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Harry Potter & the Torah of Terror




EDITOR’S NOTE: This story and the accompanying photo illustration by Emil Lendof are being published verbatim (except for being subbed in SA English, some other illustrations we dug up and sub-headings) from Newsweek’s website. Users who would prefer to read it in the original format can simply click on the link provided.

Harry Potter3Back in December, and just in time for Chanukah, JK Rowling revealed via Twitter that there were Jewish wizards at Hogwarts. Replying to a fan, she wrote, “Anthony Goldstein, Ravenclaw, Jewish wizard.” The revelation prompted a flurry of curious questions from Rowling’s nearly four million twitter followers.

Rowling followed up her initial statement by clarifying both that Anthony was not the first or only Jewish student and that all religious groups were present at Hogwarts: “To everyone asking whether their religion/belief/non-belief system is represented at Hogwarts: the only people I never imagined there are Wiccans.”

This isn’t the first time that Rowling has made news using the – forgive us – imaginary world of the Harry Potter novels to celebrate cultural diversity and progressive social values. In 2007, Rowling let Dumbledore out of the closet when she announced that everyone’s favourite sorcerer headmaster is (spoiler: was) gay.

That Rowling can continue to use Harry Potter to offer social commentary on the Muggle world years after completing her series is testimony to the appeal of her creation. She is currently developing a screenplay for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a Potter movie spinoff based on a textbook mentioned in the series, and continues to delight fans with revelations about the backstories of her characters.

Nu, so where were the kippot and hijabs?

But the post facto information about the personal histories and cultural identities of the individual students at Hogwarts feels slightly awkward.

Harry Potter1

LEFT: Ravenclaw and Potter

Whatever stories they came in with, it seems, didn’t affect their behaviour or personalities at all.

These identity markers are just labels, rather than actual parts of their character’s lives. If they were meaningful, we might have realised it before – surely one of these kids wore a cross, or a yarmulke, or a hijab?

When did the school celebrate Anthony Goldstein’s barmitzvah?

What’s more, some fairly standard religious beliefs and practices might have been somewhat at odds with the very notion of being at a school for wizards. We can take as an example our Jewish friend, Anthony. (His mother insists that he be called “Anthony”.)

The Hebrew Bible is pretty clear on this: “A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death,” it says in Leviticus. That would seem to rule out the entire enterprise. Deuteronomy is more specific: “No one shall be found among you who … casts spells” (everyone at Hogwarts, if you count what Neville Longbottom produces as “spells”), “who consults ghosts or spirits” (no more chatting with Nearly Headless Nick), “or who seeks oracles from the dead” (talk to your parents much, Harry?).

Rowling’s inclusivity would’ve failed in practice

Which is as much to say that observant Jews probably wouldn’t be allowed to attend Hogwarts, even if they were allowed to skip Saturday’s Quidditch practice.

Harry Potter

RIGHT: Emil Lendof’s  illustration

So while Rowling’s inclusivity may be well-intentioned in theory, it falls down somewhat in practice.

To be fair, though: the biblical injunction against consulting wizards wasn’t intended to deny the power of magic in the world. Quite the opposite: the Bible recognises that you can get your glimpses into the future from multiple sources, and the Bible wants to thank you for choosing the G-d of Israel for all your predictive needs. It’s precisely because consulting ghosts works that it is forbidden, as King Saul knew well when he raised the ghost of the prophet Samuel. (Who promptly foretold the king’s imminent death.)

There is, fortunately, not too much telling of the future in Harry Potter. Some time travel, and some reviewing of stored-up memories, perhaps, but these are more at odds with Black Mirror than with the Bible.

Beyond soothsaying, magic—or at least what looks like magic from our modern standpoint – is actually a common feature of Judaism, from the Bible onward. The Talmud is full of incantations, charms, amulets, and demons to be warded off. Even today one of the most popular tourist items to purchase in Israel is the chamsa, the upside-down hand that was originally intended to ward off the evil eye (a tradition that moved from Islam to both Judaism and mediaeval Christianity).

Quidditch World Cup vs Birthright? Hmmm… 

In the end, the line between magic and religion may be something of an artificial one.

Harry Potter2Since the 19th century, magic has been defined as primitive, coercive, and instrumental in distinction to “real” religion, but these distinctions break down once we start to look religious rituals and praxis.

Is JK right after all?

And, orthodoxy of various sorts aside, it might well be possible for a self-identifying person of faith to participate in the wizarding world. Hogwarts is a mirror of modernity.

Anthony Goldstein probably chose a trip to the Quidditch World Cup over his Birthright trip to Israel.

Plenty of Jewish kids today grow up with a Christmas tree next to their menorah.

In much of the Western world, religion is increasingly a background feature of individual identity, merely part of one’s heritage, rather than the determining factor for one’s behaviour.

Maybe – biblical injunctions aside – Rowling’s multiculturalism is right on the money.

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  1. Denis Solomons

    Jan 8, 2015 at 8:46 am

    ‘I suppose the reality is that Harry Potter appeals to all denominations and all religions ,

    Such is the gift of JK Rowling .

    I suppose quidditch could beplayed in any country including Israel .

    Are there Jewish wizards ?

    Was Simon the Tzadik a wizard ? !

    And what about Dumbeldore ? !’

  2. Dov

    Jan 9, 2015 at 10:31 am

    ‘I did not read about kosher food being served at Hogworts. Was it available upon request. Why am I asking?

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