I am not aware of any Jewish day schools that celebrate Halloween, Valentine's Day, or St. Patrick's Day and students are usually not permitted to come in costume or bring candy for these days. While this practice is generally not in question in schools, I am often approached by parents about whether and how they might celebrate Halloween.
Life in an open and pluralistic society presents us with many opportunities and challenges. Most Jews chose to integrate ourselves into the modern world, we strive to find a balance between emphasizing our Jewish identity and benefitting from what the larger society has to offer. If anything, the philosophical approaches of our civil society are more understandable to many of us than the values and practices of our Jewish tradition.
A few years ago I observed an online discussion between a group of rabbis across the country about whether or not they trick or treat for Halloween with their own children. The discussion began when one participant posted that her son challenged her on their own family's policy of not trick or treating. This child argued that Halloween, as practiced today, is devoid of its historical meanings and is really about having some good-natured fun. This child also said there were so many times he could not participate in things because of being Jewish, that why should their family add another. It is true that in the neighborhoods where many of us live, Halloween is often a mechanism for community building, and we recognize that many of our students have strong family traditions of decorating their homes, dressing up, and going trick or treating.
In another post, one of the rabbis remarked that his children do not trick or treat because it was not the habit of his spouse to do so when she was growing up as an observant Jew. Yet, this rabbi wonders aloud how to justify this to his children based on religious reasons. He suggests that while the origins of Halloween are pagan and predate Christianity by more than a thousand years, there are numerous Jewish customs which have their own origins in pagan practices as well. He feels that rabbis should be as aware as anyone that the meaning of rituals changes over time.
As third rabbi in the discussion offered the opinion that the issue is about how Jews fit into the larger culture in which we live. For this rabbi the question is how to interact with the secular society that we live in and how to also maintain our Jewish identity. This rabbi asks "How do we give our kids their separate Jewish identity and not have them resent it?" This rabbi is particularly concerned about the fact that many of his young congregants know more about Halloween than they do about Purim. Ultimately, the rabbi concludes his post writing that "I feel we need more of a siag la-torah (a fence around the Torah) in our world today where so many lines are being blurred, that this is a good one to have."
A final post comes from a participant who wrote that as a child Halloween used to be considered unsafe and that today it seems more and more of a positive neighborhood occasion. In terms of the death imagery and the occult, this rabbi writes that Judaism has it's share of ghost stories too. The rabbi wonders if there is some principle upon which to avoid Halloween or is it just built into our sense of being separate.
These posts left me with a number of questions that I want to share and that I have found to challenge my own thinking. Maybe Halloween is the October Opportunity that one rabbi writes (taking a page from the December Dilemma of Christmas) is not at all a dilemma for his family. It is a chance to mine the Jewish value of emphasizing the neighborly aspect of the holiday over sugarlust. Fun instead of meanness. Sharing (and giving to tzedakah) over hoarding your own candy.
All of the school parents who I have spoken with about Halloween said they understand and support why the school does not celebrate this day and yet that does not mean that they don't question how they should approach it with their children. Parents who prize both the American society in which we live and our Jewish tradition strive to balance these commitments as best we can. Choosing whether and how to celebrate Halloween with our children is a choice that we all have to address. It is also an opportunity to consider how we participate in American society and how we value our Jewish heritage and tradition.
Follow Mitch on Twitter @MitchMalkus.