My colleagues Joshua Ratner and Alana Suskin have offered their perspectives on kids trick or treating, and generally engaging (or not) in this week’s Halloween rituals. Notwithstanding all that they have already said about the opportunities to bring Jewish values to bear on everything from respect for the dead to the choice of candy purchased, I’ve often used this time of year as an opportunity to share some interesting and lesser known dimensions of Jewish thought and folklore. When it comes to questions of ghosts, spirits, and questions of the afterlife, I am fascinated not only by the content of the ideas found in our tradition, but in the human questions and needs that drive them.
There is a vast menu of beliefs and ideas to choose from when it comes to questions of the afterlife in Jewish teachings. One of the best surveys of the entirety of our tradition over the centuries can be found in Rabbi Simcha Paull Raphael‘s book ‘Jewish Views of the Afterlife‘.
If we begin with Biblical sources, the fact that is often most novel to those I have studied with is not the fact that consulting with mediums and those who can speak with ghosts and spirits is banned in biblical law, but that the tradition clearly accepts the existence of such spirits and the possibility of communicating with them. Much of Jewish law is concerned with not mixing categories or crossing boundaries set between two things, and so it is no surprise that the crossing of the ultimate boundary between life and death would be taboo. And yet, in I Samuel, 28, when King Saul is desperate for guidance from his deceased advisor, the prophet Samuel, he breaks the very law that he himself has enforced in his kingdom, to communicate with the dead. He finds ‘the witch of Endor’ to assist him:
28:7 Then said Saul to his servants: ‘Seek me a woman that divines by a ghost, that I may go to her, and inquire of her.’ And his servants said to him: ‘Behold, there is a woman that divines by a ghost at En-dor.’ 8 And Saul disguised himself, and put on other clothing, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night; and he said: ‘Divine for me, I pray of you, by a ghost, and bring me up whomsoever I shall name to you.’ 9 And the woman said to him: ‘Behold, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those that divine by a ghost or a familiar spirit out of the land; why then do you lay a snare for my life, to cause me to die?’ 10 And Saul swore to her by the Eternal, saying: ‘As the Eternal lives, there shall no punishment happen to you for this thing.’ 11 Then said the woman: ‘Whom shall I bring up for you?’ And he said: ‘Bring me up Samuel.’12 And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying: ‘Why have you deceived me? for you are Saul.’ 13 And the king said to her: ‘Be not afraid; for what do you see?’ …
While rabbinic literature develops ideas about where we go after we die, the purification of the soul in Gehenna, and the existence of a ‘world to come’ (a term which is used to mean multiple things), it is in Kabbalistic literature (the Zohar) and later Hasidic sources that are infused with the teachings of Jewish mysticism that we find the richest well of writing on ghosts and spirits, and the ability for such entities to make themselves known in our world. Clearly, these ideas drew on beliefs and folklore from other cultures and traditions in the places where Jews lived, but they take on their own, particular Jewish flavor. Kabbalah speaks of the three (and later five) levels of the soul and, while the highest level is reunited with the Source of all Being, the lowest level was believed to still be present, and wandering in our material world, at least until the physical body from whence it came has decomposed in the ground.
A ‘good’ spirit was an ‘ibbur’ and could inhabit the body of another living person for some period of time as an ‘additional soul’. Its purpose was often to help in a matter of this world and, when the help had been received, it would leave and continue on its journey.
A malevolent spirit was a ‘dybbuk’, understood to be the lower soul of someone who had done something so unspeakable that this level of soul could not even enter Gehenna for purification, but was condemned to wander out of body. When it came across a living person who also had committed a particularly serious sin, or was vulnerable because of being in some transitional state (about to get married, pregnant, for example), it had the possibility of entering a human body to possess it, and the end of such a story was seldom good. A classic play, that was also made into an early silent movie, featured such a story of ‘The Dybbuk’. Stories such as these had power in communities prior to the time that conditions that today we would recognize as epilepsy, schizophrenia, or bi-polar disorder, were understood.
This weekend I’m coming to the end of a short course I’ve been teaching at my congregation on Jewish views of the Afterlife. While the historical review of beliefs, folk tales, and rituals, has been educational, the most powerful part of our time together has been the sharing of experiences when we have felt the presence of a loved one who has died. Many have had experiences at the time of someone’s death, or in the months following, myself included. While there are many possible explanations for these experiences, including psychological explanations, the emotional power behind them provides a great deal of comfort and, for many, the hope that there is a reality to a ‘world to come’ where the spirit or soul continues, and where we will be reunited with loved ones.
