Halloween can remind Jews to hallow Gods presence

Every year, around Oct. 31, some American Jewish organizations warn us not to dress our children in costumes because "the observance of Halloween is not Jewish."

What, we may wonder, could possibly be wrong with carving pumpkins or sending our children to gather free candy?

The controversy surrounds Halloween's origins. Halloween is derived from the Celtic festival that marked the official end of summer.

As animals were moved into barns and pens, and the fall harvest concluded, the change of season was marked by a festival called Samhain, meaning end of summer.

Many superstitions became associated with this day including the belief that the spirits of the dead wandered around looking for bodies to inhabit.

Ancient Celts dressed up in costumes, making loud noises to trick and scare away the spirits.

Since this was a Celtic New Year's Eve, Samhain was part of neither the previous nor the coming year and chaos ruled the day.

Around the fifth century C.E., the Roman Catholic Church gained dominance over Europe.

Unable to wean the people away from their favorite pagan folk festival, the church instead reinterpreted Nov. 1 as a day to honor the saints of the Catholic Church and renamed it All Saints Day.

The evening before, Oct. 31, was called All Hallows Eve and became an auspicious night on which to pray for the dead.

A later custom arose in which people would go door-to-door requesting small cakes in exchange for reciting prayers for the deceased.

The jack-o'-lantern, meanwhile, came from Irish folklore. A legendary figure named Jack once tricked the devil into climbing a tree and then carved a cross on the trunk to trap Satan in the tree's branches.

The devil struck a deal: If Jack would let Satan free, he would never give Jack entry into the underworld.

When Jack died, however, he was ineligible for residence in heaven, and was thus forced to wander the world with a single candle to light his way. Legend has it that the candle was placed in a turnip to keep it burning longer.

Irish immigrants to America changed it to a pumpkin and bequeathed us an ever-burning remembrance: Jack's otherworldly presence.

Since Halloween's origins derive from long-forgotten Celtic and early church customs, what is wrong with Jewish children participating in America's secularized version of the festival?

To many Jews there is nothing wrong with celebrating Halloween. Jewish law does not forbid our children from participating in a secular night of frivolity alongside of their neighbors, as long as their safety is insured.

Additionally, it is possible to trace pagan or early Christian elements in many American holidays and festivals including Jan. 1.

Were we to abstain from marking all seasonal holidays once observed by pagans, we would lose most American and even some Jewish festivals as well.

Wasn't the genius of Judaism its ability to take popular pagan customs and festivals and reinterpret them in the light of central Jewish events and teachings?

Yet other Jews argue that Halloween's witches, demons and ghosts are the very philosophic antitheses of Judaism.

Any festival that celebrates and glorifies violence and death is diametrically opposed to the life-affirming impulse of Judaism.

While magic and superstition have always played a role in Jewish folklore, normative Judaism shuns magic and its implication that humans can manipulate natural events. Jews teach that such power resides only with God.

Finally, it is argued that sending our children out to scavenge for piles of candy sends an inappropriate message of greed, gluttony and acquisitiveness.

Whatever Jewish parents decide about the celebration of Halloween, our children should know that we Jews ourselves have our own wholesome day for costumes and treats: Purim. Indeed, Purim, in many ways, teaches the very opposite message from Halloween!

While Purim gives Jews permission to don costumes and enjoy tasty treats, it nonetheless teaches social responsibility as well.

While we treat ourselves with sweets, we also send mishloach manot, food packages to our neighbors, and matanot la'evyonim, gifts to the poor.

Additionally, while we wear costumes, Purim's main theme is unmasking. Esther (from the Hebrew root s-t-r, or hidden) reveals her Jewish identity to save her people.

Haman is unmasked as the treacherous enemy he is and suffers the consequences.

Indeed, even God, whose Name appears nowhere in the text, is nonetheless revealed through the Divine providence which is once again apparent in our history.

Whether or not we choose to go door to door on Halloween, let us use the day to recall Judaism's fundamental charge: to hallow God's eternal presence day in and day out, and to proclaim the Jewish commitment to life, l'dor v' dor, from generation to generation.