Harry Potter & The Indifferent Jew Part 2 or He’s Just A Goy!
So apparently the title of yesterday’s article may have been a bit, well, misleading. My friend Helen, bless her soul, thought I was going to talk at length about Harry Potter and how his adventures relate to Judaism. She was very disappointed to discover that all I did was talk about my own experience with the Potter franchise. But this brings up an interesting point about the Potter franchise as a whole. The series side-steps any discussion of Religion and instead makes the concept of Magic as something Holy. This is kind of odd given the messianic nature of Harry Potter himself, I mean the kid is such a Christ figure that he even comes back from the dead towards the end of the series. It is hard to relate Potter to Judaism simply because there is so little to do with anything Jewish. Make no mistake that the Harry Potter franchise is way more straight forward Christian in its approach than Jewish.
Or is it?
Well, if you aren’t seeing Voldemort and his little cult of Death Eaters as the extreme religious right then you should probably re-read the books or watch the movies again. Sure you can easily peg Voldemort as Magic Hitler, it is the easiest analogy what with his views on racial purity for magic-using bloodlines. But there is more to it than that. Unlike Hitler, Voldemort wasn’t as pure-bred as he leads everyone to believe. Hitler was the biggest anti-Semite in history, the irony of course was that there is the Urban Myth he was a 1/4 Jewish. Let’s be clear that Hitler was NOT Jewish in any form. He came from a Roman Catholic family on both sides. Still the myth of Hitler as a Jew only adds to his comparison to Voldemort, as He Who Shall Not Be Named wasn’t a pure-blooded magic user having come from from a mixed blood relationship (i.e. his mother being a magic user and his father being a Muggle). Sure the idea of Hitler as self-loathing Jew is neat and horrific at the same time but really he and Voldemort are really of like mind on ethnic/bloodline cleansing.
Still, getting away from the Voldemort issue, brings us back to the subject of Religion in the series. Potter as a Messiah is pretty much a focus in all the books. But Potter isn’t Christ. Harry Potter is the heroic archetype of an almost reluctant hero at first. Dumbledore is there in the first 2 books to nudge him into being the hero. It is a very Mentor/Student relationship that appears in stories the world over. Hell it is the basis for almost all the Shaw Brothers movies in the 70s. Dumbledore is a character with an interesting dichotomy. He seeks to protect Harry, yet nudges him into action or directly puts him in harm’s way. He basically treats his Chosen One as a Spymaster treats his spies. Of course Harry is dedicated to his mentor and will walk through fire to please him. In fact most of the protagonist children at Hogwart’s would. There is a fierce amount of loyalty to Dumbledore displayed by Harry, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger and even to a lesser extent Draco Malfoy. You cannot tell me that during the climax of Harry Potter & Half-Blood Prince that Draco isn’t wrestling with his own morality and sense of loyalty. He is torn between loyalty to family, allegiance to the Death Eaters and the mere concept of striking down Dumbledore, a man who has really done him no wrong (and he knows it). Go through the series and you easily get the vibe that Dumbledore isn’t telling everyone what he really knows. He is a master manipulator, as every Spymaster should be. But this manipulation has the effect of having his disciples nearly worship him. To the children at Hogwart’s Dumbledore is their religion. He is Merlin, Paul Crocker and Santa Claus all rolled into one clever heap of trouble.
It is a totally different situation with the adults in the Potterverse, where it seems you either revere Harry as the Chosen One or follow Voldemort. It is a pretty deep division. The difference lies in how each faction seems to react to their chosen Master. The Potter worshipers revere Harry and treat him with a sense of wonder and some adulation. Now I realize that I’m lumping all the adults together and that isn’t fair. But a good chunk of them do have this deep reverence for what Harry is and might represent, especially in the first book of the series. By the third book this really is not an issue as most that have gotten to know Harry realize he is a pretty grounded, down to earth kid, save for the whole casting spells and flying on a broomstick stuff. This doesn’t mean people aren’t expecting great things of the boy, hell the very point of him being at Hogwart’s is that people expect greatness of him. Hell even his enemies expect greatness of him (especially Sevarus Snape, for his own reasons of course).
