Harry Potter and the Power of Teshuva (Repentence)
It seems very appropriate during the month and a half right before Rosh HaShana for everyone to be reading and talking about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, because the theme of Teshuva, repentence, runs throughout the book and throughout all the characters that we all love reading about.
What is Teshuva? Translated as repentence, teshuva in a nutshell is the mitzvah (commandment) to examine and improve our lives, to identify things that we have done wrong, or which we could do better, and commit ourselves to improvement in the future.
Note that Judaism sees teshuvah as something incumbant on everyone, not just "sinners." The ability to identify things that can be done better is a sign of righteousness, not sinfulness, since everyone has areas in which they can improve. We'l return to this point at the end.
Jewish philosophy teaches that teshuva, when carried out completely, can achieve not only forgiveness from G-d, but complete clensing of the person's soul as if the mistakes were never made, and even transform the mistakes into mitzvas for which the person is credited!
Consider all the teshuva that we see in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:
1. Snape doing teshuva for his actions that led to Harry's mother's death
2. Dumbeldore doing teshuva for his childhood mistake that led to his sister's death and Grindewald's rise to power
3. Ron doing teshuva after losing his temper and running away
4. The Malfoy family all doing teshuva for their involvement as death eaters
5. Lupin doing teshuva for running away from his family
6. Regulus Black doing teshuva for being a death eater
7. Dudley Dursley and Petunia, in the early scene before they leave Harry
On the other hand, when Harry offers Voldemort the chance to do teshuva, to at least feel some remorse for what he's done, Voldemort is unable to do so. He does seem, however, to sense the magical power in Harry's question.
Indeed, Hermione comments earlier that remorse has the magical power to repair a soul that's been damaged by creating Horcruxes. But she reads that this remorse is so painful that few wizards who have created Horcruxes are able to do it.
So what does Judaism say about the repentance that we see in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows?
The most famous codification of the process of teshuva is that of Rambam, who identified three steps that must be carried out in order for full atonement to be achieved (Hilchos Teshuva chapter 2):
1. Remorse for the mistakes that were made
2. Commitment to never again making the same mistakes
3. Confessing the mistake orally, in the form of a vidui prayer (as recited on Yom Kippur)
Others specify a final requirement, which is not necessarily part of the process of teshuva itself, but which is necessary in order to be sure that the person’s repentance is complete:
4. Having an opportunity to make the same mistake again, and not making it
I’m sure that everyone will have their own opinions about which Deathly Hallows characters did proper repentance according to Judaism. But it seems to me that Snape’s repentance was the most complete, since he spent years of his life in a situation where Voldemort and others wanted information from him, and he gave them only certain information and not all. Dumbeldore says this explicitly in one of the remembered scenes at the end of Deathly Hallows. This indicates that Snape not only carried out the process of remorse, commitment to proper behavior, and confessing orally, all of which we see in his memories, but he also was in the same situation again and did not make the mistake again. This would make his repentance the most complete. (Note that I’m not a big Snape fan, and do not think that his lifelong love for Lilly was in fact true love, but that’s the subject of another message.)
Dumbeldore’s repentance also seems fairly complete, although it’s not clear that he ever spoke of his mistake. Ron’s repentance when he returns to Harry and Hermione also seems pretty complete, as does Lupin’s when he returns to Tonks, although these are obviously smaller repentance than the others.
The Malfoy’s repentance, however helpful it was to Harry, seems to be lacking. On the one hand, they indeed seem to have been sorry for their actions, and Narcissa in particular has the opportunity to have Harry killed and did not do so. But it’s not clear, however, that they really thought that their actions were wrong. Rather, their change in life was motivated by wanting to save Draco’s life. This does not seem to me to be true remorse.
Regulus Black’s repentance, lastly, appears to me to also be complete. It’s not clear what made him have a change of heart, and whether he felt true remorse or had other motivations, but everything that we do know indicates that he carried out all the steps of repentance, and then not only refrained from death eater activity but tried to undo the damage he had done, as well as prevent future evil.
The Dursley’s repentance also seems to be fairly complete, although brief. It’s interesting that this isn’t developed at all later in the book, but it seems that both Petunia and Dudley are truly remorseful as the truth of Harry’s life becomes clear to them.
Which brings me to the one person that isn’t on our list: Harry Potter himself.
What teshuva has Harry done over the course of the series?
It seems to me that the stories are written such that Harry Potter himself is pure throughout the books. While this is probably an important and good thing within JK Rowling’s religious views, I don’t think that this is a Jewish ideal. Jews need to grow, morally and spiritually and in their actions, and its not realistic or even ideal for anyone to stay the same.
Even the Jewish savior, the Moshiach, needs to grow. This is discussed in the Harry Potter and Torah chapter titled Mudbloods, Moabites, and Moshiach.
In summary, I think that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is full of examples of teshuva. We can learn from these examples all of the elements of Jewish teshuva, and think about this in our preparations for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.
And I think we can all keep in mind that the Jewish ideal is not life-long purity, but rather growth and achieving purity through effort and self-growth. To reach our Jewish ideal, we don’t need scars and we don’t need to have pure motives throughout our lives, we rather need the growth and self-improvement that we call teshuva.
Agree? Disagree? Comments are welcome, either through the blog comment link below or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE that I posted a follow-up message, with more on the idea here: