How pagan is too pagan?

posted by Homeshuling

In my daughter’s day school, talk of Halloween is off-limits, because of its origin as a pagan holiday. If I had to guess, I would bet that 96% of the 100 students who attend her school celebrate the holiday, which, judging from the number of gravestones popping up on our neighbors’ lawns, is taken far more seriously in New England than it was in Baltimore, where I grew up. Still, she’s been instructed not to discuss her cheerleader costume (thank God – how can I live that one down?) between the hours of 8 and 3:15 for the next week. Mama, however, will definitely post pictures.
I’ve blogged earlier about my general indifference to the holiday, but I don’t really have a well-articulated opinion about whether it’s too pagan for us Jews. Frankly, it seems to me that lots of our own traditions have vaguely pagan-y origins, and our celebrations are all the richer for it. (But please don’t ask me to back up that statement with any actual facts.) There are lots of reasons that I’m firmly opposed to pretending that Christian holidays are secular, but Halloween? It’s just not my issue.
Fortunately, others far wiser and more thoughtful than I have blogged about the topic. Check out this post by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of CLAL, an Orthodox Rabbi who manages to be open minded and wise about everything from Hitler to circumcision. Plus, I used to daven with him.

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posted October 25, 2009 at 10:39 pm

Oh, Amy, I find that a terribly sad lesson for a child. Jewish education should be about the beauty of our culture, and to forbid speech…to keep jews from talking! I am perhaps not quite as passionate about jewish education as you are, but i found this so disturbing.
Our primary jewish day school in town does some things i find distasteful but not overly so—asking families not to have birthday parties on shabbos,etc. I think that we should embrace those who want the education, and not try to control their lives outside—blending religious and secular life can be a struggle, and i’d hate to see people turned off/away.

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posted October 25, 2009 at 10:59 pm

“Strictly forbidden” might be overstating the case slightly, no? I mean, there’s no gag order on discussing Halloween at lunch or recess — I think Amy just means the during the academic portions of the day, it’s not discussed. (Am I wrong, Morah Amy?)
Anyway, my guess would be 99% of the kids there take part in Halloween in some way. And personally I have no problem with it.

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posted October 26, 2009 at 4:02 am

My friend Chuck posted this on facebook, and I’m copying it here:
Here are a few facts to back-up your hypothesis about the “vaguely” pagan origins of some of our traditions. Fact # 1: Once a year, we wave a stick and a piece of fruit around in the air in order to insure a fertile harvest. Fact # 2: We slice-off our foreskins – a ritual that was extremely well-established in Egypt 2400 years ago. Fact # 3: Much Yiddish literature – and Bashevis Singer in particular – is based on a mixture of (pagan) slavic folkore and Jewish myth.
When I first heard about this anti-halloween stuff, I thought it was a joke. Than I dismissed it as the sort of paranoia you hear from people who don’t believe in evolution and think that Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born Islamic terrorist. I am really shocked that Ella’s school, which does so many things incredibly well, has succumbed to it. If the Jewish religion is so unappetizing, or so fragile, that it cannot withstand a night of merry jack-o-lanterns and free Twizzlers, then we’ve got *way* bigger problems than halloween.
Finally, may I say – not wishing to offend anyone, but feeling quite strongly about this – that I think that, on this subject at least, Rabbi Hirshfield is a tad too earnest. He seriously urges parents to cautiously evaluate the “religious” content of halloween in their neighborhoods!?! Then, evidently confusing halloween with Christmas, he adds that “since halloween is about giving”, the Jewish child might best put to work piously handing-out candy to her gentile friends, as they race around the neighborhood in their pagan cheerleader costumes, having the time of their gentile lives.
If there’s a better way to make a Jewish child resent her religion, I’d hate to hear it.

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posted October 26, 2009 at 4:00 pm

A quick point: if someone is having a birthday party or event that doesn’t include the entire class, I believe it is school policy to not allow talking about it at school. That isn’t because the school is anti-birthday party, or even disapproving of the decision to only invite some children–it just is not fair to have school conversation be about something that occurs in only some of the families.
As to the content of Halloween, there are some similarities to Purim (dressing up, giving candy, etc.) but the catch phrase of Halloween remains “trick or treat!” Although few of the families intend to do malicious pranks if gifts aren’t given, it is a different type of practice than giving “gifts to the poor, and portions from one person to his/her neighbor” as we do on Purim.
Even though my children don’t dress up or go asking for the candy, we happily give it out–its the neighborly thing to do.

