Is it Okay to Celebrate Halloween as an American Jew?

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This is an interesting and somewhat controversial question.  We live in a Christian culture, making it sometimes challenging to separate the religious from the secular.

Sefer Vayikra (Book of Leviticus) provides the source of the prohibition against celebrating gentile customs (18:3). The rabbinic tradition understands this to mean refraining from idolatrous practices or foolish customs. On the other hand, certain practices with no suspicion of idolatrous background can be observed.  Thanksgiving, for instance, is a uniquely American secular holiday which can be celebrated by Jews.

Halloween is more complicated. The holiday clearly has pagan origins in the holiday Samhain. It was eventually adopted by the Catholic Church and changed into All Hallows’ Eve as a means of combating the pagan practices associated with it. Halloween came to America with Irish Immigrants, keeping its Celtic origins and focusing on the supernatural, though according to many, it had already morphed into a secular holiday.

This brings us back to whether Jews should celebrate Halloween.  For those who are concerned about whether it is pagan or religious in nature, please consider these questions:

1. Are Halloween celebrations derived from secular origins?

2. Can the conduct of those celebrations be rationally explained, independent of Halloween?

3. Are the origins of Halloween so deeply hidden that they have disappeared and can be attributed now as a uniquely American custom?

4. Are the activities of Halloween aligned to Jewish tradition and values?

People answer these questions differently.  I know some observant families who allow their children to participate in Halloween because they have concluded it is a uniquely American custom whose origins are hidden and have no modern applicability or relevance.

My personal stance is that Halloween is the antithesis of everything Jewish. Judaism celebrates creation, life, sacredness, light, and goodness. Halloween celebrates death, darkness, evil, monsters, witches, and ghosts that haunt.

In our home, our children never participated in Halloween. As they became older teenagers and young adults they made their own decisions. When it came to giving out treats on Halloween, we did allow our children to participate. Giving out candy supports the value of Darchei Shalom, the way of peace, which includes being neighborly.

I stand alone in my family today. My young adult children see nothing wrong with participating in Halloween. They and my wife see it as uniquely American. I still maintain my position, if for no other reason than that I am uncomfortable promoting celebrations that fly in the face of the Jewish view of the sacredness of life.

As parents, you will make the decision that is best for your family. Whatever the decision, I hope that you take this time to have a Jewish conversation with your children and help them to understand the differences between our values and those of Halloween. It’s a beautiful learning opportunity.

Finally, here is a positive challenge for everyone who participates in Halloween:  For those of you who have Halloween parties and enjoy dressing up, consider our own Jewish celebrations and embrace Purim as an opportunity to wear costumes, have parties, and have fun.  Next fall, plan to build a Sukkah in your back yard. This is a great holiday filled with decorations, outdoor activities and time together, making Jewish memories that will last a lifetime. If you need help bringing Purim or Sukkot into your home, or any other Jewish holiday, ask us – it would be our honor to help.

Our own tradition provides so many rich opportunities – embrace them as well!

 

17 Responses to Is it Okay to Celebrate Halloween as an American Jew?

  1. MAF says:

    I agree with you completely. Also notice how Purim and Sukkot are about giving goodies and joy to others while Haloween is about taking goodies under threat of mischief.

  2. Elizabeth Applebaum says:

    Very thoughtful and interesting article – and I agree with you. Thank you.

  3. Jennifer Teper says:

    I respectfully, disagree with your point of view. I think Halloween is uniquely American, has nothing to do with any of the original origins. Now days, it’s all about dressing up and getting candy. I feel trick or treating is a seasonal activity that is done once a year. In my subdivision it’s also a community builder as we have a pre-trick or treating gathering for families where cider and donuts are served and it gives all the families an opportunity to socialize and bond. My children participate in Halloween, Purim and eat in our sukkah during the Succot holiday. I think by having them participate in all the holidays and activities, I am raising well rounded children.

    • MAF says:

      I think the same could be said of the popular celebration of Easter (bunnies, eggs). But we don’t celebrate “secular Easter” because of the meaning of the symbols, which represent Christianity. Likewise, I am not comfortable with the symbology of Halloween. Even if the kids aren’t aware of the underlying meaning and history of the symbols, I think we are absorbing an alien and unhealthy cultural influence. All symbols have meanings, and if you look into Halloween’s symbols, they are definitely counter-Jewish.

