from an educational perspective, it is very important that students recognize that these types of things exist within their own heritage.

At a basic level, no Jewish school should actively encourage celebration of Halloween. If some families are going to celebrate it, they should not celebrate it thinking that it is sanctioned by the Jewish community. That doesn’t mean that any specific individual or family should be castigated, God forbid. But, it is entirely appropriate that we present a message that the tension does exist, and though it might be uncomfortable, that is part of the burden of living a committed Jewish life in the Diaspora.

Rabbi Yoel Oz is the Assistant Rabbi at Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington D.C. He also teaches Judaic studies in the Upper School of the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, MD.

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sara.jpgIf Jewish tradition teaches us uvacharta bachayim, choose life (Deuteronomy 30:19), then Halloween, the holiday which glorifies death, cannot be something that fits into my Jewish life. With its ghosts and goblins, witches and zombies, fake blood and skeletons, Halloween is a vivid reminder of the presence of death in our lives, a celebration of the fear of death and an opportunity to play pranks on others in the name of scaring them “to death.” No matter how much Halloween comes to resemble any other Hallmark holiday–with the cute costumes, tasty treats and greeting cards–it still has its roots in death.

When I was growing up, my parents reluctantly allowed me to trick or treat. Friends’ parents took me, or my parents would stand at the street when I ran up to ring the doorbell. They always darkened the house and never gave out candy. Although I was embarrassed, I always knew that this was not a Jewish holiday, and understood clearly why my parents made their choice.

Today, I am not so sure. Today, I choose life. I choose to give my son the opportunity to have a life in both the Jewish world and the larger world in which he lives, a life which embraces the beauty of life and glorifies God’s creation. I will take my son trick-or-treating, but will make sure that he never dresses up in something that celebrates death. I will see that he carries a UNICEF box to collect pennies for tzedakah. And I will leave a basket of treats by the door for all visitors: I won’t actively give it out, but I will participate somewhat by having it there. I recognize the inherent contradiction here, but I cannot avoid it. Uvacharta bachayim, choose life. We will choose to live with both feet firmly planted in our Jewish tradition, but with one finger on the doorbell of American tradition as well.

Sara Shapiro-Plevan is a doctoral student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the director of the Teacher Development Institute, a project of USCJ’s METNY region.

Posted on October 28, 2007

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15 thoughts on “Should Jewish children trick or treat?

  1. Ezekah

    This discussion arises every year. I agree with the articles. Though Halloween had paganistic origins, today in America, it is celebrated very differently. It is all about costumes and candy. If my children wanted to go trick-treating, then I take them and have no problem with it. If my wife wants to put pumpkiin decorations around the house, I have no problem with it.

    Halloween, as it is presently celebrated is more akin to Thanksgiving. An American holiday with food as its major component. But with no worship practices included.

    Holidays like Xmas and Easter, while being a lot about kids and fun, are still entirely enmeshed in religious themes. As the xians say, their idol is the reason for the season.

  2. The Doctor

    Furthermore, while it is less common today, when I was a kid we took blue Unicef boxes with us and collected donations as well as candy. And what is more consonant with Jewish values than going around collecting tzedakah? If you want your kids to have the experience of trick-er-treating but make sure they learn something of value, consider something like this…

  3. Reuel

    I do not live in the US, but it seems to be that Halloween should be celebrated; it’s origins scream at us from all around at this time of year. I get American cable and it’s basically impossible to not see the Day of the Dead and the world’s concepts of death pervading it, trickled down from the past.

    Just as I don’t believe xmas and easter are to be celebrated, because of their origins (xians imputed Jesus into these seasons, he had nothin to do with it away).

    I’m sure Halloween is fun; but, I don’t think I would have any children I have in the future partaking of it.

  4. Ezekah

    [The Doctor]Furthermore, while it is less common today, when I was a kid we took blue Unicef boxes with us and collected donations as well as candy. And what is more consonant with Jewish values than going around collecting tzedakah? If you want your kids to have the experience of trick-er-treating but would like them to keep a Jewish perspective, consider something like this…

    Now that is a great idea. Give to charity, instead of giving (in a round about way) to dentists.

