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:


David Guedalia said...

Interestingly Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik compares the kingship of Yosef to the that of Yehuda (David).

Yosef does not sin, he does not go through the Teshuva process.

Yehuda does (and King David to some degree) and repents.

There are two paths to royalty the Rav says, following the Midrash Tanhuma in Parshat VaYigash, the two kings face off, and Yehuda wins.

Anonymous said...

You skipped Percy!

Bruce Krulwich said...

Regarding Shimon's comment:

How could I have left out Percy! He's actually one of the most notable in this regard.

I've followed up on this point in a new blog message titled Percy's Teshuva and Yom Kippur

Thanks for writing!


Unknown said...

"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."

There is a concept of "ha-omer sela zoo litzdaka bishvil she-yichyeh bni tzadik gamur" - If someone says, I am giving this coin to tzedaka so that my son should live is a tzadik. I think that the 'rabbi's say that if his son does and he then regrets ever giving the tzedaka then this doesnt apply. This might be the case with the Malfoys. If Draco died would they be happy that they at least saved Harry, or would they have regretted it and wished that they had helped Voldemort kill him. I think that after all that Voldemort did to them by living in their house, taking Lucius's wand and using Draco as a torcherer, Narcissa probably would have been happy to have helped bring about Voldemort's downfall even if her son was dead. The question is: If Harry has answered her that Draco was dead, would she still have pretended that Harry was really dead.

Unknown said...

"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."

There are times when Harry makes mistakes and has to admit them.

In the 5th book he is always angry and has to learn to control this. I think that he does apologize at some point for being angry at his friends.

He also always hated Snape and changed his views at the end and even named a kid after him. Throughout the series, he hates Snape but is constantly finding out that Snape is trying to save him. This happens in the 1st book but he never apologizes or changes his views until the end of the 7th book. When he finally accepts that Snape was helping him the whole time this might be counted as tshuva.

Another example of Harry's flaws would be the fact that he attacked Bellatrix with Crucio in book 5. He then attacked Malfoy with Sectumsempra in book 6 and he used unforgivable curses throughout book 7. I think that the Jewish view of using these curses might be a little different than the author's. As you explained in your post about using expelliarmus over killing, we believe that sometimes you should kill. On the other hand, I don't think there is ever a time when you should use Crucio just to causes pain. (In certain situations bais din can give lashes to punish a sinner and can even give makos mardus to try and get someone to do what is right but for a common person like Harry to use it in anger is not proper).

JKR equates the 3 unforgivable curses as all being bad. As I just mentioned, there is a time when Crucio and Avada Kedavra should be used. The unforgivableness of Imperio is even more against our views. I think even JKR seems to accept this in book 7 when they use it in Gringots to help them get into Bellatrix's vault. There are certainly situations in which this would be a proper thing to do.

When Harry uses Sectumsempra in book 6 he did not know what it was going to do and therefore cannot be held accountable for the actual action. He could be held accountable for doing something stupid. He already did something similar once when he used levicorpus on Ron. He laughed that off as a joke even though Hermione started to see that the Prince was not such a nice person and told him that he should be careful with his spells. Harry did not listen to her and eventually used Sectumsempra on Malfoy. He regretted it afterwards but I'm not sure if he was ever faced with a similar situation again to do proper tshuva. He regretted using dark magic but I don't know if he regretted not listening to Hermione. In book 7 he uses expelliarmus on Stan which, in JKR's view might be considered tshuva for using Sectumsempra though in our Jewish view it was the wrong thing to do, he should have knocked him out of the air to save himself. I think the concept of rodef applies even if the rodef isn't acting on his own accord. We see this concept with the halacha that if an unborn baby is a danger to the life of its mother it can be killed. The Xians believe the opposite and will let the mother die. The baby certainly has no da'as to kill its mother and yet can be killed. This should be the same situation as Stan who was trying to kill Harry even if it was not intentional.

