Harry Potter and the Jews: Arts & Entertainment Response on Ask the Rabbi
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Harry Potter and the Jews

The Harry Potter series is so popular, but it got me wondering: Does it classify as witchcraft? Should children be allowed / encouraged / discouraged in its reading?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

No one can deny that the Harry Potter stories are riveting entertainment and fine literature. But I suppose the criteria for a rabbi would be: Do they teach Jewish values?

Judaism teaches that the chief purpose of life in this Muggle world is to improve negative character traits. The struggle against venality and small-mindedness is also a struggle against evil. The answer to overcoming meanness and stupidity is not to escape into a fantasy environment, but to help change the world in which one finds oneself.

However, in Harry Potter's world of Hogwarts, there are no ambiguous characters, nor people who undergo moral character development. From the moment of entry into Hogwarts, every one is fixed in place (with the possible exception of Professor Snape).

In Harry Potter's world, this lack of ability to alter one's character and to freely choose sides transforms the epic moral struggle between good and evil into a pure power struggle with no moral implications. Victory hangs on who can come up with stronger magic.

Moreover, there is no attempt at redeeming the evil or transforming it. The good is merely maintaining the status quo, and keeping the evil – in the guise of Lord Voldemort – from gaining a foothold. The evil wants to dominate just because it is evil and hates the good, and vice versa. They are not contending for some prize, either tangible or spiritual, that would accrue to the victor. Their only goal is to destroy each other.

In contrast, the essence of Jewish belief is that the struggle between good and evil is a moral struggle. It takes place in the heart, not in the outside world. The contestants are an individual's conscience against his own urges – i.e. spirituality against the physical life force.

According to Jewish perspective, evil is not repulsive. On the contrary, to insure that it has an even chance to present us with free will choices, God made evil attractive. That appeal levels the playing field, gives evil a fighting chance, and gives us the opportunity to earn eternal reward for choosing the right thing.

Another significant difference between Judaism and Harry Potter is the ability to reclaim a lost human soul.

Judaism says that just as a person can invest his life force in the wrong place through free will, he can also redeem his investment and pull it back again. In a Jewish fairy tale, the hero would battle for the soul of Lord Voldemort and attempt to reclaim it for the good. No human being with the power of free will is irredeemable.

Jews recite the following verse twice daily: "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your hearts, with all your soul, and with all your resources." (Deut. 6:5) The Talmud interprets the phrase "with all your hearts" (plural) as a reference to the good and evil impulse within us. We are commanded to serve God with our inclination toward evil, as well as our inclination toward good.

No impulse in man is irreclaimable; nothing human is doomed to destruction. The mark of a Jewish hero is transforming evil into good and bringing all back to God. In a Jewish world, where evil can be transformed and reclaimed into good, our ordinary Muggle world is full of magic. Ordinary life becomes a heroic saga.

As far as your question about witchcraft, witchcraft is explicitly forbidden in the Torah (Exodus 22:17). Harry Potter depicts witchcraft, but is not witchcraft itself. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein writes that if a child is aware that something is a fairy tale and not reality, then it may be read for its literary value. ("Igrot Moshe" Y.D. 4:13)

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