Thursday, August 30, 2007

Harry Potter and the Power of Teshuva (repentance)

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

NOTE that I posted a follow-up message, with more on the idea here:

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Divine Hallows

The Divine Hallows

The final Harry Potter book introduces three magical objects called the Deathly Hallows. Would you believe that two of the three have very close analogues in the Torah and Midrash? Read on!

(If you want to read other Torah perspectives on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, click here or here. Or click here for more about the book Harry Potter and Torah.)

The Deathly Hallows are introduced in a fairy tale that Hermione reads in chapter 21, which tells a fable of three men who were awarded magical prizes from Death:

There were once three brothers who were travelling along a lonely, winding road at twilight... when they found their path blocked by a hooded figure... And Death spoke to them... and said that each had earned a prize for having been clever enough to evade him....

The oldest brother, who was a combatative man, asked for a wand more powerful than any in existence: a wand that must always win duels for is owner... So Death crossed to an elder tree on the banks of the river, fashioned a wand from a branch that hung there, and gave it to the oldest brother.

Then the second brother, who was an arrogant man, decided that he wanted to humiliate Death still further, and asked for the power to recall others from death. So Death picked up a stone from the riverbank and gave it to the second brother, and told him that the stone would have the power to bring back the dead...

The youngest brother was the humblest and also the wisest of the brothers... so he asked for something that would enable him to go forth... without being followed by Death. So Death, most unwillingly, handed over his own Cloak of invisibility."

These three magical gifts, the Elder Wand, the invisibility cloak, and the ressurection stone, are
the three Deathly Hallows that help Harry Potter beat Voldemort at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

If we look at the Torah, the Midrash, and the Talmud, we'll see very close analogues to two of these three magical objects: the wand and the cloak. The analogous things found in the Torah, which I think of as the Divine Hallows, aren't exactly the same as Harry Potter's Deathly Hallows, but they're intriguingly close. (I haven't found a good analogue for the stone yet, but feel free to add comments with your suggestions!)

In the story of Joseph and his brothers, when the brothers attack Joseph and sell him into slavery, the Torah tells us as follows:

"And when Joseph arrived to his brothers, they removed Joseph's coat, the coat of many colors, which he was wearing" (Ber 37:23).

The Zohar elaborates as follows: "Had the coat remained on Joseph, they could not have overpowered him. So first they stripped it from him...." (#1)

The idea that Joseph's coat being a magical coat that protected him has its roots in several other stories in the Torah and Midrash. The story begins back in the dawn of time, with Adam in the
Garden of Eden. Combining various accounts in the Midrash we get the following history of Joseph's magical coat: (#7)

"And G-d made for Adam and his wife clothes of skin, and clothed them." (Ber 3:21)

"They were embroidered with images of all the animals (to protect them from the animals). Adam bequeathed them to Cain. (#2) They were taken into Noah's ark, and when they left the ark, Ham, Noah's son, took them, and then passed them on to Nimrod... Therefore Nimrod is described as "a mighty hunter" (Gen 10:9) (#3). Later, when Esau saw this coat, he coveted it, and killed Nimrod to take it. This made him also a mighty hunter (Gen 25:27). (#4) Later, Rebekah took "Esau's special clothes" for Jacob to wear (Gen 27:15), which refered to this same magical coat. (#5) When the Torah says that Jacob then gave a "coat of many colors" to Joseph (Gen 37:3) it is referring to this same coat, passed down from Adam, to Nimrod, to Esau, to Jacob, and finally to Joseph. (#6) It was stripped from Joseph by his brothers (#1) and then given back to Jacob(Gen 37:32). (#7)

So we see the Midrash revealing a thread through a half dozen Biblical stories, of a Divinely-given coat the gave strength to whoever wore it. Sound familiar? It wasn't a coat of invisibility, but it was a magical cost that made the wearer a mighty warrior. This coat is what I might call the first "Divine Hallow."

The second Divine Hallow in the Torah, as some readers may have guessed, is Moses's staff. As I discuss in details in Harry Potter and Torah's chapter on magic wands, Moses's staff was linked to magical power throughout the Torah, including the signs shown to Pharoah, the plagues, splitting the sea, and winning battles in the desert. (See the book for more details.)

But the Talmud and Midrash tell us that Moses's staff had a longer and more illustrious history.
The Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers (5:6) tells us that Moses's staff was created on the sixth day of creation, at twilight right before the first Sabbath, when G-d created all the things in creation
that were in some sense exceptions to the rules of nature.

The Midrash (#8) tells the following history of Moses's staff: The staff which was created at
twilight was given to Adam in the Garden of Eden. Adam gave it to Enoch, and Enoch to Noah, and Noah to Abraham. Abraham gave it to Isaac, who gave it to Jacob (Gen 32:11), who took it down to Egypt and gave it to Joseph. When Joseph died, it was taken to Pharoah's palace. Jethro (Yitro) was a palace magician, and he made off with the staff, until Moses saw it and read the letters on it and took it. Jethro realized that Moses was destined for greatness and gave him the staff, and permitted him to marry Tziporah his daughter.

