Elie's Expositions

A bereaved father blogging for catharsis... and for distraction. Accordingly, you'll see a diverse set of topics and posts here, from the affecting to the analytical to the absurd. Something for everyone, but all, at the core, meeting a personal need.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Wizards and The Jews

I was browsing J.K. Rowling's website yesterday and came across the following in the FAQ:

Why are some people in the wizarding world (e.g., Harry) called 'half-blood' even though both their parents were magical?

The expressions 'pure-blood', 'half-blood' and 'Muggle-born' have been coined by people to whom these distinctions matter, and express their originators' prejudices. As far as somebody like Lucius Malfoy is concerned, for instance, a Muggle-born is as 'bad' as a Muggle. Therefore Harry would be considered only 'half' wizard, because of his mother's grandparents.

If you think this is far-fetched, look at some of the real charts the Nazis used to show what constituted 'Aryan' or 'Jewish' blood. I saw one in the Holocaust Museum in Washington when I had already devised the 'pure-blood', 'half-blood' and 'Muggle-born' definitions, and was chilled to see that the Nazis used precisely the same warped logic as the Death Eaters. A single Jewish grandparent 'polluted' the blood, according to their propaganda.
My first reaction to this piece was that it was nice to know that Rowling chose to visit the Holocaust Museum, and more, that she unreservedly denounces anti-Semitism - without, say, equating it to Israel's alleged persecution of the Palestinians, as so many other media figures seem to do nowadays. I've always been a tad disappointed that there don't seem to be any Jewish students at Hogwarts, but this at least shows that it's not due to any apparent prejudice on Rowling's part.

This item also started a couple of trains of thought rolling. First, there's the issue of those of my co-religionists who object to reading the Harry Potter books from a halachik standpoint. I can respect - though I personally reject - the Jewish viewpoint that shuns all secular literature and culture across the board, from Harry Potter to Halloween, from Shakespeare to the Sopranos. While I personally disagree with this isolationist approach on many levels - intellectual, religious, and emotional - I can acknowledge that it is at least self-consistent. However, I believe those authorities who prohibit reading Harry Potter in particular, while allowing secular books in general, are severely misinformed.

The apparent grounds for this prohibition is the tacit assumption that the Harry Potter books depict - or even promote - the type of witchcraft/sorcery that is forbidden by the Torah (Exod 22:17, Deut 18:10). The Rambam explains that the Torah's forbidden sorcery is a form of idol worship, since it inevitably involves calling upon demons and other evil powers. And in fact, this form of witchcraft can certainly be found in the pop culture landscape; e.g., Dr. Strange, Charmed.

But as even the casual Potter reader knows, the witches and warlocks of Harry's magical world do not call upon the forces of darkness, nor does their sorcery have anything in common with religion. Rather, magical folk and "muggles" (non-magicals) are born that way. Hogwarts is a school that trains young wizards and witches to use, in more specific ways, the inner powers they have had all along. Similarly, they are not "granted" such powers through their spells; rather the spells are ways of focusing those powers.

Thus, the hidden magical community in the Harry Potter reality has much more in common with the hidden mutant community shown in Marvel Comics, than it has with the pagans, Wiccans, and demon-worshippers of other mythologies. In fact, I've always felt that was one of the aspects of the series that made it so interesting to me personally, as I've been a Marvel fan as long as I've been able to read.

And perhaps there's more to it than that. For an analogy can also be made between the wizards of Harry Potter and the Jewish nation itself, at much more than the simple racial level Rowling noted in her comment. In both cases, we have a community with a community, a group with is both within and set apart from the larger world. A group with its own rich culture, language, dress, customs, and lifestyle, often misunderstood, mocked, and feared by the larger group. A group that has always had a special role within humanity, giving to the nations around them far more than they can ever know nor appreciate.

Far from banning the Harry Potter series, perhaps the Jewish leadership should look at how it can be read as a mashal - a metaphor - that can enhance our appreciation of our Jewish identity and our own magical mission in the world.

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At 2/7/07, 10:12 PM, Blogger Lori said...