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posted October 27, 2009 at 11:16 am

I don’t know if this will make you feel better or worse, but many of the more evangelical/strident/ crazy christian denominations around here also do their best to limit Halloween talk. They tend to have alternative activities that day. I think it’s due to the pagan roots, but maybe also a little anxiety about the vaguely Catholic ties to the holiday (all saint/all souls day). Halloween decor is all the rage here (and yes, we do it too). I blame it on the fact that it’s still warm, so it’s easy to do, but apparently people do it in cold places too.

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posted October 28, 2009 at 1:38 am

PALMD — Asking families not to have birthday parties on shabbos is so that kids that might be observing shabbos will not be excluded. Is that so distasteful?

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posted October 28, 2009 at 7:14 am

I was surprised that he found that distasteful too – especially since it’s a request (for the reasons you posted above), not “controlling” anyone’s life outside of school.

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posted October 29, 2009 at 8:51 pm

Are we really all that insecure in our Jewish identities. I feel even more Jewish when surrounded by gentiles (in my own private shtetl?). Many of our relatives, especially in the 40s and 50s, celebrated a “secular” christmas, which is a bit much for me, but i see where they’re coming from.
Halloween is so divorced from any religious meaning it’s hard to see any rational (if one can use that word when speaking of religion) objection to it. Do I really think my daughter will turn into a goy or a wiccan by dressing as a witch and trick or treating? Do i really think she will absorb undesired values thereby? Have i really failed in my parenting (and more specifically my jewish parenting) so badly that halloween is a threat? What about a more secular but non-jewish holiday like thanksgiving? For many it is explicitly religious and explicitly christian. It certainly isn’t jewish. And yet we proudly celebrate it (at least my family does, and usually with a jewish flare).
I dunno, it just seems funny to me to see my chaverim acting like a bunch of jehovah’s witnesses.

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posted October 31, 2009 at 9:37 pm

i’m curious – how is thanksgiving explicitly christian?

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posted November 15, 2009 at 6:59 am

I haven’t read much of your blog so I can’t tell if you identify Conservative, Ortho, Conservadox, post denomination or what.
I grew up Ortho in New England (ok, Stamford CT, can’t tell if that’s really considered New England or not). There was never even a hava amina (uh, thought? can’t tell how to translate that) that I or my brother would dress up for Halloween. It was a non Jewish holiday and that was that. There were kids in my Ortho school (not really religious) who dressed up, but not us. And my brother and I were really fine with it.
We bought candy and gave it out to kids who rang our bell because we didn’t want to be rude neighbors. But it simply wasn’t our holiday. Why is it not ok to say “We have our own holidays, they have their holidays” and talk about how beautiful Purim is because instead of going around demanding candy from our neighbors, we put together nice packages and give out packages.
Same amount of junk comes and goes, same dressing up, better ethical lesson, just at different time of year. Why is that bad?
Also, the same non religious argument could be made for Christmas trees. Pagan origins, not really a religious holiday anymore anyway. Are you ok with household decorated trees in December? After all, they’re so pretty and everyone has them.

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posted November 15, 2009 at 7:51 am

I think a good definition for a hava amina might be an “assumption held prior to the fact” ??? (I don’t really identify as part of any denomination any more, but I was once very observant and did attend an orthodox yeshiva. Haven’t lost the vocab….)
I’m not saying it’s logical, but I do see a fundamental difference between Xmas and Halloween. Xmas is, in my mind, still a religious holiday for many, many, people. Halloween is not. I do think if we were more observant, and more importantly, part of an observant community, it would make sense to opt out.
And I certainly don’t think there is anything “bad” about Purim. Typically the food in mishloach manot is way better than Halloween candy.

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posted November 15, 2009 at 1:23 pm

Thanks for the translation. I live in Israel, so I’ve lost most of my translating vocab!
I can see how not living in an observant community would make it more difficult to opt out.
Sorry, I wasn’t clear on my question “Why is that bad?” I meant to ask, why is it bad to draw such boundaries?

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