Sunday, October 30, 2011

Jews and Halloween

Inspired by Jared's post on zombie Halloween, I decided to do some investigation about Jews and Halloween. I grew up, like most American children, celebrating Halloween by going out in a costume and trick-or-treating. This was in the 1960s, before parents got involved in taking their children, and I remember on at least one occasion being chased by some older kids - we were also warned not to take apples, lest they have razor blades in them. I also remember how much fun it was, how much candy I collected (and then ate), and the one year that a neighbor created a haunted house, including the darkened room with spaghetti in a tray that we were told was intestines. I was never told anything about a Jewish attitude towards Halloween (but then, I didn't grow up in a very religiously Jewish home).

So what do religious Jews have to say about Halloween? Should Jewish children "trick-or-treat"? Should Jewish houses welcome children in to give them candy? I now live in a neighborhood in Ithaca that is very child-friendly, and lots of people trick-or-treat - parents even driving in with their children  from neighboring towns to go from house to house. If you don't want to take part, you have to make sure that there are no lights on at any doors, or just leave for the evening.

An article in My Jewish Learning, by Rabbi Michael Broyde (who is Orthodox), argues that Jewish children should not go out and collect candy on Halloween. He writes, quoting a newspaper article:
"According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Halloween originated with the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain, a day on which the devil was invoked for the various divinations. 'The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this day', Britannica says, 'and the autumnal festival acquired sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins ... and demons of all kinds said to be roaming about.' In the early Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church instituted All Hallow's Eve on October 31 and All Saints Day on November 1 to counteract the occult festival. It did not work. All Hollow's Eve was simply co-opted into the pagan celebration of Samhain."
Since Halloween is rooted in a pagan holiday, he argues that Jews should not celebrate it. He concedes that the vast majority of Americans who celebrate it do not know of its pagan origins and do not celebrate it in order to observe Samhain, yet he still thinks it should not be celebrated by Jews. This is because of the injunction not to imitate the customs of the Gentiles (Leviticus 18:3: “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws” ). Rabbi Broyde writes:
Tosafot [a medieval Talmud commentary] understands that two distinctly different types of customs are forbidden by the prohibition of imitating Gentile customs found in Leviticus 18:3. The first is idolatrous customs and the second is foolish customs found in the Gentile community, even if their origins are not idolatrous. Rabbenu Nissim (Ran) and Maharik disagree and rule that only customs that have a basis in idolatrous practices are prohibited. Apparently foolish--but secular--customs are permissible so long as they have a reasonable explanation (and are not immodest). Normative halakhah follows the ruling of the Ran and Maharik. As noted by Rama [Rabbi Moshe Isserles, c. 1525-1572]:
"Those practices done as a [Gentile] custom or law with no reason one suspects that it is an idolatrous practice or that there is a taint of idolatrous origins; however, those customs which are practiced for a reason, such as the physician who wears a special garment to identify him as a doctor, can be done; the same is true for any custom done out of honor or any other reason is permissible."
Rabbi Isserless is thus clearly prohibiting observing customs that have pagan origins, or even which might have pagan origins. His opinion, the most lenient found in normative halakhah, is the one we follow.
Rabbi Broyde believes, therefore, that Jewish children should not go out and collect candy on Halloween. What about giving out candy?
The question of whether one can give out candy to people who come to the door is a different one, as there are significant reasons based on darkhei shalom (the ways of peace), eva (the creation of unneeded hatred towards the Jewish people), and other secondary rationales that allow one to distribute candy to people who will be insulted or angry if no candy is given. This is even more so true when the community--Jewish and Gentile--are unaware of the halakhic problems associated with the conduct, and the common practice even within many Jewish communities is to "celebrate" the holiday. Thus, one may give candy to children who come to one's house to "trick or treat" if one feels that this is necessary.
Magical images from Sefer Raziel
For a more journalistic, and non-halakhic discussion of Jews and Halloween, see the article in the Baltimore Jewish Times - Jews and the Halloween Dilemma.