Unfortunately, many people still have no clue what real witchcraft is all about. This includes many novice witches, who some might call "fluffy witches". As you noted, true witchcraft is about - "training and using, in more specific ways, the inner powers we have had all along. Similarly, we are not "granted" such powers through our spells; rather the spells are ways of focusing those powers." - As Avraham Abulafia has written, "every soul is a witch" (or a wizard, in a male's case). Witchcraft is a method of spiritual development and of training and directing the "powers" which may arise naturally out of the course of that development.

At 2/8/07, 11:02 AM, Blogger Jack Steiner said...

I enjoyed this.

At 2/8/07, 3:20 PM, Blogger trn said...

Not only does the magic in Harry Potter not involve calling upon idolatrous sources, but it is learned and practiced as a science.

I vaguely recall there being a Hogwarts student with a Jewish surname.

At 2/8/07, 5:01 PM, Blogger Elie said...

Jack, SWFM: Thanks!

Liorah: Thanks for the interesting comments. I wasn't aware of a real-world kind of witch as you are describing, who doesn't view it as a separate religion. In that light it sounds somewhat similar to the kind of energy harnessing done in the martial arts or in Yoga. Not sure how that would affect the halachik position on it though.

Still, a key difference between your version of witchcraft and that of the Harry Potter series, is that in the latter, magical ability is completely an inborn trait. While learning can enhance and focus a witch's natural abilities, no amount of study can turn a muggle into a witch. That's where the HP brand of magic is especially analogous to mutants, and non-analogous to most literary treatments of witchcraft which view it as a discipline that anyone can learn.

Alec: Well yes, of course Judaism is a key subject here; my religion is central to my life. I particularly enjoy finding commonality between Judaism and other fields or pursuits, as I did in this post.

TRN: Agreed, the study of magic in HP is more like a science than a religion, which is why thoroughly practical and non-spiritual Hermione excels at it.

I've also remember the Jewish-surnamed student and have been wracking my brains for the name! I know he was in book 5, I believe one of the students in Harry's private DADA class. Maybe I'll skim through the book tonight and find the name.

At 2/8/07, 10:49 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Anthony Goldstein - in Ravenclaw, and he was in the DA class.
Also Rose Zeller who was sorted into Hufflepuff in book five.

At 2/8/07, 10:51 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

BTW, I always thought it surprising that Rowling didn't know of the Nazis geneology charts until she was an adult. It's amazing how little she knew as a European!! As a Jew, I remember learning of them in like the 3rd grade!!

At 2/9/07, 1:32 AM, Blogger Lori said...

Elie: Wicca is a religion, but witchcraft is not. Witchcraft is rather secular. I posted a more complete response to this aspect on my blog.

Many witches indeed feel that witches are "born" and can't be made - much like classic shamanic beliefs. Since I personally have had "classic shamanic" and spontaneous mystical experiences throughout my life, and feel that I was "born a witch", I don't know experientially whether or not others can or can't be taught to be witches or shamans or mystics or whatever. I have only my own experience with which to know for sure. My inclination is that, while some people may be born with the disposition toward shamanic-witchy-mystical experiences, even "born witches" need to develop the abilities. Consequently, it's not beyond reason to think that those not necessarily born with any talent toward the mystical can't develop it as well.

To use Rowling's terms - there may be classes of "mutants and muggles", yet I am still inclined to think that a born muggle can become a mutant if he or she wants to. It's part of human destiny to become a mutant I think. Some are gifted and some have to work at it a little harder at it, that's all.

At 2/9/07, 1:33 AM, Blogger Lori said...

BTW, I saw two of the Harry Potter movies but have never read any of the books. I think that I will read the books now. They actually sound very interesting.

At 3/5/07, 2:56 PM, Blogger Bruce Krulwich said...

Great piece! You definitely might like my book which gives Torah perspectives on themes from the Harry Potter series. The Web site has some sample chapters. I also have a blog which discusses the book and gives some additional material.

At 8/19/12, 6:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wizards = settlers
Muggles = opressed natives

The books (especially "Tales of Beedle the bard")talk about an England where wizards live under muggle rule.

Also, wizards are great, but they do patronise muggles quite a lot.

The books are not just about Nazism, but any place where there is an unhealthy apartheid mentality.


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