Originally published October 28, 2008. Republished October 31, 2011.
Editor's Note: Read an opposing viewpoint by Robin Schwartz, Why I Am Not Buying A Pumpkin Costume For My Baby.
Tonight I am dressing up as Beetlejuice. A week and a half ago, I spent several hours researching costume ideas. Over the following few days, I polled my friends about their preference. Last Saturday, I ordered a Beetlejuice makeup kit online. On Monday, I found a red velvet smoking jacket at a vintage clothing store. On Tuesday, I picked up burgundy slacks from Goodwill and bought a ruffled tuxedo shirt and burgundy vest, bowtie and cummerbund from a used tuxedo shop. Tonight, I will spend several hours having my face painted white with black eyebags and green moss affixed to my neck. I don't appreciate Halloween--I adore it.
So when it comes to the question of whether Jews should celebrate Halloween, I'm hardly a neutral observer.
But the question of what Jews should do is beside the point, isn't it? Besides the Orthodox minority, most Jews in America celebrate Halloween because, well, that's what everyone else does. All the Jewish arguments against Halloween--that it's rooted in pagan rituals, that it's a Christian holiday, that trick-or-treating is a mild form of extortion--are meaningless in the face of widespread cultural practice. You can't reason with an avalanche.
For modern Jews, it's less important to overcome the objections of traditional Judaism than it is to find meaning in Halloween, a day that often seems to be only about dressing up as the latest superhero and gorging oneself on candy (or in the adult version, dressing up as a sexy nurse and drinking oneself stupid). No one questions whether Halloween is fun. But does it have value?
Judaism places a high value on the importance of welcoming the stranger. According to some sources, the commandment to welcome the stranger is repeated in the Torah more times than any other commandment. Abraham, the father of Judaism, lived in a tent that was open on all four sides, so that wanderers from any direction could be accommodated. Halloween puts an emphasis on friendly interaction between strangers that no other holiday--secular or Jewish--can match.
The fundamental ritual of Halloween is trick-or-treating. Children are required to approach strangers, and strangers welcome, and sometimes, entertain the children. The interaction is short, to be sure, but it helps to build a culture of trust. This ritual is especially valuable in today's world.
For most of this century, where you lived defined your friends. The kids next door were your playmates. The kids down the block were your sports opponents. That world hasn't disappeared, but it has changed. Two-income families, long commutes, telecommuting, scheduled playtime, magnet schools--the dispersion of modern life has weakened bonds within neighborhoods. On Halloween, people who may have been too busy to chat with their neighbors get to meet their neighbors' children. By restoring the relevance of geographical proximity to interpersonal relations, Halloween helps a neighborhood become a community.
And this isn't just the case for families with children. Halloween helps to connect two groups that are often profoundly alienated from each other: those with children, and those without. Any other night of the year, if the middle-aged man who lives alone were to talk with a neighbor's children, it might be considered weird or worse. And few adults relish the sight of a group of teenagers cavorting outside after dark. But on this one night, by sharing the ritual of trick-or-treating, the childless and the children can enjoy each other's company.
Halloween also has value to the parent who stays home while his child goes out. In her bestseller The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, Dr. Wendy Mogel applies ancient Jewish principles to the problems of modern parenting. Overprotective and overfawning parents produce children who are simultaneously bossy and timid--children who find it difficult to deal effectively with the outside world. In response, Mogel urges the very Jewish value of moderation: moderation in overscheduling children's time, moderation in shielding children from failure. By letting children out into the neighborhood by themselves, parents are forced to trust their children's judgment. They are letting kids be kids. They are learning to "let go."
Conversely, Halloween gives children a taste of independence. On Halloween, kids make fun for themselves, and there's no structure or intellectual value to it. Their decisions are their own: what costume they'll wear, who they'll trick or treat with, what house they will go to and what ones they won't. Cliché that it is, on this one night, children own the streets.
Perhaps the most fascinating development in the modern cultural history of Halloween is the way the holiday has been co-opted by young adults. (At 31, I certainly appreciate this development.) Does Halloween provide any value for childless adults beyond providing another excuse to get drunk?
For adults, even more so than for children, Halloween truly embodies the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger. Halloween is legitimately the only day of the year--short of the day after a national tragedy or a city's sports team winning a championship--when the normal rules of social conduct don't apply. Any other night of the year, the natural reaction to strangers approaching you on the street or in a bar is suspicion. Years of dealing with obnoxious drunks has our guard up. Our normal gentleness is covered by a mask of defensiveness.
But the great irony of Halloween is that physical masks dissolve social masks. On Halloween, it's common practice to strike up conversations with complete strangers--the costumes serve as both leveler and safety net. When I'm dressed as Beetlejuice and you're dressed as Bristol Palin, we take part in a shared ritual of ridiculousness. But the costumes also distance us from our normal insecurities and worries, because when we wear a costume, we're playing a role. Halloween allows us to get to know strangers better because on Halloween, we're not being our everyday selves.
Hasidic literature relates the story of Rabbi Zusya. On his deathbed, this great rabbi was surrounded by his students. One of his students attempted to calm his nerves by telling him how he "is like Moses" and would surely be welcomed in heaven. "I am not worried that God will ask me why aren't I more like Moses," Zusya responded. "I am worried God will ask me, 'Why aren't you more like Zusya?'"
Costumes put you in character. When you play a character, you get to try out personality traits that years of habit and inertia have not allowed you to express. It's not about being someone else. It's about experimenting to figure out who your best self is. Perhaps I am more Beetlejuice than I am Micah. (Scary.) Or perhaps playing Beetlejuice will make me realize how comfortable I am being me. This is, for me, what makes Halloween a truly hallowed day. At its best, Halloween can be like Yom Kippur or Passover: a day when taking part in communal ritual allows us to reflect on who we are and how we can be better. What Jew could object to that?