A Jewish Exploration of Halloween

Below is the sermon I gave last Shabbat at Temple of Aaron. Please note that there is a paper that has been submitted to the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards with credited sources and a version of that can be found HERE. Thank you to my chervuta Charlie Goodman for doing much of the learning with me and to my dear proessfor Dr. Beth Berkowitz for pointing to her research. Some of this work is directly from her book and she is credited in the paper link above. Also, thank you to Laura Elkayam, Evan Miller, Rabbis Joel Roth, David Saiger, Jeffrey Abraham, Amiel Hersh, and Efrem Reis for their help.

800px-Happy_Halloween_1!In 2010, I gave a sermon about the complexities Jewish Americans face each year on October 31st. After my sermon, I was approached by two different congregants. The first applauded me for being the first rabbi to get up and say that the celebration of Halloween by Jews was wrong, though I said no such thing. The second hugged me because she had been battling this dilemma for quite some time and now was happy her rabbi had permitted her kids to go trick or treating. Again, I made no such claim. At that point, it was clear to me that Halloween is an issue for Jewish Americans. I realized the need for some deeper research into Halloween, its history, and how Judaism should approach this common secular practice. Along with Charlie Goodman I studied sources pertinent to Halloween from Biblical to modern as well as spoke with an expert on Halloween to understand the holiday’s origins. My research has been submitted as a paper of law to the Conservative Movements Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and I hope it will get on the agenda soon. Today we will look at some of the research and the conclusion and sometime next week I will post this sermon and my full research argument.
In my mind, Halloween is in a category much like Valentine’s Day, where Jews want to celebrate and be a part of the community. Other holidays such as Christmas and Easter, regardless of their festivities, are understood by Jews to be rooted in and symbolic of Christianity. It is clear they are religious in nature, due to the prayer, meal, and festivities surrounding those days. Jews, like any other Americans, celebrate cultural holidays such as Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, and Veterans Day. But Halloween seems to occupy a different category. It is believed to have pagan roots, or at the very least non-Jewish roots. But those religious undertones are not visible or recognizable to most.
My paper was not the first article written on the topic. Rabbi Michael Broyde, a scholar and Orthodox Rabbi at Tulane wrote a paper entitled Is Thanksgiving Kosher? In Appendix A of his paper he writes about Halloween and juxtaposes it with Thanksgiving, basing his opinion on the writings of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Broyde claims: “Halloween, unlike Thanksgiving plainly has in its origins religious beliefs that are foreign to Judaism, and whose beliefs are prohibited to us as Jews. On the other, notwithstanding the origins of Halloween, one must recognize that the vast majority of the people in America who currently celebrate Halloween do not do so out of any sense of religious observance or feeling. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find a religion in the United States that recognizes Halloween as a religious holiday.”
But the lack of recognition of the religious origins of Halloween by many Americans does not nullify its Halahkic (Jewish Law) status, but it does raise the question: What exactly is Halloween? In order to understand the religious nature of Halloween, I interviewed Halloween scholar Lisa Morton, author of Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. Morton writes, “Halloween has pagan roots, and I believe those were very important in shaping the holiday (not all Halloween scholars share that opinion, by the way). However, the Catholic observances of All Saints Day and All Souls Day were equally important in molding Halloween. However, in the contemporary observance, I think we can safely say that it has become largely divergent from the Catholic holidays.” She goes on to explain how Halloween came over to the States as a secular holiday and the 20th century retail involvement further removes any religious association.
Morton’s understanding of Halloween jives with Broyde’s claims, with a few differences. While they both agree on its origins and lack of religious adherence or recognition, Morton points out that the holiday itself diverged from its own origins. In America, while there is almost no recognition of the separation of All Saints Day from Halloween, it seems that in the mid-19th century it was brought to the States and treated as a secular holiday which it, according to both Broyde and Morton, remains today.
The traces of pagan origins in Halloween may preclude Jews from participating in the holiday. Broyde draws his conclusion based on the Rama, the main commentator on the Shulchan Arukh one of the most vital works of Jewish law, who writes; “Those practices done as a [Gentile] custom or law with no reason one suspects that it is an idolatrous practice or that there is a taint of idolatrous origins; however, those customs which are practiced for a reason, such as the physician who wears a special garment to identify him as a doctor, can be done.” To Broyde, and seemingly the Rama, the slightest essence of pagan custom can nullify the observance of the holiday by Jews. Broyde concludes that in order for Jews to celebrate Halloween one must acknowledge and agree that one of the following is true:

  1. Halloween celebrations have a secular origin.
  2. The conduct of the individuals “celebrating Halloween” can be rationally explained independent of Halloween.
  3. The pagan origins of Halloween or the Catholic response to it are so deeply hidden that they have disappeared, and the celebrations can be attributed to some secular source or reason.