  5. Haffju

    The doctor is right, Jewish children should be able to trick or treat same as non-Jewish children as long as they are doing it for fun and they aren’t doing it for religious reasons, such as paganism.

  6. jrb

    I grew up trick-or-treating, and can understand how it can be viewed as a simple night of dress-up; however, I have come to agree with the ‘choose life’ approach. The existence of so many (some put on by disney, no less!)’halloween horror’ nights that operate on the more-gruesome-the-better philosophy is evidence that halloween can not be strictly compared to a costume party. The celebration of death, dismemberment, and pain is disgusting, and evidence abounds that people exposed to violence become inured to it over time. What will people tell their older children who have outgrown ‘dress-up’ and want to attend a horror night because they’ve been accustomed to celebrating it their whole lives?

  7. Ezekah

    [Haffju]The doctor is right, Jewish children should be able to trick or treat same as non-Jewish children as long as they are doing it for fun and they aren’t doing it for religious reasons, such as paganism.

    Haffju

    If someone WERE doing it for paganism, what specifically would they be doing?

  8. Haffju

    I think Jewish children should be allowed the same things as non-Jewish children as long as it does not conflict with their religion, and Halloween is more about dressing up in costumes and having fun than a pagan holiday, so what is the problem with that?

  9. mily

    “For me, the argument can be made if this is something that we should be supporting as Jews. With that said, I believe firmly that we must find a balance of our American culture and our Jewish heritage, and there are ways to find a “happy medium.â€?”

    this is what assimilation is. This is what is destroying the jewish people. If you’re Jewish and leave Hashem and Torah out of the equation this is how your will end up assimilated and just be like any other american not jewish

  10. mily

    for the people like the first message posted by Reuel whi thinks that Halloween have nothing to do with religion well thinka again, halloween is smack out of the catholic church . Even if you think is harmless and just kids having fun well christmas and easter is aslo harmless just kids having fun too with santa, the easter egg hunt just kids right

    this is from wikipidia or just research it online
    “The term Halloween (and its alternative rendering Hallowe’en) is shortened from All-hallow-even, as it is the eve of “All Hallows’ Day”,[1] which is now also known as All Saints’ Day. Some modern Halloween traditions developed out of older pagan traditions, especially surrounding the Irish holiday Samhain, a day associated both with the harvest and otherworldly spirits”

  11. hms1981

    while Halloween is known to be a Pagan holiday, in the US it’s totally commercialized. every store in the nation boasts Halloween decorations and sales on costumes and candy. Halloween parties and parades are held days before the actual holiday, and some parties are known to be really wild.

    i don’t see anything wrong with Jewish children trick-or-treating on Halloween. to them, it’s all about who gets the most candy and who has the best costume. in theory, we have our own version of Halloween…Purim. actually, it’s more like Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day rolled into one package.

    to some degree, Christmas has become commercialized. of my non-Jewish friends, i don’t know anyone who actually celebrates it as a religious holiday. to them, it’s pretty much about presents and a day off from work/school. but still, as a Jew i feel left out during this time of year. it’s only natural. which is why i think it’s fine for Jewish kids to take part in Halloween festivities. they already have one holiday to make them feel left out, they don’t need another.

  12. AlexUtiug

    Try telling a devout Catholic that Halloween is a pagan holiday – you’ll be the first victim of a new crusade. They treat it as a day of all saints when they honor their holy men (and women?) – kind of like when the Jews in Israel go to Shimon bar Yohai’s tomb on Lag baOmer.

    That said, considering how much pagan traditions Catholicism has preserved, it is a pagan holiday :-P

  13. Plant-tree

    I’m working on an article that traces the origin of modern Halloween to ancient Syria where a Hebrew celebration involved children dressing up like defeated enemy king.
    Anyone know about this?

  14. Meredith

    Plant-tree,
    We’ve never heard about this, but maybe some of our other readers have.

    -Meredith

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