Voldemort’s followers are a completely different animal altogether. There are either the blind fanatics, like Bellatrix Lestrange, or those who seem to be in fear of him and follow based on his philosophy, like Lucius Malfoy. Hell Bellatrix Lestrange is a fanatic on whole different level. She is like every extremist terrorist group all rolled into one. Blind devotion to Voldemort clouds every decision she makes. Her relationship to Voldemort is very submissive, though her relationship with everyone else is exceedingly Dominant. Imagine an affluent female member of the Westboro Baptist Church that domineers her friends and family but then is completely submissive to Father Fred Phelps. I think you get the idea of Bellatrix now, if you didn’t before. Now compare that to Lucius Malfoy, who seems so malevolent and slick when first introduced but later in the story is very much in fear of Voldemort and follows him for that very reason. Bellatrix and Malfoy are 2 sides of the same coin, one worships out of blind devotion and the other worships out fear of what will happen if he doesn’t. Sure there are others with their own agenda (again see Snape, Sevarus) but for the most part you could probably breakdown the Death Eaters into these camps.
So it is the followers that make Voldemort more of a religion than the people who befriend Harry Potter. Harry attracts those with a sense of morality and decency, a basic idea of how to follow the rules but will bend them if the need calls for it. Voldemort represents every tangible form of evil you can conceive. Like any good antagonist in fiction, he is supposed to represent tangible evil, hell before his return he is also the embodiment of intangible evil as well. I mean if I spoke Hitler’s name aloud and discovered it would bring him back from the dead you bet your ass I’d never say or mock Hitler again. That is one serious case of intangible vague evil suddenly becoming tangible very real evil. Voldemort is an evil we have seen in history, it is an evil that still pops its head out every now and again to remind us that real evil is out there and it can be way more frightening and way more horrifically real than anything J.K. Rowling can throw at us.
This still doesn’t resolve the issue of Harry Potter and religion, let alone Judaism. I think to actually make any sort of relevant connection, one has to once again look at Voldemort. Voldemort is so thoroughly evil that he goes to the extreme measure of dividing his soul to attain a false immortality. Fragmenting one’s soul is against everything Judaism believes and teaches. The Judaic view of the soul is different from the Christian view of the soul. Whereas the Christian belief is that we, as individuals, are born with our souls and those souls are riddled with sin from the outset, Judaism teaches that the soul is built through the experience of life. The soul is who you are because of what you have been through, what you’ve experienced. It is experience that makes the person and the person makes the soul. Voldemort sought to fragment his soul, to break apart the very thing that made him human. Voldemort also had a crippling fear of dying, which is why he sought fleeting immortality. Judaism teaches that how we face death is just as important as how we face life. Since Voldemort is unwilling to face death at all and he essentially destroyed his soul to not face death, he would be denied God as a whole. Interesting that this is the first time I’ve even mentioned God properly in this little discussion.
The Judaic principle of the soul is a different thing for Harry Potter though. The entire series. be it books or movies, is about one boy (and his friends) experiencing life with all of its pains and joys. Through everything, Harry Potter always chooses to embrace life. He spends 7 books living life and building his soul. He makes friends, loses mentors and experiences as much joy as he does loss but still he never stops choosing life as his first option. His life is his to live and even when something like prophecy gets in his way, he overcomes it to see the new morning. In fact he keeps getting told he has this gret destiny. He chooses to reject fate and care out his greatness on his own terms. I swear, if it weren’t for the whole magic thing, this kid would be one great Jew. Harry Potter, what a Mensch!
In summation, Religion really isn’t an issue in the Harry Potter series, this despite its religious subtexts. In truth you can probably take any religious belief and try to apply it to the Harry Potter story and come away with something. Hell, I just did it with my own religion and look where it got me. We also have learned that by applying the Jewish microscope, Voldemort is the least Jewish of all characters in modern fiction. Given that I compared him to Hitler before and given my people’s lack of love for Hitler, I don’t think anyone was expecting Voldemort over for Rosh Hashannah services. Harry Potter however, is as Jewish a character as you’ll find outside of The Old Testament. He has all the traits we admire and the foibles we don’t like to talk about. He is a testament to mankind’s need to struggle to really claim to have lived. He’d make a great Jew, if it weren’t for… y’know… the whole Wizard thing. The whole wizard thing is very not Jewish. Sorry Harry m’boy, looks like you are a Gentile after all.
Always the Goy, never the Mensch.