By Daniel Kieval
It’s Halloween in the suburbs. For a couple of weeks, already, the neighborhood decorations have been out in full force: pumpkins, black cats, spiders, ghosts. Then there are the houses that hold nothing back, turning lawns into graveyards complete with tombstones, skeletons, and back-from-the-dead monsters, such as mummies and zombies.
With kids and parents across the country designing costumes, planning parties, and fortifying candy supplies, Halloween may seem an unlikely time to start pondering Judaism. After all, the chaos of the fall holidays has passed, and Jews are supposed to be enjoying a well-deserved break, not starting in on more holidays. Yet, surrounded as we are by the Halloween culture, it may be worthwhile to ask the question: Does Halloween’s glorification of blood and gore, of demons and the living dead have any relation to Jewish values? Can Jews learn from zombies?
Jewish tradition has its fair share of monsters, spirits, and dead bodies coming to life. Folktales are one classic source. Stories tell of the giant clay Golem who saved the Jews of Prague; the young bride possessed by a malicious spirit known as the Dybbuk; and departed ancestors popping out of their graves in Tevye’s dream in Fiddler on the Roof. The Talmud, too, contains references to the dark and supernatural – one striking passage tells us that one can see demons by burning a part of a black cat and rubbing the ashes in one’s eye, while anotherwarns that the demon Shabiri will strike blind anyone who drinks water at night. Even the Amidah prayer, recited daily by Jews for centuries, contains a wish for the resurrection of the dead, t’chiyat ha-meitim, that some associate with the coming of the Messiah.
So yes, in our written tradition we’ve got spirits, we’ve got monsters, we’ve got dead bodies coming to life. But in our day-to-day practice we have a concept called kavod ha-met, respect and care for the dead. It is for kavod ha-met that Jews do not display a dead body before burial, nor do we cremate or embalm them (sorry, mummies). In fact, Jewish tradition considers caring for a dead body the greatest deed one can perform, since there is no way for the recipient to return the favor. Those who engage in this practice are called the chevra kadisha, the holy community. Halloween associates dead things with gore, decay, and terror. The chevra kadisha clean, purify, and dress the body and then sit with it until it can be buried. Where Halloween wants to make us feel repulsed by the dead, Jewish ritual seeks to bring us close to them in loving care.
Perhaps, then, the more worthwhile question is: Can zombies learn from Jews? Halloween can be an occasion to think about our own relationship to death. Is it something creepy, disgusting and scary, something that we avoid except in the context of horror movies and media violence? Or is it a natural, if difficult, part of existence, something that reminds us to glorify life and appreciate what we have while we have it? Judaism reminds us that it’s not wrong to enjoy a good monster story on occasion, but it also reminds us that in real life dead people are not monsters, and may even be pathways to holiness.