So… whatever you do or don’t do with your children at Halloween, the pervasive presence of images and stories of ghosts and spirits at this time of year provides a wonderful opportunity to dip into Jewish sources on these topics, reflect and share together and ask yourself, ‘what do I believe, and why do I believe it?’
Lately it seems like Halloween has becomes a Rorschach test for how Jews feel about assimilation. As expressed in this eloquent blog post, some Jews applaud participating in Halloween because, since Halloween has become a secular holiday in America, doing so conveys an “ important feeling of being included, of not missing out and being part of the larger community.” Jewish participation in Halloween is a confirmation of our acceptance within society and is therefore something to be celebrated.
Others, such as my colleague Rabbi Alana Suskin, passionately argue that Jews should refrain from celebrating Halloween because Halloween’s values are not consistent with Jewish values and because Jews should model our counter-cultural values through how we live our lives. Jewish abstention from Halloween is a confirmation of our uniqueness as Jews and should be encouraged as part of our general bulwark against the pernicious forces of assimilation.
I used to fall into the second camp. I used to think that we could teach an important lesson to our kids about the sanctity and importance of Jewish particularism by having them refrain from celebrating Halloween. But after raising three young children and experiencing a decade of life in the suburbs, I have become a Halloween agnostic. On the one hand, stuffing our children with sugar (and then fighting with them about limiting how much they can eat) based on a holiday of pagan origins is not exactly a great idea. But are we really endorsing an erosion of Jewish identity in doing so? Little boys and girls love to dress up, regardless of the reason. And I have yet to meet a child who dislikes candy or chocolate. Plus, despite its pagan background, Halloween today is pretty clearly not observed as a religious holiday for Americans. (And if you want to avoid practices with pagan origins, you might be hard-pressed to comply with traditional Jewish mourning practices like covering mirrors.)
For the vast majority of Jews, the question of whether or not we should celebrate Halloween is obsolete. Of course, just because most Jews have given in to a practice does not mean we should simply condone it (though there are halakhic principles that do say just that). But most Jewish parents today are not looking to their rabbis for permission to let their kids trick or treat. We are missing an opportunity to connect with our people if we remain hung up on this question of the permissibility of Halloween.
If the question of whether Jews should participate in Halloween is the wrong question, then what is the right one? I suggest the real question ought to be: “what is a way for Jews to celebrate Halloween with moral integrity?” Rather than acquiescing to or stridently resisting Halloween’s existence, why not re-purpose it as a means of expressing Jewish values no matter the context? Why not take an occasion of great popularity and infuse it with Jewish wisdom and meaning? Here is one simple yet profound way to do so: boycott Hersheys, Mars, and Nestle chocolate. It turns out that 75% of the world’s chocolate is made in Ghana or the Ivory Coast, where they use child or slave labor to cultivate the cocoa they then sell to Hershey, Mars, and Nestle. So, yes, by handing out M&Ms or Nestle Crunch bars on Halloween, you are supporting the slave trade. And if that isn’t enough, you are also supporting the killing of orangutans in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Instead, you can buy Fair Trade or Rainbow Alliance chocolate, which is produced using certified labor standards that accord with Jewish law and that we can feel proud of. And you can educate your children about why you are doing so, teaching them an invaluable lesson about how what we do as consumers impacts the lives of others halfway around the world; about how the Talmud teaches that saving a single life is like saving the entire world. Plus, when the kids who receive your chocolate get home and empty out their plastic pumpkin buckets, seeing your strange chocolate amongst the more established brands might prompt a “Mah Nishtanah” conversation or a question. It might get them to google Fair Trade chocolate and learn about the horrible implications of buying brand-name chocolate. And who knows, it might even get them to tell their parents to only buy ethically-produced chocolate.
So why not use Halloween as a vehicle to raise consciousness? Perhaps Halloween—yes, Halloween—can become a vehicle for Kiddush Hashem, for the sanctification of God’s name.