  4. The activities memorialized by Halloween are actually consistent with the Jewish tradition.

Broyde claims that none of these statements are true and prohibits the celebration of Halloween, since he believes its origins are pagan and “lacks any overt rationale reason for its celebration.” However, he does permit giving out candy to those trick or treating, if one feels it necessary, on the accounts of darachai shalom (ways of peace) and eva (creation of unneeded hatred towards the Jewish people).
Broyde’s four permissible bases are questionable. We know from Morton’s beliefs that some celebrations do have secular origins. Broyde’s permitting of handing out candy also implies that at very least some pieces of the holiday “can be rationally explained independent of Halloween” which he has done using other Jewish principles. Finally, it is possible to believe that the true origins have been lost or are at very least hidden as he points out in subject three.
The fear of following the practices of non-Jews stems from Leviticus 18:3 and the commandment to not follow the practice of the “other.”
כְּמַֽעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ־מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם־בָּהּ לֹא תַֽעֲשׂוּ וּכְמַֽעֲשֵׂה אֶֽרֶץ־כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה לֹא תַֽעֲשׂוּ וּבְחֻקֹּֽתֵיהֶם לֹא תֵלֵֽכוּ:
“You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.” This verse lends itself to a massive amount of commentary, none more conclusive than that of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch makes it very clear that customs of non-Jews, which are practiced due to immoral or religious ground, are to be avoided and Jews may not imitate them. Surely, not all of the customs of Halloween are immoral and those that are should be immediately dismissed from the conservation. However, the problem with Hirsch’s statement is that some of the customs, such as passing out and possibly collecting candy, have been adopted on rational grounds and, as we learn from Morton, are secular practices.
For centuries Jews have adopted customs which, have at the forefront, been a custom of the land, religious or not, and now have only secular meaning. The custom of Yahrzeit was borrowed from the Catholics after the massacres that accompanied the First Crusade; present-day Chasidim wear garb that was fashionable among Polish Gentiles two centuries ago!”
The social constructs seem to oppose Hirsch. Jews have taken on customs that originated, not with Jews but with the “other,” and have altered them to fit into Jewish observance. Halloween, none of it, will ever be seen as a Jewish holiday. Certainly, it has begun and will continue to be celebrated as a secular holiday, even with its remote pagan roots. The question remains: Are there some elements we can permit due to their secular origins even if they are associated with Halloween?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein writes; “In a case where something would be considered a prohibited Gentile custom, if many people do it for reasons unrelated to their religion or law, but rather because it is pleasurable to them, there is no prohibition of imitating Gentile custom. So too, any item of pleasure in the world cannot be prohibited merely because Gentiles do so out of religious observance.” It is this quote that Broyde uses as the basis for his permissive stance on celebrating Valentine’s Day. But Broyde, does not feel the same way about Halloween because he assumes that all modern customs of Halloween are linked to the historically religious nature of the holiday.
Morton writes, “Trick or treat is completely secular. It came about mainly in the 1930s as a way to buy off mischievous pranksters. Occasionally someone will try to claim that the costuming and begging aspects come from the earlier tradition of ‘souling’ – when beggars went house-to-house in Britain begging [for] food in exchange for offering songs or prayers on behalf of souls in Purgatory – but there’s absolutely no evidence for this at all.” Therefore, one could conclude that trick or treating is not, as Feinstein would put it, related to the religion or law of pagans or non-Jews and that Jews trick or treating have no intent on mimicking idolatrous or pagan rituals.
Feinstein’s multiple responsum on the dilemma of Thanksgiving that is most curious. Feinstein wrote about Thanksgiving on four different occasions, once in 1963, and three times in 1981. Feinstein’s 1963 stance states, “Should Thanksgiving be seen as a fully secular holiday that in no way impinges on Jewish religious practice and is therefore permitted, or is it an alternative religious practice that competes with Jewish obligations and is therefore prohibited?”
The same question could be asked about Halloween. While Feinstein had never written on the topic (to my knowledge), probably because it was not as widely accepted in 1963, as it is today, can, as was asked, [Halloween] “be seen as secular holiday that does not impinge on Jewish religious practice?” The timing of the year opens up the gate a little. Since holidays like Hanukkah and Pesach correlate annually with Christmas and Easter, we should be extra careful not to see these as American holidays but solely as religious days for Christians. But Halloween, usually like Thanksgiving, has its own place and time on the calendar, and does not impinge on religious practice with the exception of Shabbat. “Feinstein affirms the fully secular character of the celebration of Thanksgiving yet sees it as still potentially violating Jewish strictures. Feinstein’s earliest statement on the subject from 1963 is brief: ‘And thus Thanksgiving, one should not prohibit by law, but pious people (ba’ale nefesh) should be strict.’”
