The "Harry Potter" books are not just novels. They are modern fairy tales with predominant spiritual themes. They describe the struggle between good and evil and the ultimate triumph of the good through the courage and ingenuity of the human spirit, and the power of human love.
The survival of the infant Harry against the onslaught of the evil Lord Voldemort that cost the lives of his parents, is repeatedly attributed to the power of his mother's love and her willingness to sacrifice her very life on the altar of this love. [Don't worry -- I can't reveal any secrets about "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," because I haven't been able to get my hands on it yet.]
In each of the stories, Harry and his friends triumph over the evil Lord Voldemort through the spiritual power of goodness implanted in Harry, the strength of the powerful bond of friendship between Harry and the faithful Ron, the ingenuity and the problem-solving ability of the studious Hermione, and the courage of all of them combined.
The genius of the author J.K. Rowling lies in her ability to bring such heavy themes down to earth.
The genius of the author J.K. Rowling lies in her ability to bring such heavy themes down to earth in a way that manages to fascinate children and adults alike.
The theme that particularly grabbed my interest is the struggle of good and evil, which perhaps captures our culture's prevailing attitude. As a Jew, I could not help but reflect on the contrasting attitudes towards this epic struggle between Judaism and the world of Harry Potter.
What struck me first is that the struggle between good and evil is not to be found in the world of Muggles. In the Muggle world, the evil of Voldemort metamorphoses into the stupidity, venality and meanness of Harry's relatives, the Dursleys. These are traits that even the courage and ingenuity of Harry Potter cannot overcome; the only method of dealing with them is escape.
People in the Muggle world -- the real world vs. the magic world -- are either interesting or banal. Those that are banal are narrow and selfish, and there is no way to redeem them. They cannot change or be changed. Those that are interesting are very likely to receive an invitation to attend Hogwarts. Those that are not, can only be handled by keeping one's distance. In the world of the Muggles, everything is destined to remain a muddle.
Thus, the Dursleys remain static. Their connection with Harry -- although they demonstrate an act of great kindness in providing a home for an orphan -- leaves them uninspired. Only their negative traits intensify from book to book. Before our eyes, cousin Dudley grows into a selfish, self-centered, narrow-minded monster with the full encouragement of his parents.
But the Dursleys are presented as banal, not evil.
THE ANSWER TO MEANNESS
In contrast Judaism teaches that the chief purpose of life in this Muggle world is to change such 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 fascinating magic environment, but to help change the world in which one finds oneself.
One of my main tasks as a Jewish parent is to teach my children the heroism involved in shaping one's character. Just as they must fight their own negativity, they need to learn to regard the venality of others as a quality that all are struggling against. When they do, they acquire the character trait of always judging others favorably, and giving them the benefit of the doubt.
In the world of Hogwarts, where there is a struggle between good and evil, people are not portrayed all that differently either. With the possible exception of Professor Snape, 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.
The Sorting Hat divides the eleven-year-old entrants into various houses. In the first three books, there is nothing good about Slytherin, nor is there anything bad about Gryffindor. [The other two houses have yet to play a significant role.] All the Slytherins have an evil and menacing look, with speech patterns to match, while all the Gryffindor characters are ones we can identify with.
In the Harry Potter books, while the good struggles with the evil, the combatants are not free to choose sides.
The good is purely good and the evil is purely evil. There is no area of ambiguity or confusion. While the good struggles with the evil, the combatants are not free to choose sides. They are frozen into their camps by their characters.
Although Dumbledore tells Harry that it is a person's choices that tell us who he really is, Harry's selection of Gryffindor can hardly be called a choice. He was never attracted to Slytherin. Indeed, the fact that the sorting hat detected some Slytherin tendencies in him is a source of anxiety for Harry. Harry has some powers that are normally associated with Slytherins, such as parseltongue, but he does not possess a single negative character trait indicative of the Malfoys, or even Tom Riddle, his supposed counterpart.
