It’s Halloween once again, and if you’re a Jew like me that means you’re social media feeds are full of hand-wringing “Can Jews celebrate Halloween?” posts once again. Second in unnecessary angst only to our equally self-created “December Dilemma” (see all sorts of related posts on this subject below), our annual October Impasse has online Jew after online Jew walking up to Halloween, pointing at it, and screeching like the body-snatched Donald Sutherland from the 1978 movie:
For Orthodox Jews who take the Hebrew Bible and 613 commandments literally, believe they were all given directly by God, and that humans have no choice but to obey and abide them, fine. Eww, that kind of literalism is indistinguishable from the literalism of religious terrorists. But fine.
For the liberal Jews who make up the majority of Klal Yisrael in North America, however, give me a break. On Halloween and Christmas, both. I have to ask those Jews, what are you thinking? No really, this isn’t a rhetorical question. What exactly are you thinking about your own adult Jewish journey?
Do liberal Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Renewal Jews really need to live in a hermetically sealed cultural–or even religious–bubble? De we really believe that engaging in the make-believe of Halloween will turn us into pantheists? Any more than engaging in a holiday tree will turn us into Christians? Especially since, as liberal Jews, we don’t take the Hebrew Bible or 613 commandments literally, we don’t believe they were all given directly by God, or that humans have no choice but to obey and abide them?
Which, if you’re actually paying attention to what you think and believe, instantly puts our religious stories, as beloved as they are to us, on par with the make-believe of Halloween and Christmas, themselves? Parting a Sea of Reeds? Being a Son of God? If it’s all metaphor anyway, how is any perceived “danger” from a (horrors!) non-completely-Jewish holiday not simply anything more than us giving ourselves tsouris (see: agida) for no good reason?
Most of all, if we’re that afraid that we’ll stop being informed by the religious stories we know to be merely stories by casual contact with someone else’s mere stories, how attached are we to our own stories in the first place?
I blame liberal Judaism’s penchant for the infantilization of our religious holidays. We aim all our holidays at our kids to get them through their b’nei mitzvah (“Now I am a woman/man”), ignoring our own adult religious journeys. And then we and they walk away from any effort at experiencing the rich Hebrew calendar of Jewish holidays as the of-age Jews we’ve spent the so much time trying to become.
It’s no wonder liberal Jews face into the allegedly gaping cultural maws of Halloween and Christmas with dread and unease. We spend so much of our adult Jewish lives gratuitously forgetting who we are as a people, that we have no firm ground left to stand on when holidays outside of our transition roll around that most others consider times of joy.
Instead of joining in or remaining neutral, we liberal Jews usually kick at the shins of other people’s holidays–which is damned nearly equivalent to kicking at the shins of the other people with whom we share our planet, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and often our families and couplehoods. What exactly do you think yelling “Pagan!” at a pumpkin or “Christian!” at a tree tells everyone around you who isn’t Jewish about your enormous, incredibly judgmental biases against their non-Jewish identities, celebrations, cultures, families, and lives?
If you’re suddenly terrified that your child is not going to be a Jew anymore because you let her carve a pumpkin or go to a Christmas party–or that you will be similarly affected, for that matter–your problem has nothing to do with your child or with anyone else’s holiday traditions. Your problem is that you’re not feeling connected to your own traditions.
And that, my friend, is your own fault–not to mention your own responsibility to fix. Halloween, Christmas, or any other festive day on anyone else’s calendar, pagan or otherwise, is not the problem, and other people celebrating their holidays in public owe you no apology. Instead of writing or reading a thousand words about “Why Halloween isn’t Jewish,”, how about letting yourself be an adult for once on our own liberal Jewish holidays? Or, you know, learning about them in an adult manner at all?
If you know who you are, what you believe, and how you roll inside, there’s no reason to hate on the holidays of others. There could, however, be a lot of potential joy from joining in. There will definitely be a lot of potential peace from refraining from throwing everyone else who isn’t Jewish under the bus.
Clearly a Disney household, our jack-o-lanterns are Oogie Boogie and the Hatbox Ghost. They stare at us and our plastic pumpkin full of candy from across the living room. Skeletons on chains, glowing spiders, and plastic rats litter the rest of the house. I assure you, our mezuzah didn’t decide it had something else to do this week. On Friday, our Shabbat candles won’t turn into murderous pans of strange fire. Neither God nor liberal approaches to religion work like that.
No, really. They don’t.
Not that we Jews believe in hell, but Halloween isn’t hell on earth from a Jewish perspective, anyway. Tearing others down because they believe differently than we do, however, is. That’s what we do when we tear into the holidays of our friends and neighbors.
And if you think that earns more brownie points with God than putting a candle in a pumpkin or a candy cane on a tree, you’re not thinking very Jewishly.
Read selections from seven years of my related posts on the idea of empowering yourself to be your own Jew–and your own person–on Jewish and secular holidays:
- Fourteen Christmases and a Chanukiyah (November 2010)
- Fifteen Christmases and an Eitz Moed (November 2011)
- The December Dilemma Is a Choice (December 2011)
- Sixteen Christmases and a Chanukah Bush (December 2012)
- Personal Pesach Posek (April 2013)
- Crashing the Jewish Survival Idol (May 2013)
- S’lichot ‘Round Midnight (September 2013)
- Why I’m Not Fasting on Yom Kippur (September 2013)
- That’s Gratitude For you: Making Sukkot Relevant Again (September 2013)
- Playing Connect the Dots with God (December 2013)
- Things That Suck But the Talmud Says Are Okay (January 2014)
- Tashlich at Disneyland (September 2014)
- Twenty Christmases and an Eitz HaMoedim (November 2015)
- Why I Don’t Seek Forgiveness on Yom Kippur (October 2016)
- Rethinking Rabbi Schaalman’s Yom Kippur (September 2017)
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.