For an article on Jews and magic/the occult, see this article in Tablet Magazine from two years ago: Under a Spell.

An interesting article by a Reform rabbi on Halloween - the comments are also interesting - Is Halloween Good for the Jews?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ancient Zombies for Halloween

A great post by Jared of Antiquitopia on Ancient Zombies (his Halloween post):
As everyone begins preparations for the most important religious holiday of the year--Halloween (what else would it be? Yom Kippur? Easter? Diwali? Ramadan?)--I thought I would provide some seasonal cheer for your undead pleasure.

While the jury is still out on whether or not Jesus was a zombie, who did come from the dead and encourage us to drink blood and eat flesh (although drinking blood lends itself to a more vampiric reading), zombies appear to be as old as civilization itself. The earliest reference I know of occurs in Mesopotamian stories of the Descent of Ishtar and, perhaps a bit more well-known, the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Jewish Annotated New Testament just published

I just received an email from Marc Brettler, the editor, that the Jewish Annotated New Testament has just been published. I contributed the article on "Divine Beings." There are going to be two sessions at the SBL about it - one a panel discussion, one a reception (see below).

Some blog commentary on it:
Annotated Jewish New Testament, first impressions, on the BLT blog.
The Jewish Annotated New Testament – First Impressions on the Baker Book House Church Connection.

----------------------------------------------------

M20-300
Publication of Jewish Annotated New Testament and Jewish/Christian Relations
11/20/2011
4:00 PM to 5:00 PM
Room: 3009 - Convention Center

Theme: Sponsored by the Oxford University Press
The Jewish Annotated New Testament is a complete edition of the New Testament in the New Revised Standard Version, with scholarly comment and contextualizing essays by Jewish New Testament scholars, Greco-Roman historians, and theologians. It aims to open up new perspectives on this text for Jewish and Christian readers, and for all who are interested in expanding their reading of the New Testament.

Amy-Jill Levine, Vanderbilt University, Panelist
; Marc Zvi Brettler, Brandeis University, Panelist
; Adele Reinhartz, University of Ottawa, Panelist

M20-315
The Jewish Annotated New Testament Reception
11/20/2011
6:00 PM to 8:00 PM
Room: Atrium Lobby - Marriott Marquis

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The release of Gilad Shalit and the 405 bus attack in July, 1989

I was visiting Israel in the summer of 2006 when Gilad Shalit was kidnapped, and I remember the two-week mini-war that his kidnapping caused (and which has since been forgotten, since that was also the summer of the Second Lebanon War). I wrote a blog post then, but haven't written anything else about Shalit since then.

In my subsequent visits, I was puzzled by the emotion that my Israeli friends felt about Shalit, and about the many signs posted everywhere calling for his return home. As Ethan Bronner in the New York Times has noted, most Israelis see Shalit as being almost a member of their families - a son or brother who is missing in an unknown location, held by ruthless killers. I still don't quite get the emotion, since I'm not Israeli and don't have the same visceral connection to him. The only thing I can really compare it to in the United States is the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979-1980 - I remember watching "Nightline" with Ted Koppel, with the banner on the screen, "America Held Hostage." Even then, it was nowhere near as personal.

I do, on the other hand, feel more personally about some of the terrorists who are being released in return for Shalit, one in particular - Abd al-Hadi Rafa Ghanim, who attacked the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv bus 405 on July 6, 1989.

I was living in Jerusalem at the time. The bus was on its way to Jerusalem, and had just passed Abu Ghosh. The terrorist grabbed the steering wheel and drove the bus into the abyss. The road is very steep at that point in the climb up to Jerusalem, and there is a deep fall into the valley at that point. The bus tumbled into the ravine and sixteen people were killed, some of them being burned alive.

