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October 31, 2014 12:57 pm

Why I Feel Negatively Towards Halloween

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Trick-or-treating. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Why do I feel so negatively towards Halloween? Surely it’s just an opportunity for harmless fun, getting dressed up in weird costumes, festooning homes with horror characters and scenes of witches, dungeons, skeletons, blood, and fear. And what could be bad with kids running from house to house asking for sweets, candies, and gum?

Rituals in most religions are, after all, quite arbitrary and more often than not based on earlier pagan customs. Lights in winter, masks and disguises in spring, and so many of our Jewish customs are borrowed from earlier fears of evil spirits, like driving them away by breaking plates and glasses or covering mirrors and lighting candles. However it’s not the ritual itself but rather what lies behind it that really matters. What is the deeper, the real message, as opposed to the superficial one? To be fair, all our major Biblical festivals were once pagan celebrations that we sanitized. But what was this sanitization? It was to require of us to think before acting and to take responsibility for our actions. A religious ritual brings us closer to religious values (or should) whereas a magic ritual brings us closer to magic and unpredictability.

In simple terms, the pagan world believed we were at the mercy of the gods of nature who determined everything that went on in the world. Humans had to placate them. Sacrificing children, rites of blood and magic were ways of winning their approval. It was a world that believed that the greatest gifts we could give were of our bodies, our bodily fluids, and our children. Paganism wanted to perpetuate the fear of the natural world rather than try to overcome fear, because that made you dependent on their magic to survive. Superstition was based on randomness–a black cat, a broken mirror, and you never knew what antidote the shaman would require.

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Monotheism emerged as a counterforce to say that although God did represent and control the world, what He wanted was good behavior, good deeds, and respect for humanity. He wanted us to refine our bodies rather than simply use them. In God’s religion you knew in advance everything that was expected, even if you might not have always felt able to do it all.

Monotheism introduced the “marshmallow principle” of deferring pleasure, the concepts of self-control and self-improvement. Of course we know how hard this is. How often the Israelites found it much easier, not to say more fun, to go off to pagan orgies. Everything was allowed, not forbidden. Not all pagans were the same, of course. Some tried to rationalize their gods, just as today people justify their actions, lusts, and weaknesses.

Spirits were quite useful in explaining things people didn’t understand. If clothes wore out, it was because spirits were tugging at them. If you fell ill, it was because a bad spirit flew through the air to get hold of you. Or else someone else had cursed you or put an evil eye on you. Some rabbis in the Talmud seem to have believed in evil spirits, sheidim. The Talmud even contains advice as to how to see them–spread sand at night and look for the footprints in the morning, or kill a black cat that has just given birth and spread the ashes of its placenta over your eyes. Perhaps they simply accepted the credulity of simple people, and they did not want to take their props away from them. It also gave them power and a useful tool for helping the weak and the sick.

But overwhelmingly the greatest of rabbis argued that there was no such thing as luck, “Mazal,” in Israel. It was a characteristic of the non-Jewish world, not ours. It was our actions that determined what we made of our lives, what happened to us as individuals and as a people. However, they conceded that if a people or society was doomed, innocents would suffer the consequences too. And external forces, both natural and human, could be unleashed to terrible effect. Our world was one of human choice, not helplessness in the presence of magic or ghosts. The downside, of course, was and is that humans make the wrong choices sometimes.

But why does superstition persist now amongst us after all this time? Perhaps it’s because Jews suffered so much for so long that they needed emotional, magical, superstitious support and turned to any crazy idea that might help them get through the day and the night. Even now we seem helpless and confused in the face of so much antipathy.

What I have against Halloween is that it reinforces the fear of magic and evil spirits even if most people have lost the connection or refuse to make it. The witches, wizards, and devils are all symbolic of the uncontrollable pagan world. They are linked to the world of tarot cards, astrologers, and pseudo-kabbalists with their spells, their tricks, and their magic to help you cope by giving you dishonest but plausible answers.

As our society has become more scientific, more rational, and yet more stressful and demanding to live in, we seek these placebos and fake answers. We become even more superstitious and dependent. We go to horror films; we love zombies and vampires; we want to see more blood, more terror, more corpses, and more humans suffer, even as we need to know it will all turn out fine in the end because some superhero or strongman will eventually save everyone and good will triumph.

There’s another issue here. We are becoming anaesthetized to blood and horror. Just as there’s a danger that the violent computer games that are so popular also affect our sensitivity to suffering and pain. The jury is still out, of course, but my gut tells me that glorifying blood and gore cannot be a healthy thing.

It’s true that all this nonsense can be harmless, and perhaps I am taking it too seriously. But I strongly believe if as parents we encourage such customs that do not convey the positive values that really matter, we had better make sure we give enough counterexamples of the thinking, caring, and spiritual world if we want our children to learn a positive lesson.

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  • Paul Cerar

    One Halloween when I was a boy, my parents dressed me up as a Jehovah’s Witness. No one would open their door to me!

    Paul Cerar
    Toronto, Canada

  • Fritz Kohlhaas

    Monotheism is pure superstition!!

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Yes of course many so called Monotheists are superstitious but tarring them all with the same brush is neither logical nor does it do much for you.

      It may even be that humans have a superstition gene but that does not mean they have no choice.

      You need to distinguish between an ideology based on randomness and one based on constitution.

  • Joe

    We Christians suffer from other similar misconceptions i.e. Christmas. It is nowhere to be found in the Bible or actually make any sense. Its origin as confessed by the Roman Catholics were to compete with Pagan Sun Worship. But that is a half truth, they (the pagans from the Babylonian cult) actually hijacked the Christian religion when Demasus, Bishop of Rome was elected and changed it into the worship of the “Mother Queen of heaven” hence the position and status of Mother Mary. This is also un-biblical with no support support whatsoever as well as their Christmas trees, Santa Klaus, Easter eggs and bunnies and church rites. But many a Jewish shop is selling these goodies over the various periods and when it is all over and they look at the empty shelves, they clap their hands together and I am sure they must be tempted to sing the famous song “What a friend we have in Jesus”. But all of this nonsense is going to an abrupt end soon, this world does not have another 10 years left with the escalation of evil as it is at present.

  • PereaYoel

    I don’t necessarily disagree with your conclusions (or, although I do, I’m not interested in elaborating upon that), but you are wrong to, throughout the article, equate non-Jewish beliefs in magic with Jewish beliefs in magic. Of course the non-Jewish beliefs in magic have a distinctly non-Jewish feel to them. Non-Jewish beliefs in magic evoke a very strong anti-religious and disorderly feeling because of the fact that they are non-Jewish. If you look at Jewish superstition, it is shockingly, well, Jewish. As the conclusion you are striving for is the rejection, in modern times, of superstitions that are in opposition to Jewish conceptions of the universe, I am really simply squabbling about your prepositions. However, squabble I must for I just find it to be an injustice to act so dismissively toward the very Jewish (and very non-Christian and non-pagan) magical tradition that our people have created. A magical tradition that in no way matches your depiction of Jews in relation to magic. It is inaccurate to toss off Jewish magic and mentions of magic by Jews as simple copies of pagan magic that happened to wind up in Judaism, and it is wrong to equate Jewish beliefs in magic with the modern superstitions that you are hoping to dispel.

    With Jewish monotheism (as opposed to Christian monotheism or pagan polytheism), God is absolute and unrivaled. There are no free acting devils sowing chaos and magic. The Jewish conception of magic takes orderliness as a given. God is the supreme architect of all things. Magic and spirits in Jewish superstition are not subversions of God’s order, or cries from the meaninglessness of the void of existence to the beings who toy with us. Jewish magic has a sensible quality to it. God constructed everything. The physical world operates under sensible laws. God, through his angels and his will, operates as a substrate to the physical world. Magic, in the Jewish conception, is an attempt to access the ones and zeros that lie beneath the realized world. With God being the grand architect of all things and the only source of all things, all “magical” acts are really appeals to God (or God’s representative in a certain area of existence). Jewish magic was simply a different form of prayer. Honestly, I feel the only thing that differentiates Jewish magic from Jewish prayer is the amount of black candles you have lit at the time. It’s superficially different.

