Kids’ fascination with the undead goes far beyond one holiday, but it’s a perfect time to talk about Jewish traditions around death
By Regina Sandler-Phillips for Tablet Magazine
“What is your position on zombies?”
It’s not something I’m usually asked as a rabbi, especially in the middle of a meal. Adam was approaching bar mitzvah at the time, and his parents had invited me to stay for dinner after one of our study sessions.
‘Tis the season for discussions of how kosher it is for Jews to celebrate Halloween. But the fascination with “the undead” isn’t limited by the calendar; it’s ongoing, particularly for young people, and it provides opportunities for dialogue between generations on issues that go beyond costumes and candy.
My young student’s phrasing of his question was more nuanced than most. As a rabbi, I’m often invited into a game of “Judaism Says.” This game is somewhat less arbitrary than “Simon Says,” since I’m expected to make a statement based on reasonable knowledge and authority. But “Judaism Says” inevitably oversimplifies complex issues.
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.
But rabbis don’t usually address the significance of the year-round fascination with the undead. Even commentaries like “Can a Zombie Count as Part of a Minyan?” sidestep implications as elementary as Purim yet often absent from general Jewish awareness.