Of Challah-ween, Havdalah-ween and Yaakov Lanterns

If you’re reading this post during October, it’ll soon be Halloween – that great Jewish holiday.

Yes, you read that right. (Well, sort of.)

In no obvious sense is Halloween a Jewish holiday. Historically, Halloween derives from Christianity’s All Hallows’ Eve, traditionally a time of feasting and vespers before All Saints’ Day on November 1, which leads to All Souls’ Day on November 2. These Christian observances, in turn, grow atop the Celtic roots of Samhain, a harvest festival roughly halfway between the North’s autumnal equinox and winter solstice. A holiday once somber, marking a transition to winter darkness, became a day of child-centered merriment.

Adaptation and absorption from other cultures and faiths is very much a Jewish story, as many Jewish holidays derive at least in part from interaction with non-Jewish culture. The shalosh regalim (three festivals) of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot root in pre-Judaic agricultural rites. Sukkot’s festivity draws from a quasi-pagan celebration of drawing water to prime the divine pump of winter rain (simchat beit ha-shoeivah), a wild ancient party like no other (B.T. Sukkah 51a). Hanukkah emerged from a mytho-historical account of Jewish triumph over Greek Hellenism, over rabbinic objection that such a holiday would honor Jewish militarism. Purim, whose Persian morality tale Rabbi Yitz Greenberg calls a “festival of diaspora,” emerged in part as a reaction to the Hellenistic Day of Nicanor.

That Jewish spirituality refracts other influences (even Judaism’s venerable Kaddish prayer bears Muslim imprints) does not mean that Jewish holidays and rituals are unholy or “made up” in ways that invite us to trivialize them. Christians should no less trivialize Christmas: so what if the Tannenbaum (Christmas tree) is European and not original to a Bethlehem manger? Rather, history invites us to understand Jewish life as porous and organic, co-evolving with cultures and civilizations where Jews live. Twas always thus, and always thus will be. Halloween – an un-Jewish celebration tracing centuries of cultural and doctrinal adaptation – reminds Jews of our own adaptive Jewish journey.

Should Jews celebrate Halloween as a Jewish holiday? Some say no: one sense of halachah (rabbinic law) bans Halloween as avodah zarah, an alien practice disloyal to monotheism. Others reject it as unwise syncretism, watering down Judaism to fit the latest fad. Many moderns, by contrast, welcome Jewish inflection of secular culture – trick-or-treating in Jewish costume, or making what Rabbi Everett Gendler calls a “Yaakov lantern” (i.e. jack-o-lantern pumpkin carved with a secular design on one side and a Star of David on the other).

Jews know from donning costumes for spiritual purposes: that’s a Purim tradition, depicting multiple partzufim (facets) of the self in honor of Queen Esther’s bravely concealing and revealing her identity to save the Jewish people. But Halloween isn’t Purim. Jews also know from ritually separating summer from winter: that’s Sukkot, ending the agricultural season and heralding the winter rains. But Halloween isn’t Sukkot.

That said, Halloween is a celebratory separation of sorts: a final fall cultural festival before the secular “holiday season” arc that links through Thanksgiving to New Years. And in 2015, trick-or-treating will go out after nightfall Saturday, just after Jews mark the Havdalah separation between Shabbat and the week ahead. Halloween’s cultural separation overlays a Jewish spiritual one.

Whatever you do on October 31 (Havdalah, then Halloween?), the day is a chance to recall that Jewish culture, religion and faith – indeed, all culture, religion and faith – by definition evolve. This reminder invites Jews to hold our holidays both lovingly (what an amazing inheritance!) and gently (so we can evolve wisely). Creative flexibility is a secret to Jews surviving and thriving over the centuries – and that secret is worth celebrating.

Yes, even on Halloween (maybe “Challahween”). Chag sameach.

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