Well, that must be a fun birthday to have!” the DMV clerk exclaimed when I went to renew my license. Being born on October 31, Halloween, she figured my annual celebration must be doubly festive.
“I actually don’t celebrate Halloween,” I sheepishly replied. “I’m Jewish.”
As a Modern Orthodox American Jew, I’ve found that engaging with the broadness of contemporary society while abiding by the laws and rituals of the Bible and Talmud is an ongoing challenge. As a rabid Yankees fan, I feel as comfortable wearing my kippah in the Bronx as I do in synagogue, though I do have to shell out a couple of extra bucks during the game for the kosher hot dogs. I’m a full participant at professional conferences—unless they fall on a Saturday. And I wish well to all those celebrating holidays not of my tradition. But they are simply not for me, even if they were long ago stripped of any overtly religious overtones.
Being a member of a religious minority forces one to both navigate the majority culture’s expectations and consider the boundaries of a unique identity. For many American Jews, particularly the Orthodox, the either pagan or Christian origins of Halloween cause us to politely pass on celebrating it. Some scholars suggest that Halloween originates in the British and Irish Celtic festival of Samhain, in which the new year’s eve was marked by lighting fires to ward away evil spirits. All sorts of demonic creatures were thought to be roaming about, including the souls of the dead revisiting their past homes. Other historians find the roots of Halloween in the early Church vigils the night before the feast of All Hallows, in which saints were honored and the recently departed were prayed for. By the Middle Ages, church bells were rung for those in purgatory, while “soul cakes” were baked for christened souls, a practice from which trick-or-treating possibly emerged.
“You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you,” God instructs the Israelites in Leviticus 18:3. “You shall not walk in their statutes.” To observant Jews, marking Halloween cuts against our founding ethos. The patriarch Abraham, as the Midrashic tradition goes, shattered his father’s idols, marking a break with the pagan milieu of his ancient birthplace. His ethical monotheism, Judaism’s greatest tradition to mankind, emerged in opposition to the presumption that capricious daemons decided our fate. The people of Israel, Abraham’s descendants, were commanded to avoid imitating their neighbors’ observances. Additionally, the well-documented persecution of Jews at the hands of medieval Christianity need not be rehashed here, other than to say that, for those observing Halloween by baking cakes and ringing bells on the streets of twelfth-century England, purgatory was exactly where my ancestors’ souls were presumed to lie.
America, thankfully, allows opting out of practices foreign to one’s beliefs. The former Associate Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis aptly described the value in a member of a particular group balancing being apart from, and a part of, a larger whole. “A man,” he wrote, “is a better citizen of the United States for being also a loyal citizen of his state, and of his city; for being loyal to his family, and to his profession or trade; for being loyal to his college or lodge . . . [and] will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so.”
The country’s acceptance of distinct religious communities, even when their practices or beliefs might seem strange or unpopular, has long been its lodestar. The Revolutionary War veteran Jonas Phillips successfully objected to George Washington and the Continental Convention’s requirement that holders of public office swear on a Christian Bible. Phillips’s claim was grounded in his understanding that in this country, “all men have a natural and inalienable Right To worship almighty God according to the dictates of their own Conscience and understanding, and that no man aught or of Right can be compelled to attend any Religious Worship or Erect or support any place of worship or Maintain any minister contrary to or against his own free will and Consent.” This maintenance of freedom of conscience in no way detracted from Phillips’s dedication to the American project, which he firmly wished to “get up to the highest Prosperitys” in which God would extend “peace to them and their seed after them so long as the Sun and moon Endureth.”
Encouraging what he deemed “the dignity of difference,” the late British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who passed away two years ago, cautioned against negative reactions to distinct communities of practice. Societies can easily slide into “my tribe against yours, my nation against yours, my god against yours.” Those who disdain differences are likely to seek to impose on the world a single, universal truth, sacrificing any who might object. Instead, Rabbi Sacks taught, “The religious challenge is to find God’s image in someone who is not in our image, in someone whose color is different, whose culture is different, who speaks a different language, tells a different story, and worships God in a different way.”
So this Halloween, you won’t find me eating my birthday cake at New York’s Village Halloween Parade, but I hope the trick-or-treaters have a great time. I’m sure countless children, and their grandparents, will enjoy streaming It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, but we’ll wait a few months for Hanukkah and the tales of Judah Maccabee and his brothers. In the meantime, I’ll keep appreciating government employees who take the time to offer celebratory wishes, even when they aren’t my own.
Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is the senior advisor to the provost and deputy director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.
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