Every October, a certain quote has special meaning in the American Jewish community. In the fifth chapter of the Book of Judges, the song of Deborah refers to there being “great decisions of the heart” among the clans of Reuben. In that case, it refers to their lack of participation in a war of self-defense against King Jabin of the Canaanites and his general, Sisera. In the modern era, it is nothing so weighty as an actual war but more of a cultural struggle—what do we do on Halloween? More specifically, what should we do on Halloween, and how do we talk about this with our families?
“Should” is a word that is fraught with peril. Its usage can connote an unquestionable command and, given the way that Jewish law works, it is not a small matter to ask a rabbi what one should or should not do—since once a legal question is asked, the answer is binding on not only the person who asked the question but all who hear it. This leads to people being very careful in what questions they ask and how they are phrased, as well as to rabbis being very careful in the way that they frame what can be binding answers. It always comes up with Halloween, more than any other holiday that is part of American civil religion, because even more so than St. Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day, it is seen as a holiday with a difficult religious past and associations that make some people uncomfortable.
So let’s get that part out of the way. Whether Halloween is seen as a pagan holiday or a Christian holiday, we know it isn’t a Jewish one. This leads to many rabbis very carefully writing things about “I’m not telling you what to do, but here are some things to think about…” I’ve done that, particularly when working with younger teens and families—because who wants to be the authority figure that killed the fun? So I’m not killing the fun. Not because Halloween is suddenly a Jewish holiday or that it should be in any way divorced from its actual history, particularly since I would much prefer that people have a clear and deep understanding of the holidays they observe and celebrate! Nor am I suggesting that Halloween should be “celebrated” by people who don’t hold to the traditions from which that holiday comes. What I am suggesting is that some of the fun of the holiday can come from a place of deep faith.
More specifically, trick or treating is something that I think can manifest itself as a particularly faithful act. Not the act of going from house to house, and certainly not the call of “trick or treat” with the historically implied threat! Instead, the simple act of opening your door to not only complete strangers, but complete strangers who often completely conceal their identities. We open our doors and offer food to anyone that comes calling. This is an amazing act of building community and one that any faith should value. It is even mirrored in a Jewish custom related to the spring holiday of Purim, when we proactively go out to offer gifts of food to our neighbors as well as to those in need.
But there is an even greater, and more central, custom at play here, related to the single largest worldwide Jewish observance—the Passover Seder, the festive meal during which we recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt. One of the ways that we open the Seder is with the words “all who are hungry, let them come and eat.” Some people even open their doors at this time as a symbolic act of inviting people in—should someone be sitting outside their door and waiting, they will hopefully be invited inside to join the meal. But really, how often does that happen? How often do we open our doors to the hungry, and how often do we find the hungry standing outside?
For most of us, the answer is rarely. There are a variety of very good reasons for this in many cases, including the simple fact that, for many of us, we don’t live in places where people ever come to our doors and ask for food. Even on Halloween, when we freely open our doors, we know, or at least expect, that many of those knocking aren’t doing so because they’re hungry, and we’re not offering them substantive food. But it is a start.
If you’re comfortable opening your doors to all who knock on Halloween, why not make this holiday observance part of your daily life? And if you don’t want to open your door, then why not knock on another’s door and offer your help? One of the hallmarks of this amazing Duke community is the number of people here who are so deeply committed to performing deeds of loving kindness and serving the community. It’s not simply a job or a resume builder, but something that we, as a community, believe in and value. So let’s always enter into it with the joy we see on Halloween, opening our doors to all those who come and knocking on the doors of those who can’t come to help ensure that their needs are met.
Jeremy Yoskowitz is the campus rabbi and assistant director for Jewish life. His column runs every other Thursday. Send Rabbi Jeremy a message on Twitter @TheDukeRav.