Parshat Lech Lecha: Trick or Treat…A Tough Choice

This coming Shabbat is Halloween.  A time of ghosts and goblins and scary stories.  In fact, here is my scary story for this Halloween:

2020 

(–couldn’t resist)

Halloween is an interesting time for the Jewish community.  I remember the principal of my Jewish day school coming into each class every year and telling kids they should not go out for Halloween.  I was taught it was a Christian holiday that was celebrated by hateful people who would hide behind masks and start pogroms.  He painted vivid pictures of Jews hiding in basements until Halloween was over and that it would break his heart if any Jewish kids from his school would engage in this horrible holiday (we have definitely mastered the ‘Jewish continuity through guilt’ pedagogy…). 

When I had my own kids, the question of Halloween came up.  As a day of spooky stories and ghosts and goblins, I always revisited my thoughts on Halloween. As much as I have always loved ‘B’ horror movies and all things spooky scary, I just couldn’t get past that whole Christian pogrom thing.  And then, listening to the radio one day, I had an epiphany.  I tuned-in to a talk show discussing why Halloween was such a great holiday.  Several speakers discussed that they are connected to Halloween because it is one of the few holidays that has nothing to do with religion.  To them, Halloween is completely secular, a celebration of the dark side and the mystery around us.  I gasped, how could they not know this is a Christian holiday?  That’s when I realized that I, a Jewish woman, had taken upon myself the religious memory of another faith.  If others don’t remember the hatred Halloween could embody, why was I holding on to it?  Is it not better to have that kind of holiday move toward secularization?  Should I not be helping it along so that it would never again occur to anyone to use Halloween as the ‘mask’ of their hatred?

I decided to let go of my burden of Christian memory and take my little one out on Halloween.  Now I was faced with explaining why it was ok to approach strangers’ doors (something I had taught her she should never do) and ask for candy (something I had most definitely drilled into her she should never accept from a stranger).  I taught her the phrase ‘trick or treat’ and when she asked me what it meant I explained to her that if they don’t give her a treat she can now play a trick on them (but I was trying to teach her not to be mean to others) and I realized the problems of Halloween were larger than the Jewish thing.  

As Jews, we have always been tasked with how to encounter the cultures around us.  If they do not ‘other’ us, should we ‘other’ them?  Is anything that once had some connection to another religion now off limits, no matter what cultural evolutionary changes have occured?  Technically, January 1st is a Christian holiday, it is the day Jesus had his bris (8 days after Christmas) and entered covenant.  Would we now say that since it has its roots in a Christian moment, no Jew should recognize or celebrate New Year’s Day?

Interestingly, there are clues to these questions in this week’s parshah, Lech Lecha.  God has told Abraham and Sarah to begin a journey with God. Great promises are made and they accept.  As soon as they arrive in Israel, there’s a famine and they need to leave to search for food.  They go to Egypt.  Afterwards, we are told that Abraham’s clan has grown too large to accommodate both his own wealth and the growing wealth of his adopted son, Lot.  Abraham tells Lot to choose a neighbouring region and settle there.  Lot chooses Sodom because it has plush land and strong economic growth possibilities, but the Torah tells us that the culture of Sodom is evil.  It doesn’t take long before Lot’s life is in jeopardy.  The region erupts into civil war and Lot is targeted and taken hostage.

We choose the cultures we live in.  Lot chose economics over morality and grew wealthy at the expense of always looking over his shoulder.  After saving Lot’s life, Abraham turns to God and asks how he can be sure that the wonderful Divine promises will really come true (to be fair, there was a famine, a civil war and a hostage rescue so far).  God and Abraham enact ‘the covenant between the pieces’, a mystical ritual to ‘sign’ the first draft of covenant.

Abraham did not learn about signing covenants from God.  God had communicated everything as a promise secured by God’s word — Abraham wants God to sign on the dotted line.  That was something Abraham learned from his home culture that he now imports into Judaism.  Abraham was told to leave his past life behind but that did not include leaving positive cultural lessons behind as well.  

Throughout the ages, we have developed a keen filter about Judaism and the cultures we live among.  We decide what gets through the filter, and Judaism has been enriched throughout the millennia by the positive choices we’ve made.  When a culture prioritizes morality over wealth, we are well within the teachings of Abraham and Sarah, and when it prioritizes wealth over all else, we have made Lot’s choice.

In some Jewish communities today, I still hear the ongoing debate about ‘to Halloween or not to Halloween’.  It’s not an easy question.  In the modern world, religious holidays can move toward secularization before they might fade from our culture.  We’re privileged to live at a time when we can recognize what is happening, and actively choose if, and how, it might enter our Jewish homes.

It’s a tough choice…but, at least it’s not a scary one.

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