This would preclude Jews from potentially hosting Halloween parties or allowing any Halloween practices to trump Shabbat or other Jewish observances. In many ways this outlook would prove Broyde’s conclusion about Valentine’s Day. He writes “I think it is conduct of the pious to avoid explicitly celebrating Valentine’s Day with a Valentine’s day card, although bringing home chocolate, flowers, or even jewelry to one’s beloved is always a nice idea all year around, including February 14.” For Feinstein and Broyde it seems that there is a difference between participating (i.e. eating turkey or giving chocolates) versus celebrating (i.e. holding a feast or giving specific Valentine’s Day cards). Are there moments of Halloween, which might be participatory versus celebratory? For example, decorating one’s house with ghosts and goblins might be celebrating, but giving out candy would be participating.
Feinstein offers multiple proofs that Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday: it was not created by priests; it is no longer practiced largely by religious people but by secular ones; it is not marked out religiously in any way, either by the celebrants themselves or by the typical rituals of idolatry.”
According to this logic, Halloween is in the same category. There may have been a religious attachment in the 1960s, but there certainly is not in 2013. When measured by the yardstick of meal and prayer, two central features of Jewish holiday and ritual, Halloween is not religious. It is a night for children to dress up and run around the streets. In many ways in can be categorized, as Feinstein in 1981 did of Thanksgiving, as a Simchat ha-reshut, an optional joyous event.
“Feinstein believes that the intention of gentiles when they perform a particular practice becomes vital in determining whether Jews may perform that custom as well. He differs from one of his key sources, Maharik, who instead believes it is the Jews’ intention that is determinative.” It is seemingly clear that Jews are not participating or even celebrating Halloween with any religious intention. As for gentiles, it also seems fairly evident that their participation or celebration has little, or nothing at all, to do with religious ties or ritual observance. It is more a fun-filled American custom than anything remotely resembling idolatrous practice, or even religious celebration. “If Feinstein can show the gentiles’s intention to be devoid of idolatry, then Feinstein can establish that practice’s secularity and, potentially, its permittedness to Jews. Feinstein’s approach to ‘their laws’ thus reflects and contributes to the trend in the United States towards the privatization of religion…For most cases that come up, what we do and what they do need not be different, whether that is because the practice is reasonable, or because the practice is originally Jewish, or because the gentile’s intention is secular, or because the Jew’s intention is pure, as Feinstein indicated it always should be and often is.”
Through my research I believe that there are elements of Halloween in which Jews should be permitted to participate. There is no prohibition on participating in what is secular. I agree with Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Michael Broyde that if there are those who wish to remain extra cautious and pious then all elements of Halloween should be prohibited. However, due to much of its current practices being secular, it is my opinion that many of the customs of Halloween can be permitted, although never required. “Obligatory status is reserved for Jewish practice. If a Jew attributes obligatory status to a secular practice, he violates Jewish law.” Halloween, like Thanksgiving yet not to the same extent, is viewed to the average consumer as an American holiday in regards to the customs surrounding it. Therefore here is my conclusion:
1) Passing out candy or other acceptable items to those trick-or-treating both non-Jewish and Jewish.
2) Trick-or-treating with no religious intention.
3) Carving pumpkins, ideally not in the shapes of ghosts or the undead, to celebrate the time of year.
4) Dressing up in already owned or reusable ordinary clothing. Yes you can reuse this coming years Purim custom for next year’s Halloween.
5) Attending parties as a participant with no religious association to the holiday including prayer, meal, or Halloween specific celebrations.
1) Dressing up in immodest clothing due to Tzniut (modesty).
2) Wearing costumes of ghost, zombies, etc. which transfer one from participating to celebrating.
3) Hosting of parties that include any prayers, celebration of the religious nature of the holiday, or meals. I would suggest not hosting parties at all.
4) Decorating one’s home in celebration of Halloween.
5) Vandalizing of any kind including, but not limited to, the common use of toilet paper to and eggs to ruin property.
Hopefully through this, many of you learned, at very least, that Judaism can respond to modern lives. Rabbis work daily to solve issues that affect our modern lives. It took me a year to try to solve Halloween, a fairly insignificant mountain to climb and Rabbis search for much tougher resolutions. So, yes Jewish law is still very much relevant. And just as the rabbis search for Jewish responses, we as individual Jews should continue to incorporate Judaism into our American lives even if it’s not so popular. And lastly I would like to place a disclaimer on this issue. There are laws that we can prove or sides of the spectrum we could sit on but often we choose not to for the sake of the longevity of the Jewish people. I was hesitant at first about this research and shocked that no one in the liberal world had addressed the topic. Rabbis much greater than me could have drawn this up a long time ago. So when I, or any other rabbi, writes, submits, and/or publishes law it’s always advantageous to be the pious and cautious Jew that Rabbis Feinstein and Broyde alluded to. Just because we can do something, does not mean we have to do it.
Shabbat Shalom
(Photo: WxMom)