    You dismiss Jewish notions of magic. Saying that they are the stuff of pseudo-Kabbalah that have been dismissed by the greatest rabbis (well, except for Rashi who fully believed in magic). You seem to adopt the thought that Jewish magic represents the uneducated and that greater rabbis represent the scientists who dispel the superstitions. I think you view the situation anachronistically. Jewish magic was an attempt to understand the substrate of the realized world. It was Proto-Physics. Jewish magic was a working theory for how the world functioned. The practitioners and theorists behind Jewish magic were not uneducated masses, they were the doctors and the scientists. They were the curious men who held to the notion that the world made sense, operated under sensible rules, and could be manipulated by those who knew those rules. Why would one ever want to dispel this mindset? This is precisely the nature of the world. One does not dismiss this magical mindset, one instead produces a better theory (such as the Laws of Physics). The Jewish magical thinkers realized that certain things (such as plants) could be manipulated to produce certain results. Rather than operate under the non-Jewish view of magic (wherein it is the subversion of God, or appealing to beings other than God), the Jewish thinker held that this was part of God’s orderly universe.

    By performing magic, the Jewish magician did not have the wrong mindset (as you have ascribed him). His magical rituals did not bring him closer to unpredictability (like the rituals of the non-Jews around him may have). He had the correct mindset. His mindset was one which accepted the order of the universe, as created by God, and a curiosity which drove him to discover the secrets of the universe. To categorize the Jews in the past who believed in magic as nothing more than the uneducated masses who adopted a pagan ideology is mistaken. It fails to recognize that the same notions that produced the Jewish magicians also produced the Jewish scientists. It is this same belief in the order of the universe and a drive to know the world that has always brought us to great heights.

    All I’m objecting to is your dismissal of all magical thinking as being disorder as compared to all religious thinking being orderly. It is not necessarily the case that all magical thinking is disorderly and fearful (or anti-religious) merely because non-Jewish magical thinking is. As your overarching conclusion is that Halloween represents this disorderly magic (which is not characteristic of ancient Jewish magical thinking), it doesn’t affect the plausibility of your conclusions. I only take issue with your premises.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Whatever the magic, Jewish, Christian or Pagan its all essentially the same based on fear, anxiety and an inability too deal with the world as it is.
      In a similar way the need to find “answers” is a different mental state to one that seeks practical ways to cope.

  • Degel

    The article speaks COMMON SENSE and as such can be boring only for those who are ready to pay any money for few minutes of fun and denial

  • AlanB

    agree 100% thank you …. the most un-Jewish of non-Jewish calendar events

  • vicky

    agree. i do not wish my son asking for candies esp on this horrific night

  • Pinchas Baram

    a nice and thoughtful article, though too serious. it was hardly boring or stupid as one not too bright talkbacker said. as for Jewish kids doing trick or treat, it’s no big deal, one ought not magnify its importance. PB, Boston

  • Complete garbage – typical monotheist’s view of polytheism. How monotheism is oh so much more advanced.

    Not all peoples you lump under the term pagan practiced human sacrifice.

    And when Charlemagne had is army execute 4500 non-believers, that wasn’t a religious act, even though it was done by Christians.

    Or when Saint Olaf cut the tongues out of people who dared to sing the old songs.

    I could go on.

    Ignorance shouldn’t masquerade (pun intended) as journalism.

  • Jane

    Intersting comment about a return to superstition. It is untrue to say scoity is rational and scientific- you will find that rationality and truth only goes with the Bible. Truth is the key to the sucess of experimental science.

  • Sarah

    I really appreciate this article. It logically looks at the issue with a spiritual eye. It really made me think. Thank you.

  • Vivarto

    TERRIBLY boring article.
    Could not get through it.
    but the little bit that could read before being too bored was quite stupid, too.