      • Jennifer Teper says:

        You can lump Easter with Halloween and I feel the same way that decorating eggs if done can be viewed as a seasonal activity or a Spring arts and crafts project. Although, I think the level of commercialism with Easter hasn’t reached the level of Halloween. I don’t know that it ever will since the people that celebrate Easter for the religious aspect of it, go to church and generally have a family meal after. Easter is major Religious holiday for the masses. The people that celebrate Halloween for a religious holiday aren’t in the masses and whatever religious service aspect there is to the day I find is lost on the commercialized trick or treating, decorating and merchandising.

        • MAF says:

          A quick story… when my oldest daughter was about 5, she announced one day that she wanted to “marry a Christian when I grow up, and become a Christian”. I asked her why, and she said, “so that we can celebrate the holidays, like Christmas and Easter, and be like the other kids!”. I realized that kids need clear boundaries. we’re Jews, we do Jewish stuff. We don’t do non-Jewish stuff.

          I think that is how you instill a firm sense of Jewish identity in your kids. Maybe it works for others, but to me blurring the boundaries is not helpful, and may be harmful.

          • Gail Chynoweth says:

            I agree with Jennifer Teper. This holiday, regardless of origin, has become an American holiday with lots of tradition. I celebrate Halloween with my family, just as I keep kosher in my home, go to shul, and raise my children with a strong sense of who they are…Jews. Jews that live in a community with Jews and non Jews alike. We have always enjoyed welcoming our neighbors, walking down the street with new friends and old, and enjoying my children’s happiness. (Is this not the Jewish way?) So as I watch my children sort their candy into piles (and yes, there is even a “non-kosher” pile which gets given away) I end this night as I always do on Halloween. With a strong sense of community.

  4. Rebecca says:

    Thank you for writing this. I hope more parents will take it to heart.

  5. Kevin Elbinger says:

    For those that want, Steve gives point’s whether Jews should celebrate Halloween. He gives his opinion and reasons for his personal decision not to celebrate. By no means does he try to convince or influence any of us to agree with him. I find this to be the case for every issue in regard to religion or traditions.

    Many people in the community see Hillel as a strictly conservative school. Many of our reform friends can’t believe we send our kids to such a “Jewish” school, being reform ourselves. We celebrate and observe our holidays differently. Hillel, under Steve’s leadership, accepts and embraces everybody’s individual values and beliefs. This is why as Reform Jews, we feel Hillel is so important to the community and definitely the correct school for our children.

  6. Amy says:

    Wonderfully stated, Kevin!

  7. Jennifer Teper says:

    I instill Jewish values and identity in my children by sending them to Hillel, reinforcing their learning at home by celebrating holidays, going to shul and carrying on my family religious traditions. Going trick or treating, decorating eggs or even getting a present from Santa does not take away any of my children’s Jewishness, it only enhances their ability to adapt and live in America.

  8. For those interested, last year Rabbi Aaron Starr and I did a point-counterpoint on Halloween/Trick-or-Treating for Jewish kids: http://blog.rabbijason.com/2012/10/jewish-children-and-halloween-point.html

  9. For those interested, last year Rabbi Aaron Starr and I did a point-counterpoint on Halloween/Trick-or-Treating for Jewish kids: Jewish Children and Halloween: Point/Counterpoint”>

  10. Jack Simon says:

    I am PAPA to Rachel Berg…your 8th grade class…
    As long as she saves all the Baby Ruth’s for me, . I am ok with the holiday!

  11. Jenn Goldman says:

    Thank you for so coherently summarizing some of the issues regarding the celebration of Halloween. Arming oneself with knowledge on a topic, analyzing the data, debating the fine points, and finally making an informed choice are hallmarks of the Jewish experience. While there are many opinions on the continuum between, “absolutely yes,” and “absolutely no,” in the Hillel community, I truly appreciate that we have a head of school who seeks to provide us with the information necessary to thoughtfully analyze how we live our lives as Jews in America. However you decide to spend this rainy, windy night, stay safe.

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