As we all know, these are challenging times on many levels. On the one hand, it is difficult for people to stay connected to any community because of covid-19; and yet these are the times that people need a community more than ever. It presents an especially difficult challenge for spiritual communities: how can we learn and grow, and yet still be safe in all ways?
It is for this reason that we have been streaming both classes and services, but by request, we are going to add another source of learning for the community. “Torah Talk” will be a regular email in which we will learn about the Torah portion of the week; a holiday; or other general Jewish teaching. Please feel free to forward these emails to your friends, and invite them to “like” us on Facebook as well. In this way, the community can become stronger and more educated, and we can all continue to grow as individuals and a community.
Before beginning this week’s teaching, we all need to be grateful and aware of the miracle of the past High Holidays. Thanks to volunteers and staff (and the amazing men next to me on the pulpit) we were able to provide safe and meaningful live (and streaming) services for the community. It is now a month since Yom Kippur, and after reaching out to everyone who attended the live services, we can gratefully announce that not one person who attended the High Holiday services has been diagnosed with the virus! It is a testament to the hard work on so many people’s part to create an environment that was socially distant, safe, and still beautiful. Kol Ha’kvod to everyone.
And now, let’s explore some Jewish learning….some “Torah Talk”.
I am often asked why my children do not celebrate Halloween, when “it is really a secular holiday”. Given that this year, many families will be unable to trick or treat for the first time, I think it is might be a good issue to explore so that Jewish families can re-frame the issue for their children. In order to do that, we need to look at what Halloween really is.
Halloween, also known as All Hallow’s Eve, is the evening before All Saint’s Day. Probably based in folk customs of the Gaelic and Celtic tribes, it is the belief that it is the time when the veil between the worlds is the thinnest. Historically, it was a harvest Festival known in ancient Ireland as Samhain (“end of summer”), and was integrated into Christian theology many centuries ago. (Like numerous Christian/Catholic rituals such as Easter, there is an incorporation of tribal practices into the Christian theology.)
Halloween is part one of a three part cycle of holidays in traditional Catholicism composed of Halloween, All Saint’s Day, and All Soul’s Day (also known as Day of the Dead), known collectively as Allhallowtide. It is an official Catholic holiday since Pope Gregory III in the 8th century, and by 835 was a formal part of the Catholic calendar. To understand the religiousity inherent in Halloween, we must also understand the rest of this Catholic tridium.
Theologically, Halloween is considered when the veil is thinnest between the physical world and the spiritual world where the dead reside. For over a thousand years, people would wear costumes on this evening so that the dead souls would not recognize the living, and would not “haunt” them.
Think about that for a moment. People wear costumes so that the dead won’t recognize the living and haunt them. Does that sound “Jewish” in any way? Yet that is the reason historically and theologically for costumes on Halloween. But the challenges with the holiday don’t end there.
Because poor people of the Middle Ages needed food, and wanted good food or sweets, children and adults would go to homes and yell “trick or treat” on this evening. Emboldened by their costumes and not being able to be recognized, they would terrorize their neighbors into giving them what they wanted. If the home being visited chose not to give a “treat”, they would receive a “trick”, often in the form of a prank, mischief, broken window, fire, acts of violence, etc. Out of fear, people began giving “treats” to the costumed visitors.
Does the threat of violence of any sort in order to receive a “treat” sound like a Jewish value or practice?
The next day, All Saint’s Day (Nov. 1), continues the theology. It is an official Catholic and Christian holiday dedicated to the “saints who have not yet been canonized”. Again, honoring the dead at a time when “the veil is the thinnest”, this is considered one of the four days of the year recommended for administering Baptism in the Anglican Church even today. For Roman Catholics, the attendance of mass is mandatory, and even in most other Christian denominations religious service attendance is highly encouraged.
All Soul’s Day (Nov. 2), also known as Day of the Dead or The Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, is the completion of the three day cycle, and the time when the veil between the worlds begins to close again. It is compulsory to “feed the dead” so that they can continue to bless the living throughout the year. In many communities, bowls of water are also placed at graves so that the dead have the nourishment from the physical world that they need in order to be content for another year. It is a public holiday, and a mandatory conclusion to the cycle that commenced with Halloween.
Taking a look at the theology and history, does Halloween now seem like something that is consonant with Judaism, or opposed? It is part of a cycle of holidays in the Catholic/Christian Church where costumes are worn to prevent hauntings; neighbors are effectively threatened into giving treats; would be Catholic saints are honored; and the dead need to be bribed with food in order to be satisfied for another year.
Some would say that Halloween is no longer a religious holiday, but is now a “secular” holiday. But this is the same attitude that led in the late 20th century to Jews having “Christmas trees” in their home. We know that this practice led to an increase in inter-faith marriage and a stepping away from Judaism; and many people who grew up with Christmas trees in the 1950s-1980s (sometimes called “Hannukah bushes”) realized the dangers inherent in this practice and do not have these trees in their own homes today. In the same way, Halloween teaches our children values that are not traditionally Jewish, and leads them away from our faith practices.
Look, I love Christmas, and have often attended Christmas midnight mass. (I’ve told my priest friends that I wish they would have that Christmas “love” and desire for peace all year long!) But to visit another religion’s services is substantially different than practicing them in our homes. A part of me loves the play and fun associated with Halloween, and who doesn’t love trying to carve a pumpkin; but as a Jewish parent, I want my children to find their play and enjoyment in Jewish holidays rather than by participating in another religion’s theological practices.
There is one final piece to consider before you allow your children to participate in Halloween, and it is a lesson I painfully saw when I was a Professor at Loyola Marymount University years ago.
Because Halloween is an opportunity (conscious or unconscious) for children to lose their boundaries between right and wrong (between the dressing up and the blackmailing neighbors for candies, ethics easily get blurred), the holiday has lost all sense of boundaries. When the children who celebrated Halloween reach young adulthood, this lack of boundaries becomes even more noticeable. At LMU, I was saddened to see the college students dressing up in the sexiest and most raunchy costumes imaginable on Halloween, as “anything is permissible”. What may have started as young children dressing up as comic book characters had become a parade of sexy nurses; men dressed as pimps; and young women dressing in ways that even embarrassed me (and as many of you know, I am not easily embarrassed). The removal of boundaries as children had morphed into a removal of boundaries for adults; and I doubt any parent would be “proud” of their child for the way young adults now observe Halloween. It also was a night when there was an exponential increase in date rapes on and off campus.
Are these the practices and values we want for our Jewish children?
For those of us who want to experience the fun of being in costume, we don’t need to find it in Halloween. Judaism has the holiday of Purim, in which we dress up, eat sweets, give gifts, and have a lot of fun! Maybe this year, instead of trick or treating we can encourage our children to look forward to Purim; and learn about Judaism and Jewish values while we celebrate together in the spring.
So as we approach Halloween and the subsequent two Christian holidays this coming week, let’s all re-think the idea of celebrating Halloween, and make a conscious choice to teach Jewish values and practices to our children, and forego the costumed trick or treating this year…
It’s in harmony with our faith, it’s safer, and does anyone really like candy corn anyway?
Rabbi Michael Barclay October 26, 2020 9th of Cheshvan, 5781