    • ted

      great article i agree 100%

      …. if more people knew what is behind these “customs” , perhaps they would not partake so quickly.

      eg we Jews usually dont say hip hip hooray , as that stems from the roman cry of” Hep Hep Jerusalem is destroyed ( loose translation) .

      it bugs me when the jewish kids come around to trick or treat

  • During the past few days I have received numerous requests to clarify the “Traditional Jewish” perspective on Halloween. My educated guess is that many others have similar questions, but have (for whatever reason) aren’t making the call…

    I have even heard people comparing last year’s rare intersection of (the American) Thanksgiving and Chanukah, dubbed Thansgivikuh to Halloween falling on Friday night, calling it (perhaps well intentionally) Challaween.

    As such, I’m taking the liberty of sharing an article that I penned a number of years ago. Let me be clear: My intention is not to G-d forbid, offend or pass judgment on anybody, and I realize that this is my personal and possibly very subjective opinion. However, as a Rabbi I believe it is my sacred obligation to state things as I see them when it comes to issues that I feel seriously impact on our Yiddishkeit. I hope you will find these few words thought-provoking, and the fabric of your Jewish identity strengthened as a result. Rabbi K.

    Jack O’Lanterns, witches, goblins, devils and every costume imaginable – are these simply innocent pastimes to thrill children, or are they something that Jewish parents, in particular, should examine and evaluate carefully?

    Historically speaking, the Halloween’s origins trace themselves back to the pagan idolatrous rites of the ancient Celtic and Druid civilizations. The Celtic year ended on October 31, and they would then celebrate a joint festival dedicated to the “sun god” and the “lord-of-the-dead.” Some historians even believe that Halloween was once also associated with savage human sacrifices.

    Subsequently the (Roman Catholic) Church appropriated this Holiday. In fact, the name “Halloween” means “Hallow evening”, or “holy night”, and is connected to All-Saints-Day also known as Hallowmas or All-Hallows-Day. It is the eve of one of the most important feasts in the Church calendar, solemnly observed by the Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans.

    Let’s call a spade, a spade. In addition to being an expression of religious observance that is alien to Judaism, Halloween glorifies things like demonic forces, haunted places, witches, ghosts, goblins and general occult practices. Judaism celebrates life, not death. We believe in striving to serve G-d in joy, not dread or horror. Most importantly, Jewish parents have always considered it a sacred duty to teach their children to revere wholesomeness and uprightness not mischief.

    Abstaining from celebrating Halloween should not be misconstrued as a lack of respect for other faiths systems, cultures or communities. We may certainly appreciate others celebrating their religious festivals with pomp and ceremony, but choosing to join them in those celebrations is another matter altogether. This holds especially true when the observances and ideals promote beliefs, which are entirely antithetical to the core values of Torah Judaism.

    Clearly, Halloween is a holiday with strong religious background and character that is foreign to our divinely inspired faith traditions. To be sure, it is often interesting to explore other cultures, but Halachah makes a very strong distinction when it comes to celebrating or engaging in other religious observances or traditions.

    So much of Halloween paraphernalia expresses themes of violence, destruction and spitefulness. Why would we want to treat this like a joke? Think of the subtle messages you might unwittingly convey to your children by being a part of this, or conversely choosing to abstain.

    But Rabbi: the Costumes are fabulous and the kids have so much fun!
    True enough, and that’s why now’s the time to buy the costumes and save them for Purim – the most joyous holiday on our Jewish calendar – this year falling Wednesday evening, March 4 and Thursday, March 5. As for a good time, have a beautiful Shabbat Dinner this evening with family and friends. You can end the meal with lots of kosher candy and treats!

    Last, but not least – I don’t want my child to be different
    Issues of peer pressure are never easy – whether your children are three or thirteen. However you handle issues of principle now, at this stage of your child’s life, may set the tone for later challenges. Being firm, yet matter-of-fact conveys the message that being Jewish sometimes necessarily means being different. And that’s something we need to learn to be proud of, instead of apologizing for! Just as our modern freethinking Canadian society celebrates diversity, we should teach our children to celebrate our uniqueness and special way of life that has cradled, defined and preserved us for the past 37 centuries!

  • Mickey Segal

    On the subject of how to respond to Halloween there is a “kabalat orkhim” perspective at http://www.segal.org/docs/treat/

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