The attack was a horrible shock to everyone. Anyone living in Jerusalem had taken the 405 to and from Tel Aviv. It was so easy to imagine being on that bus as the terrorist wrestled the steering wheel out of the driver's grip. I remember taking the bus after that and peering out, trying to discover where the attack had occurred.

The Jerusalem Post article published the next day on the attack (retrieved via LexisNexis) is available after the jump:

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Why did Yasser Arafat deny the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem?

Interesting article on Palestinian Jewish Temple denial and where it comes from, by Yitzhak Reiter in the American Interest. He explains why Yasser Arafat asserted in the 2000 Camp David peace negotiations that "the Temple never existed in Jerusalem, but rather in Nablus." Longstanding Muslim tradition never denied the existence of Solomon's and Herod's Temples in Jerusalem, but instead assumed them. It's only since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that denial of the existence of those temples had spread among Palestinians and in the wider Arab world.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Steve Jobs is dead

I just saw on TPM that Steve Jobs has just died. I find myself quite sad, which surprises me, because the death of public figures usually doesn't touch me. But I feel a quite personal attachment to Apple Computers, as many people do, I suppose, because I've owned an Apple since 1985, when I started graduate school at Harvard. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on a typewriter (which meant that I had to retype it several times....), and vowed that for graduate school I would get a computer.

I remember reading a little booklet on how to choose a personal computer, and the Macintosh seemed much better than the clunky PCs with DOS machines - I liked the more intuitive interface, with icons, and WISYWIG, and different fonts. (I spent several years as a typesetter and was definitely into fonts). I've had one ever since, going from the Macintosh 128K, then to an upgrade to a 512K. I then went to Israel for two years and first used my roommate's DOS machine (I still have 5 1/2 inch floppy around somewhere) and then the next year rented something in a heavy metal box that ran Wordstar. When I returned to the US I bought another Macintosh (bequeathing the 512K machine to an old roommate) - I don't remember which one now. The next time I went to Israel I brought a rather heavy laptop - 5300 something. I wrote my doctoral thesis on this one, and ended up printing out the whole 450 page behemoth on an Apple Stylewriter (which I had bought in Israel the previous year).

Eventually I got an iMac, then a better laptop, and now my MacBook. I still feel the same fondness for Apple Computers, and I hope that the company continues to prosper and build more fantastic computers and other devices.

R.I.P., Steve Jobs.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Hussein Ibish on Atzmon and Mearsheimer

Excellent discussion by Hussein Ibish on Gilad Atzmon and John Mearsheimer: self-criticism, self-hate and hate.
Why Mearsheimer found Atzmon compelling in spite of these attitudes, even if they are largely concealed, implicit or downplayed in his book, is a very disturbing question. Ever since he and Walt began criticizing the role of the pro-Israel lobby (Jewish power in Israel and the United States being a subject that deserves serious interrogation of the kind being done by Peter Beinart, among others), Mearsheimer (far more than Walt) has been developing an outright vendetta with the Jewish mainstream that, I fear, has become deeply personal and therefore distorted.
Last year he gave a dreadful speech at the Palestine Center in Washington in which he abandoned his long-standing good advice to Arab and Muslim Americans to develop an alliance for a two-state solution with peace-minded Jewish Americans. Instead, he counseled Palestinians and their allies that Israel would never agree to the creation of a Palestinian state and that because of demographics and other factors, Palestinians would ultimately prevail, and that in effect they need do nothing to achieve that victory (save, he noted, engaging in the kind of violence that might rationalize another round of Israeli ethnic cleansing). In response to that worst of all possible advice, I dubbed him the “Kevorkian of Palestine,” because I believe he was preaching a form of assisted suicide. He was repeating the siren song Palestinians and other Arabs have been telling themselves about Israel and Zionism since the 1920s: that demographics are destiny and steadfastness alone would secure a victory over the Israeli national project. To say that history has proven this logic incorrect, and led from defeat to defeat, would be a gross understatement.