Another Midrash (#9) continues: With this staff Moses split the sea, split the rock to produce
water, and defeated the Amalekites. This rod was then deposited in the tent of meeting, and later in the Temple, until the days of Jeremiah. Then it was hidden along with the Ark... until G-d will deliver the Jews from exile through the Messiah who will use the staff as Moses did.

So we see a second "Divine Hallow," created by G-d to give power to leaders carrying out His
direction in the world.

As I write in the introduction to Harry Potter and Torah, there are a wide variety of opinions of
how to understand stories told in the Midrash. Many take them literally. Many prefer to take them as lessons, which they were undoubtedly intended to teach us. Regardless of whether we take the Midrashim about Moses's staff and Joseph's coat literally, they tell us the source of power and protection in the world: The Al-mighty.

At the same time, however, Harry Potter fans will note the striking similarity between Harry
Potter's Deathly Hallows and the Torah's "Divine Hallows." As we enjoy reading and re-reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we can also enjoy our own Divine folklore from the Torah.

Comments? Disagreement? Other suggestions for Divine Hallows, particularly the stone? Comments are welcome, just clink the "comments" link below, or e-mail


(#1) Zohar 1, 185a, as cited in Torah Shleima on Ber 37:23
(#2) Midrash quoted by Rav Yosef Karo, cited in Torah Shleima on Ber 3:21
(#3) Midrash PRE, cited in Torah Shleima on Gen 10:9
(#4) Midrash Yalkut Shimoni 115, cited in Torah Shleima on Gen 25:27; also Midrash Beresheet Rabba 63, cited in Torah Shleima on Ber 25:32.
(#5) Midrash Beresheet Raba 65, cited in Torah Shleima on Gen 27:15
(#6) Midrash HaBiur, cited in Torah Shleima on Gen 37:3
(#7) The entire story is summarized by Rashi, commenting on Talmud Psachim 54b.
(#8) Midrash PRE 40, cited in Torah Shleima on Ex 2:21
(#9) Yalkut Shimoni 1, 171, also Lekach Tov, both on Ex 4:17

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Tree of Life Judaica in Seattle now selling Harry Potter and Torah

A new featured store selling Harry Potter and Torah is Tree of Life Judaica and Books in Seattle, WA:

Seattle Address: 2201 NE 65th Street * Phone: 206-527-1130
Bellevue Address: 137 106th Ave NE * Phone: 425-646-6466
Toll-Free: 1-866-282-6657

The book is also still for sale at Judaica House in Teaneck, NJ, and through their Web site, and at several stores in Israel. Ask for it at a store near you, and tell them they can e-mail the author at for more info.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Should Harry Potter have fought Voldemort with a disarming curse or a killing curse?

Below is another Jewish perspective on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in the spirit of the book Harry Potter and Torah.

WARNING: This message contains spoilers about the ending of Deathly Hallows.

From the first chase scene at the beginning of Deathly Hallows, to the final fight between Harry and Voldemort, the book discusses Harry's use of Expelliarmus, the disarming curse that causes a wizard's magic wand to fly from his hand, instead of more damaging curses. Harry does this in the final scene of Goblet of Fire, and again in the broomstick chase scene at the beginning of Deathly Hallows, and the characters discuss how fighting to disarm is a unique characteristic of Harry's. In the final clash between Harry and Voldemort, Harry again uses Expelliarmus, while Voldemort uses Avada Kedavra, the killing curse. Voldemort ends up dead, but not directly because of the curse that Harry used.

The implication in Deathly Hallows, I think, is that Harry's use of Expelliarmus is noble, or honorable, and that it keeps Harry pure throughout the conflict. But it raises the following question: Should Harry have fought Voldemort with Expelliarmus or with Avada Kedavra, the killing curse?

Note that my question is focused primarily on the final scene. Certainly in the early chase scene it made sense to only disarm Stan the bus conductor, since he was fighting against his will. But the fight with Voldemort was clearly a fight to the death. Was Harry's Expelliarmus the honorable thing to do?

The start of a Jewish answer is Lev 19:16: "Do not stand idly when your neighbor's blood is spilled." The Torah is stating very clearly that we have an obligation to save the life of another. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 73a) clarifies that this is true when the other person's life is threatened by natural events (such as falling into a river) or by another person. In other words, when other people's lives are threatened by a murderer, we have to do whatever we can do to stop the murderer and save the lives of the victims.

The Torah elaborates on this in Ex 22:1: "If a burglar is found sneaking into a house, and is hit, and dies as a result, the person who hit him is not guilty." The Torah's reasoning is that a burglar who sneaks into someone else's house at night is willing to kill someone who catches him in order to escape. If the homeowner catches such a burglar, attacking the burglar is an act of self-defense.

Jewish Law generalizes these cases to the general case of a "rodef," a person who is chasing after someone with intent or willingness to kill. Whoever sees such a circumstance, where the chaser is clearly going to kill the person they're chasing, the bystander is obligated to stop the rodef, the chaser, using any means necessary. If the bystander can save the victim without killing the rodef, obviously he should do so. But if killing the rodef is the only way to save the victim, then killing the rodef is a mitzvah, a commandment and a good deed, because it's the only way to fulfill the Torah's obligation not to stand by idly when your neighbor's blood is spilled.

