In spite of its exceptional popularity, or perhaps because of it, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series produced its own share of controversy. Critics complained that Harry is a chronic rule-breaker, that the vividly depicted magical backdrop will divorce children from reality, and that the books instill no redeeming social values in the children who read them.
It is true that Harry does demonstrate a certain disregard for rules and regulations, but he is openly criticized by his friends and teachers alike for this, and he gets into trouble as often as not on account of his rule breaking.
It is also true that Ms. Rowling’s depictions of a magical world are mesmerizing in their detail and verisimilitude, but it’s precisely this vivid imagery that has turned millions of television-addicted preadolescents into avid readers. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine any book causing children to become more detached from reality than the glut of fanciful movies, video games, and trading cards with which they come into contact daily.
The third argument, however, is where Harry’s critics really miss the boat. The books are steeped in such universal ethical lessons as honesty, discipline, and loyalty, to mention only a few. And from a Jewish perspective, Harry Potter can offer our children (and us as well) a contemporary insight into the destruction of the Temple that we commemorate today, on the 9th day of the month of Av.
Throughout the Harry Potter series, many of the advocates of evil and the defenders of good share a common character trait: an irrational insistence upon the “purity of blood.” Although the leader of the forces of evil himself comes from a mixed background, his followers are dedicated to purging the wizarding world of “mudbloods,” those who have non-wizard blood flowing in their veins.
But it isn’t just the wicked who display this kind of genealogical prejudice. Many of the defenders of good, even as evil threatens to destroy them and their society, refuse to join forces with potential allies because of irrational prejudices.
J. K. Rowling may never have studied Jewish history, but her series provides a perfect parable for the causes of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Even as the Roman siege upon Jerusalem tightened, the Sadducees, the Zealots, the Sicarii, the Essenes, and other radical groups refused to address the common danger that threatened every Jew, sometimes even forming alliances with the Romans in hope of gaining the upper hand over their political enemies within the Jewish people. The Romans exploited this infighting until both the Temple was destroyed and the Jewish nation was broken.
The Talmud tells us the cause of the destruction was senseless hatred. Jew hated Jew not for what he did but for how he identified himself. Instead of recognizing how much they had in common, instead of strengthening their commitment to Jewish values, instead of working together in the face of a common enemy, Jews squabbled over political agendas and schemed for political gain, deaf to the entreaties of the sages that they set aside their differences, blind to the impending holocaust that Rome would bring down upon them.
Nearly 2000 years later, we are still quarreling senselessly with one another and overlooking enemies who seek our destruction. If we haven’t learned the lessons of our own tradition, perhaps we can learn a lesson from Harry Potter’s headmaster, Dumbledore: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
Of course, the talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva said it more simply in aftermath of the Temple’s destruction: “Love your fellow as yourself: this is the great principle of the Torah.”
What makes him your “fellow”? That he chooses good over evil. And how do you love him? By setting aside your differences and seeing him for who he is, not for what he believes — and certainly not for what he calls himself.
Originally published in 2001 by Jewish World Review.