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. The war between good and evil is not a struggle over the hearts and minds of humanity. Each side vies for hegemony over the outside world, nothing more.
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.
There is no evidence of free will, and therefore no moral responsibility. The entire struggle is a glorified Quidditch game; it's all great fun as long as your team wins.
THE STRUGGLE OF THE HEART
In contrast, the essence of all 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 man's conscience against man's urges, man's 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, giving it tremendous sex appeal. It is only this attractiveness that levels the playing field and gives evil a fighting chance. The appeal of good is rightness and purity, qualities everyone acknowledges as wonderful, but these appear devoid of fun and of any surface sex appeal.
Evil sizzles with sensual pleasure, while the path of good leads to the spiritual joy.
Evil sizzles with sensual pleasure, while the path of good leads to the spiritual joy associated with connecting with God. There is a war over the soul of man between the pure and the right on the one hand, and the appealing and seductive but wrong on the other.
According to Jewish belief, the focus of the battle between good and evil is not hegemony over the outside world, but over the soul of the human individual and the power it contains.
Human choices contain this "magical" ability to supply power to the negative force. The Torah states that God formed the human being in His own image. (See Genesis, Chapter 1.) This means that God invested us with something resembling His own immense power, making us free agents just like God -- beings with free will.
Free will gives man the power to invest the Divine energy placed under his control as he sees fit. Moreover, decisions regarding the investment of this Divine force are effective and binding. When man invests in the negative drive of evil, he in effect invests this force with his own Divine power.
EVIL WITHIN REFLECTED OUT
The outside world merely conforms to the moral condition of the human spirit. Evil in man is reflected by evil in the world. Evil as presented in the Harry Potter books -- whose ambition is to destroy the good for the sake of its own hegemony -- is not innate to the universe. In reality, evil only comes about through the corruption of the good.
The original will of God at creation only gave the negative force the power to tempt man away from the proper path, nothing more. It was given the power to attract but not to destroy. The destructive power originates in the corrupted human spirit, which is the most powerful force in the created universe. When the negative force created by God to tempt man is bolstered by huge inputs of the human life force, it acquires the power to reshape the world in its own image.
Therefore, it is only after man has made an immoral choice does the negative force (which until then merely tempts) acquire true destructive power. This Divine force in man has the power to fashion everything in the universe, from the sun and moon and the stars to human beings. When man turns over this force to the negative, dark side of creation, evil acquires the ability to reshape the world in its own image.
Only when evil exhausts expends all its life force can the universe rid itself of its malign influence.
Having created this destructive power in the first place by investing the Divine energy in his care in the negative through the power of his free will, man is now doomed to suffer its effects -- as exemplified by Hitler and his Nazi war machine and the other monsters of human history. Only when evil exhausts its resources and expends all the life force that was invested in its acts of pure destruction, can the universe rid itself of its malign influence. Only then does the negative force revert to being merely tempting once again.
The final significant point of divergence between Judaism and the Harry Potter sagas is the ability to repent and reclaim the lost human soul.
Just as man can invest his life force in the wrong place through his free will, he can also reclaim his investment and pull it back again, fighting for the redemption of man's soul. 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 unredeemable.
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 (Brochot 9,5) interprets the phrase "with all your hearts" as a reference to the good and evil impulse within man. We are commanded to serve God with our inclination towards evil as well as with our inclination towards good.
No impulse in man is irreclaimable; nothing human is doomed to destruction. Man's mission is to reclaim the negative aspects of his own personality. The mark of the Jewish hero is that he transforms the evil into good and brings all back to God.
In the Harry Potter books, without a moral battle between good and evil, there is no magic in the world. All things are limited to being what they are and nothing more, and the world becomes a boring and colorless place. You have to escape to the realm of magic to make things interesting and discover the potential for transforming existence.
In a Jewish world, where evil can be transformed and reclaimed into good, and where good can be made into evil, this ordinary Muggle world is full of magic. Ordinary life becomes a heroic saga.