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!


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that Harry was completelty wrong. Disarming and subdueing Voldy (and afterwords bringing him to justice) without endagering anyone in the meantime might have been the correct chioce.

(That said, in general I did consider it a bit foolish that the good guys were always dodging the green curses and shooting back only red ones)

Anonymous said...

Actually I wanted to elaborate a bit on my previous thoughts.
I think J.K.'s message that killing (even under justifiable circumstances) rips ones soul is a valuable Torah true message. We saw it in the last parsh (Re'eh) when after the commendment to destroy the Ir Hanidachat there is a special promise that Hkb"h will instill mercy back in our hearts (see Or Hachayim). We also see it by Yaakov Avinu - Vayetzer Lo - Shema yaharog acherim.
I was therefore actually very glad that Harry was able to finish off Voldy while retaining a rletivly "intact" soul.
I don't think Harry ever intended to pardon Voldy. His use of Expelliarmus served a few purposes.
a) it was his signiture move - the one he was most proficient at - and therefore also most likely to succed at. Killing for Harry would have taken a much more concentrated effort and not a reflex motion.
b) I also think he wanted to obtain the more powerful wand first - and then try to finish the job

Bruce Krulwich said...

Thanks Shimon for the comments, very interesting thread of discussion.

That said, I disagree, as was clear from my original message.

First, I think that in Deathly Hallows itself, Dumbeldore disagrees with this, when he implies to Snape that Snape's killing Dumbeldore, when done as an act of mercy, would have no damage on Snape's soul.

Secondly, and more importantly, I think that the Or HaChayim that you referred to says this as well. When the act is done as meanness, it will have the natural bad effect on the killer's soul. But when the act is done out of a mitzva, as a killing of rachamim, than Hashem in His Rachamim will have our souls not be effected according to the natural result of killing.

Unknown said...

I think there is a logical flaw in applicability of the rodeif rule to this situation: the rationale for killing a rodeif is prevention of murder - if there is NO other means of preventing it. Harry apparently was able to prevent murder by disarming Voldemort - so killing him was not necessary to prevent murder. Torah apparently did not consider availability of the Expelliarmus to rank-n-file muggle Jews, hence it said "kill the rodeif"