Below, Rabbi Alana Suskin explains why her family doesn’t trick-or-treat. To hear from another Jewish mom with a different perspective, check out: “Why I Let My Jewish Kids Trick or Treat”
I feel fairly ambivalent about Halloween. On the positive side: although winter in the DC metro area is an exercise in perfect misery of cold and drippy wet, the end of October is still decidedly fall and can still often be quite nice: not yet rainy, not terribly cold, sometimes there are still bright leaves on the trees. So there’s the mid-autumn thing.
There’s also the neighborhoodliness of all the folks putting on a show for the kids, an opportunity for people to meet and interact with their neighbors, which these days can be a rare exercise.
There’s also a few pagan friends I have who look forward to their religious observance of Samhain (the pre-Christian, Celtic name for the holiday upon which the roman church based All Hallows’ Eve when it couldn’t rid the local populations of their age old observances). I’m pleased for them.
But most of all, with the more recent innovation of making a big deal out of what was a relatively small deal when I was little, I am Thrilled. To. Happiness. about the post Halloween sales of orange fairy lights and other useful sukkah items for the year to follow. (Yay!)
All that said, I don’t trick or treat, and neither does my child. And because we’ve talked about it, and he understands “we don’t observe that holiday,” at least at this point (he’s nine) he doesn’t seem to mind, even though he does have friends—even Jewish friends—who do.
Right now, what we do is help other kids celebrate their holiday by giving out candy (and if he eats a few Snickers bars, that’s fine, although he was sad when I explained to him that even though there are actually no authenticated cases of non-family members harming children with Halloween snacks, we can’t make candy apples or other treats to give out because people are afraid that someone might hurt their kids by giving them something harmful) and if he wants to dress up for them in a costume, he can do that even though our dress up holiday is Purim.
We have also talked about whether the values of Halloween are Jewish values: whether demanding gifts from others is a Jewish value (we didn’t get into the under threat of “trick” part), and we talked about how Judaism views death and dead bodies, and whether displaying “funny” skeletons and ghosts is in line with Jewish tradition, which views the human body, even after death, as holy, which is why Judaism forbids displaying corpses, even those of criminals after execution, and why it is considered a very holy mitzvah (obligation, and good deed) to be part of a chevreh kadishah l’metim (holy society for the care of the dead) in which one takes care, gently and with reverence for the soul which inhabited it, of the recently deceased corpse.
Which is why, when one is sitting with the body after death, making sure it is never left alone, one does not say certain prayers in the same room as the deceased’s body, lest the soul feel mocked because it cannot engage in that mitzvah anymore.
And it is also why, when it was in town, we did not go see the museum exhibit in which the corpses of people who had been preserved were posed in all sorts of positions for display of their inner workings. We talked about how, although Jewish tradition believes that the soul separates from the body after death, the body is a gift to us from God, and is an important part of us, to be treated with respect during life as well as after death, which is why we do not tattoo it, or mutilate it for any reason other than medical necessity, or throw it away until we have fulfilled the missions that God assigned us and then we are taken from it.
For us, the whistling In the dark of Halloween in making light of skeletons and ghosts and displaying them is not in line with the love we should have for those who passed from this earth before us, and whose love sustains us—and are not a threat to us—even after they are gone.
Finally, I find myself enormously disturbed by the sexualization both of little girls in their purchased costumes, but also in the adult celebrations in urban gathering areas (etc). While I firmly hold that the value of tzniut (modesty) is far more about respectful speech, humility, non-conspicuous consumption both in dress and in possessions, and deportment in general, the overemphasis on sexuality for women, let alone little girls, is not a value I share or wish to.
Which is why, since so few people know or observe the pagan, or even Christian origins of the day, it could be reasonably considered an “American” holiday, (Thanksgiving’s origins, on the other hand, are decidedly American, but its themes are religious in a way that is perfectly in line with Jewish values), we nevertheless do not celebrate Halloween.
One of my beliefs about Judaism is that as Jews we live and can model countercultural values, and it seems to me that, at least in my own home, Halloween is a time when we can model our difference—in a very quiet way.
I don’t, of course, go around harshing everyone’s mellow—I don’t criticize those who find a bit of harmless fun in it, I don’t even suggest that those Jews who enjoy it ought to refrain and I certainly don’t have anything against cupcakes, chocolate, or little kids spending an evening outside int he dark. But it is an terrific opportunity to have a discussion with your family about Jewish values, about how we view death and life, sexuality (for older kids), and the difference between Purim’s dress up where we are obligated to give food to others, and Halloween’s where we demand it from others.