Today I Learned – 11/3/2016

Today I Learned a little bit about how American Jewish leaders grapple with their religious legal tradition in light of an American cultural tradition and how they engage with their congregations on the topic, with Halloween as a starting point. In an October 2013 article written for the Tablet Magazine, Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips shares an anecdote about an intriguing question she was asked by a young student named Adam: “What is your position on zombies?”

It’s a strange question, she admits, but one worth exploring.

The first passage that caught my keen interest, compelling me to reread it twice, was this one:

What “Judaism Says” about Halloween, for example, varies as much by personal focus as by denominational persuasion. More traditionally observant communities uphold clearer dress and dietary codes, but mixed religious symbolism, consumer excess, and supervision of children’s behavior are concerns across the Jewish denominational spectrum.

Whatever their ambivalence, Jewish leaders of less insular worldviews generally conclude that the pagan/Christian elements of Halloween have been secularized beyond recognition, and that participation in this one day out of the year will not cause irreversible damage to Jewish identity. Many recommend a proactive clarification of parameters—at least to ensure that basic health and safety needs are met and ideally to highlight teachable moments for instilling Jewish values. Purim is often upheld as a superior Jewish costume-and-candy alternative.

Almost immediately, my mind was inundated with images of debates that take place within the American Muslim community surrounding the same issue; some of these debates are erudite, with a tremendous display of tact where participants meticulously take into consideration all the relevant factors before forming their opinions, while other debates, often initiated by overzealous youth looking more to demonize rather than to discuss, are lacking both in scholarly sophistication and basic mannerisms. For this latter group, the argument often begins with “Islam says!” and often ends with a pompous chest-thumping wanting in constructive, substantive conclusions. Thankfully however, this group is a minority of a minority, and as American Muslims continue to better navigate their legal and theological traditions in the United States, I believe that a much stronger, intellectually robust and spiritually vibrant community will emerge.

I greatly appreciated seeing the parallels between the Jewish and Muslim community here, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that even when the Jewish community is much more institutionally-established and socially-integrated into the American fabric, it still faces questions like these.

The writer goes back to the question of what “Judaism Says,” and more specifically of the “rationalistic” approach to that question, namely that such an approach, though worthy of its own merit, has led to an unfortunate but inevitable consequence that limits the capacity of humans to stimulate their natural imaginative faculties. This capacity is then left unused and the void is then filled by popular culture. She goes on to suggest that our intrinsic creative powers have the potency to surpass our “rationalistic” efforts, without necessarily diminishing the importance of either one.

The rationalistic “Judaism Says” with which I came of age negated centuries of Jewish afterlife traditions. This negation combined the ancient religious hostility to necromancy, the modern secular insistence on scientific measurement, and the ethical imperative to focus on our responsibilities here and now. Sadly, the rationalistic approach has left us mostly blind to our own denial, with diminished capacities for acceptance of inherent mysteries. Popular culture fills the void with a relentless onslaught of imaginary fates worse than death. The creative powers of fear and fantasy far outstrip our ethical here-and-now efforts to visit the sick, honor the dead, console the bereaved, and communicate our own final wishes to those we love.

When I read the above passage, I interpreted it to mean that the author was arguing for a complementary or hybrid approach to life and death: one that integrates both our (rationalistic) “here-and-now” efforts to heal the world with our creative powers that imagine good works as transcendent of worldly results. She goes on:

“Here is my position on zombies,” I told Adam. “I would like a tiny fraction of all the money, time, and resources spent on zombies and vampires and ‘the undead’ to be spent on coming to terms with real death and what it means for our lives.”

Adam nodded, and the dinner table conversation turned to other topics. I was content to have planted a seed of possibility for future cultivation.

Again, this evokes memories of both past and present conversations in the Muslim community. Indeed, the secularization of Halloween and its rituals has effectively erased any semblance of religious significance to the holiday, but as a cultural holiday, is it possible to make it something more, something positive for our spirituality? This writer says it is: The time spent on Halloween, zombies, and vampires can also be used as a moment of reflection; or at least part of that time can. In fact, as the writer suggests, it may be only a “tiny fraction,” but some short period of time nonetheless. As I read through this article, I wondered, how and when I can apply this principle further? When are there times in my life that give me the opportunity to take a moment to turn a mundane, cultural, and ephemeral event into something transcendental, religious, and lasting?

A moment of reflection.

Last thought: Both the manner in which she responds (constructively, with hope, optimism, and love) along with the content of what she says (accounting for both the “rationalistic” approach and the “creative” approach) speak volumes to her exemplary character as a religious leader. I hope to develop my personal spiritual practice and my relationship with people in such a way where I am able to do the same.





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