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?
For 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.
I 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.
If 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.
Pronounced: PUR-im, the Feast of Lots, Origin: Hebrew, a joyous holiday that recounts the saving of the Jews from a threatened massacre during the Persian period.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.