Friday, October 20, 2006

Moment Magazine on Trick-or-Treating

As part of its bimonthly "Ask the Rabbis" feature, Moment Magazine asked me to respond to the question "should Jewish children Trick-or-Treat?" An edited version of my answer appears in the October 2006 issue of Moment and can be found here. This is the original response I composed:

The custom of “trick-or-treating” on Halloween can be traced back to medieval Celtic polytheism and folk religion. In modern times, of course, most trick-or-treaters are completely unaware of the original meaning of the ritual. The celebration of Halloween has become a predominantly secular affair, and its significance nowadays is more social than religious.

In view of the fact that the pagan elements of trick-or-treating have effectively been “neutralized”, is there anything wrong with allowing our children to participate? The Torah’s answer is “yes.” We are not permitted to engage in activities that have an idolatrous source, even after their association with that source has become obsolete. Why is the Torah is so concerned about these seemingly harmless practices, and why, by extension, should we be concerned about them?

The answer is that, through its prohibition of “foreign” customs, the Torah draws attention to its own uniqueness. Manmade religions and cultures are primarily designed to satisfy the emotional needs of human beings. Primitive people found themselves in an overwhelming, mysterious and threatening environment in the face of which they felt powerless and vulnerable. They created religious rituals and superstitions as a way of exerting magical influence over the forces of nature that they could not control physically. The religious traditions thus formed reflect the fears, anxieties, hopes, and fantasies of their adherents. Incidentally, for many people, even today, this is the most appealing aspect of religious life – the fact that it gives the faithful an emotional outlet and makes them feel good.

Not so the Divinely revealed Torah. Unlike primitive religion that breeds superstition, mysticism and intellectual stagnation, the Torah is designed to challenge and educate human beings at the highest level of which they are capable – morally, intellectually and emotionally. In order to accomplish its objective, the Torah helps us to develop a rigorous and realistic understanding of our world, our Creator and ourselves. In contradistinction to simplistic folk religions, Judaism is a comprehensive system of philosophy and commandments that must be diligently studied and observed to be appreciated. Indeed, the laws and concepts of the Torah are so profound and sophisticated that – much like the laws of physics – only a scholar who has dedicated him or herself to investigating them for years can even begin to grasp their depth and subtlety.

Within the framework of Judaism, a human being’s most sublime faculty – his or her intellect – is not only engaged in religious practice, it is the epicenter of religious experience. This is a far cry from the arena of primitive rituals in which human weaknesses and emotional insecurities beget piety. While the idolater seeks protection from the frightening realities that confront him, the committed Jew engages and studies reality, humbly admiring the infinite wisdom of his Creator.

In order to emphasize these crucial distinctions, the Torah prohibits us from adopting customs that have roots in idolatrous religions. These practices emerged from a worldview that is fundamentally opposed to Judaism and must not be confused with it. Rather than sending Jewish children out to trick-or-treat, we should use Halloween as an opportunity to teach them about the features of their heritage that make it truly unique.


Bob Miller said...

The pagan elements have not been neutralized in today's Halloween activities in general.

This whole pagan theme of witches, skulls, haunted houses, etc., goes on. Wild adult partying in costume goes on. Maybe not in your town but in many others.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

I agree with you. However, the article was written for a general audience, many members of which might have objected had I characterized Halloween as a holiday with pagan overtones.

So I purposely avoided that issue when I wrote my piece. I tried to argue that, even from the most optimistic standpoint, Halloween is objectionable.