Based on this analysis, I think that from a Jewish perspective, and indeed from a moral perspective, Harry did not do the right thing when he used Expelliarmus on Voldemort. Voldemort was clearly killing others, and Harry knew that he was the one that had to kill Voldemort. In this circumstance killing Voldemort would become a mitzvah, not only a commandment but a good deed in every sense of the words.

Harry in fact says this in the powerful scene in chapter 23 of Half Blood Prince. Thinking about Voldemort's having killed his parents, and Sirius, and Cedric Diggory, and all the other damage that Voldemort had done, Harry concluded that even without the prophecy: "I'd want him finished... and I'd want to do it." This was a consequence of Harry's honor and love, and not in any way a bad feeling or desire.

I can speculate that J. K. Rowling wrote Harry's use of Expelliarmus based on her own religious beliefs about "turning the other cheek," and about "letting he who is without sin throw the first stone." But the Torah tells us clearly that sometimes it's the moral thing to do to throw the first stone, if this stone will prevent murder.

For Harry, alls wells that ends well. We're all happy that Harry defeated Voldemort, and Harry's use of Expelliarmus doesn't detract from the story. But as we think about the moral message of the books, we should keep in mind that saving lives is a high moral imperitive, as we see in the Torah's law of Rodef.

Comments welcome -- just click on the "comments" link below the message, or e-mail Future messages will discuss other themes from Deathly Hallows. Subscribe by e-mail or check back soon!

Article by Rabbi Slifkin on Jewish magical creatures

Readers of Harry Potter and Torah will enjoy an article in this week's Jewish Press from Rabbi Natan Slifkin, titled Harry Potter's Fabulous Jewish Monsters.

I also recommend Rabbi Slifkin's books, including Mysterious Creatures, and expect to enjoy his new book as well.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Featured bookstores carrying Harry Potter and Torah

Jewish bookstores in New Jersey (Teaneck) and in Israel (Beit Shemesh and Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef) have replenished their supplies of Harry Potter and Torah.

The newest bookstore to carry the book is in Seattle, check back soon for details when it's in stock!

If your local store is interested in selling Harry Potter and Torah, they can contact the author at for details on a variety of ways they can order it.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Jewish perspective

Hi everyone. I assume that everyone's had enough time now to finish Deathly Hallows, so I'm going to start writing about my thoughts on the book and some Jewish perspectives on it. Below are some general thoughts about the book, with more specifics to follow in other messages.

Overall I really liked the book. It was definitely the most fun since the early ones, in that it didn't waste time, just about every page was action-filled and important for the story.

Most of all, I'm glad that Harry won, and that he won with a sense of personal responsibility for eradicating evil. And I'm glad he did it without turning to others, although he did receive help from others. And I'm glad Dumbeldore was truly dead, not that I wish anyone to be dead, but that Harry won himself.

I admit that I'm somewhat sorry that Snape ended up being a good guy. He was fun to hate. But at least it was done in a way that made some sense, and explained how he'd been acting.

That said, I'm disappointed that his lifelong feelings for Harry's mother were described as "love" rather than "obsession." More on that point in a future message.

From a Jewish perspective, I was somewhat disturbed by the death theme at the end of the book, but not as much so as I might have been. I'd like to break this into two parts: first is the scene with Harry's dying and them coming back to life, and second is the idea that he had to die to save everyone else.

The whole scene of his dying and then coming back to life was, unfortunately I believe, a strong sign of the author's xian religious background. She threw in the line at the end about how the whole thing happened inside Harry's head, but nonetheless, the scene seemed a lot like xian death and ressurection. And it added nothing to the story, other than a bit of explanation from Dumbeldore and the sight of the "child under the seat" (more on this later). It's surprising to see such a xian scene when the rest of the books have been completely free of any religious mention, but on the other hand, it's not surprising that the author's religious background should creep in somehow.

But all that said, it didn't really change the book for me. It's one scene, and can be largely ignored without effecting the story.

Second, though, is that the book built up the theme of Harry dying as a means of giving protection to others. Throughout the series there was a theme of Harry's having received magical protection from his mother's having died trying to save his life. This was always characterized in terms of her love, not as "dying for sins" or anything like that. There a book chapter in Harry Potter and Torah that gives a Jewish perspective on magical protection from self-sacrifice, in the blog here and in book form here.

I'd like to read Deathly Hallows as continuing the same theme. Harry's being willing to sacrifice himself out of love for his friends and out of committment to fighting evil led to everyone else's receiving magical protection at the end of the fight with Voldemort. I think that the story works perfectly well that way.

Combining the two, we have a final few scenes that could be read in a non-xian way, but could also be read in a very xian way. I encourage everyone to read my Jewish perspective on magical protection, and enjoy Deathly Hallows in that light.

There's lots more to say, but I'm going to write other messages over the next week or so on specific points in the book, my thoughts on them, and Jewish perspectives on them.

Comments welcome, either as blog comments or as email to