In terms of Harry's using Crucio on Bellatrix, he was faced with a similar situation in the Ravenclaw common room and did the same thing again. He used Crucio on Professor Carow. With Bellatrix, he was angry that she had killed his godfather. He might have been considered a go'el ha'dam who is allowed to kill a murderer. He would also be saving many lives by eliminating a dangerous murderer from the world. He should haqve killed her rather than just cause her pain. JKR considers it a good thing that he refrained from killing her and a bad thing that he used Crucio. We would say that there was no purpose in the crucio but he should have tried to kill her. In book 7 he was angry that Carrow had spat at McGonagol. This might be sort of like the story of Pinchas where someone has to stand up against evil-doers. He wasn't acting only because she had spat at McGonagol but for everything that she had done until now. The spitting was just the last straw. According to JKR this would be considered repeating the sin that he did in book 5 to Bellatrix so in her view he was lacking tshuva. JKR considered it tshuva for this when he used expelliarmus against Voldemort.

Unknown said...

You forgot Pettigrew. He did tshuva by not killing Harry. He was faced with a situation where he could have killed him and didn't. This is tshuva for almost killing him as a baby by giving him away to Voldemort. This also might be considered tshuva for everything he has done as a deatheater.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Regulas Black, I don't think this is real Tshuva. He never regretted being a death eater. He was simply angry because of what Voldermort had done to his house elf Kreacher. What he did (steal the locket) was out of revenge (another bad midah) and not out of Tshuva. The fact that he had helped Voldermort hurt others in the past didn't bother him only the fact that Kreacher was hurt made him do what he did.
I think Peter Pettigrew's Tshuva (thanks Josh) is a perfect example of Yesh Koneh Olamo B'sha'a achat. In a split second he realized what he had become. That moment of hesitance cost him his life but I'm sure a Bat Kol must have announced "Rabbi Peter Pettigrew mezuman lechyay olam habah"

Bruce Krulwich said...

Regarding Daniel's comment that RAB's teshuva was simply revenge for what Voldemort did to Kreacher while Wormtail's teshuva was for purer motivations, I think it's the opposite.

Wormtail's teshuva seems to me to clearly be because he owed Harry a debt for his life from the end of Prisoner of Azkaban. Dumbeldore then said that this debt would come to be useful, and the scene in Malfoy's mansion was the repayment of that debt. He simply couldn't attack Harry. But I see no indication that he regretted anything or would have changed his ways had he had to attack anyone but Harry.

On the other hand, RAB, I believe, turned against Voldemort for some reason that we don't really know. If you look closely at the story, I think that his turnaround was a while after Kreacher was in the cave, and was due to a different reason altogether. Serius alludes to this in Order of the Phoenix, that RAB got out when he saw how bad Voldemort was. I peg this as a very high form of Teshuva.

We're getting pretty far into analysis between the lines of the books, and we may never know exactly what JK Rowling intended to be the motivations of the characters. But we agree that pure teshuva, based on a realization of a mistake, is the truly high form of teshuva, while teshuva based on self-interest is less so. Which HP characters we see as each may vary by reader.

Unknown said...

Harry's Teshuvahs

faces things he is afraid of

repents of using curses to get revenge on people/bully them from under the invisibility cloak after seeing what his father did to Snape and having Hermione compare it to death eater behaviour

lets go of resentments toward Snape and Aunt Petunia after seeing their histories

treats Kreacher kindly even after he helps get Sirious killed
doesn't take out his own guilt about Sirius's death on Kreacher

repents of using the unknown curse on Malfoy, gives up the book that gave him that curse despite its usefulness

makes sure to save Xenophilius Lovegood's life by being seen as they escape, even though Lovegood was in the act of betraying them

gives up the power of the Elder wand, using it only to repair his old wand

Those are just a few things I can think of which are either repenting of a previous wrong or striving to be a better person than his baser instincts would like.

As for some of the characters with incomplete teshuvah, I think the underlying message of the book is that their being capable of love leaves the door to repentance open for them, even if they never chose to enter or complete it. Riddle who has become incapable of love, is incapable of teshuvah.

Very enjoyable post1

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