The Shema, Idolatry and Halloween–And Why I’ll Eat My Pumpkins

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, October 27, 2017 / 7 Cheshvan 5778

It would be hard to think of a better known prayer than the Shema. It is one of the first prayers to be taught to children, and it was part of my bedtime ritual with my mother beginning when I was barely verbal. It was always coupled with prayers for my immediate and extended family. Part of its power lies in early memories such as these and there are many similar poignant stories.

During WWII, for instance, the kindertransport rescued thousands of Jewish children from the Nazi regime. Many of them ended up in Christian-run orphanages. On one occasion, a few rabbis visited one of these orphanages. They were shown a large dorm with row after row of bed, but informed that none of the children were Jewish. One of the rabbis must have found that hard to believe, and began to recite the Shema. Immediately a hush fell over the chamber. Some of the kids began to cry, others joined in. In that way, these lost souls were restored to their religion and people of origin.

So there’s a way the shema touches us at our deepest emotional core. From the perspective of faith, of course, it is our central declaration of monotheism. God is one. Digging deeper, however, it is more than mere declaration. We are enjoined to listen–to actively acknowledge that there is only one unitary God. What that means from the Torah’s perspective is a total rejection of idolatry in any of its forms. We are even to remove ourselves from situations that might be idolatrous. The Talmud devotes an entire section to this topic in the tractate Avodah Zarah, or strange worship. In certain circumstances, the prohibition against idolatry supersedes that of “pikuach nefesh” or saving a life.

For much of our history, this resulted in a visceral unease and sometimes outright disgust in the presence of idolatrous practices. The urban America of today, however, is a multi-cultural hodgepodge. If for our ancestors paganism was only something theoretical, today most of us have met people who practice Hinduism, Shintoism or shamanism. I’ve known numerous Jews who also were members of Wiccan covens. It is clear, in other words, that for many modern Jews, we don’t find paganism repugnant. The opposite more likely is true–one of my oldest friends and an altogether upright guy is a Hindhu.

Still, we are members of the oldest monotheistic religion in the world and the durability of so many other values we care about (equality and egalitarianism, care for the marginalized and the elderly, treating others with dignity…) is inextricably bound to our belief that there is one God, and that each of us is created in that divine image. If that foundational understanding goes, as it did in Nazi era German, the Soviet union and other repressive regimes–including some religious ones–it is only a matter of time before the value of people is also cheapened.

What does that mean for the modern Jew and the celebration of Halloween? Many of us probably know that it’s pagan origins stem from the Celtic festival of Samain and that the Catholic Church absorbed it and changed it into a Christian observance. Simultaneously we understand that for most it is simply an excuse to put on a costume, go to a party or collect candy for free.

No less a figure than Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (a central Orthodox legal decisorsof the mid-twentieth century) said as much:

“It is obvious in my opinion, that even in a case where something would be considered a prohibited Gentile custom, if many people do it for reasons unrelated to their religion or law, but rather because it is pleasurable to them, there is no prohibition of imitating Gentile custom. So too, it is obvious that if Gentiles were to make a religious law to eat a particular item that is good to eat, halakhah (Jewish law) would not prohibit eating that item. So too, any item of pleasure in the world cannot be prohibited merely because Gentiles do so out of religious observance.”

It seems that a family’s decision whether to celebrate Halloween should center on the larger context of their Jewish life and their other commitments. How are we passing on our important Jewish values? Do our actions demonstrate to them a respect for the divinely granted dignity of all people? Is Purim, OUR costume holiday, also observed? Are we ok with teaching our children that it is acceptable to ask for and expect candy from strangers? What quantity of sugar will negatively influence their behavior and health?

In my own case, we don’t prohibit our kids from going trick or treating. It’s never gotten built up into a big deal. In fact, a couple of weeks ago I asked Amitai if he had any idea for a costume. He said, “No, I’m not really sure.” Which means sometime in the next couple of days, Laura or I will probably go up to the attic and pull down our box of Purim costumes and see if there’s anything that appeals to them. Still, we won’t carve the pumpkins we’ve grown in our front yard. “Bal Taschit”–we strive to use what we need but not waste resources.

Good parenting is always about setting clear boundaries that teach our children what really matters. We can’t expect them to make such rules for themselves (Remember Lord of the Flies? Or our own age where youth increasingly raise themselves to ill affect?) Halloween is just one more opportunity for us to say to them and to ourselves, “Listen. There’s one God. That single radical understanding places healthy limits on us all. And we are all made better because of it. Now let’s have a discussion.”

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

This week, the questions are embedded above, in the third paragraph from the end.

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