What I Learned from Harry Potter

Sermon delivered December 17, 2010, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

About a year ago, Robert, Daniel and I made our first visit to the Twig Bookshop’s new location at the Pearl Brewery. Until that day, neither of my children had shown particular interest in reading Harry Potter. My own brush with the teenage wizard was at a movie which I found thoroughly incomprehensible, even downright boring, not having read the books or seen the films leading up to the sixth in the series.

At the Twig, though, Daniel honed in on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as though the pull was magnetic. He wanted me to read the book to him. And so we began, one chapter at a time. I, too, was instantly hooked. The characters are magnetic, and the story is captivating. Robert joined us at the third book, catching up with the earlier ones on his own. Each evening, we would hurry through dinner, squeezing in the time to get through a chapter; two boys nestled very close to me on the couch. Each night, as if according to a script, the boys would urge me to read a second chapter. Each night, I would decline, citing bed time or the need to get back to Temple. By early fall, we had completed all seven books.

Now, I miss Harry Potter. Yes, we saw the movie in November, and I know that one more is coming, and I see the boys playing the Harry Potter video game or building Potter Legos. Perhaps what I miss most is the time spent reading to my kids each night. Yes, Toni and I still read to them, usually separate books, even separate parents for each of the two boys. We’ve tried to find new books that will captivate us as father and sons together, and I’m confident that we’ll succeed one of these days. I suspect, though, that the experience we enjoyed together – with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, Dumbledore and Voldemort – will always remain unique and memorable.

What is it about Harry Potter? These books and their story have captivated not only Robert, Daniel, and me, but a nation, even the world. Why?

Some religious figures have denounced the Potter phenomenon. They cite the magic, witchcraft and wizardry that are central plot devices in the series. True enough, Harry and his friends rely on their improbable powers, not acts of God, to save themselves and their community.

In so many other ways, the Harry Potter series is one that religious people may admire. Not unlike the Torah, J.K. Rowling’s books are unequivocal about good and evil. As in Torah, we learn from this seven-book epic that a person’s talents are only laudable if utilized toward positive purpose, for those same gifts can be directed to evil goals. And like Moses and other heroes of the Torah, even the most righteous characters of Harry Potter are flawed.

The villain of the Harry Potter novels, Lord Voldemort, possesses magnificent magical powers. His abilities are matched only by Dumbledore, the beloved aging Headmaster of Hogwarts, the school for young wizards and witches including Harry and his friends. As he grows up, Harry also develops magical abilities to match the Dark Lord’s. The books draw a clear moral conclusion: Power, talent, and even intellect are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. Instead, what truly matters is the way a person utilizes his or her abilities.

The Torah teaches the same lesson in its narratives about Joseph. Early in his life, we learn that Joseph is able to interpret dreams. As a youth, though, Joseph is self-serving in utilizing this special talent. He tells his father and his brothers that his dreams reveal that they will all bow down before him one day. The interpretation proves correct, but not before Joseph alienates his entire family. Even the ancient Rabbis say that Joseph is arrogant as a youth. He needs to grow up.

Later, Pharaoh, King of Egypt, is tormented by dreams of his own. He sees seven fat cows, but they are quickly consumed by seven sickly, skinny cows, which are no less emaciated after their big meal. Pharaoh calls for Joseph to interpret his dreams. Now, Joseph has matured. He humbly attributes his special talents to God, and he interprets the dream for the welfare of Egypt and surrounding nations. Seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine, and Joseph suggests that food be stored so that all can eat during the lean years.

The young Joseph and the mature Joseph are, of course, the same person. Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort are two different characters. However, the youthful Joseph may be compared to the Dark Lord, while the adult Joseph may be compared to our modern novel’s hero. Like the Joseph who interprets dreams for his own benefit, Voldemort utilizes his magical abilities for self-aggrandizement. The adult Joseph, like Harry, marshals his talents for the well-being of the community.

Admittedly, Harry is not always an unblemished hero. In particular, the fifth novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, portrays a head-strong fifteen-year-old who does not heed the instructions of his mentor. Harry is instructed to learn a special skill, called “occlumency,” the ability to stop another person from reading his mind. Harry’s instructor is to be Professor Snape, whom Harry detests. Despite Dumbledore’s repeated insistence that he trusts Snape – and that Harry should, too – Harry carries on most disrespectfully. Spoiled and stubborn, Harry refuses to learn from this powerful teacher. The results are disastrous, for Harry and even more for his dear ones.

In this instance, Harry reminds me of King Saul, the first King of Israel. In many ways, Saul is a fine ruler. Yet Saul makes a mistake, common to powerful leaders: He imagines that he knows what is best in all circumstances. Saul does not heed the wise Prophet Samuel. He does not follow God’s own instructions. In the end, Saul loses his kingdom, and his life, because of his arrogant intransigence. Thankfully for Harry Potter fans, our hero learns his lesson before it’s too late.

The central moral conflict in Harry Potter involves what we might call ethnic or racial distinctions. The good guys promote harmony between ordinary humans, known as “muggles,” and witches and wizards like Harry and his friends. Voldemort and his band proclaim, “Magic is Power.” Our heroes are eager to foster good relations with other species of magical creatures, such as goblins and giants. The villains manipulate other beings only for their own ends. Most notably, the reader learns to identify witches and wizards who are of “pure magical stock,” born to magical humans themselves. “Death Eaters,” as Voldemort’s followers are called, ruthlessly oppress wizards who are not of pure stock.

According to this racial calculus, Harry Potter himself is something of a half-breed. His mother, a talented witch, was born and raised by muggles, ordinary humans; while his father was born into a magical family. Ironically, Lord Voldemort, too, is a so-called “half-blood.” Voldemort tries to destroy the ordinary part of himself, which he hates, by wiping out other wizards born to ordinary human parents. Harry and his partners reject the distinction altogether. Pure bloods and half breeds and “muggle borns” work together for the good of all.

J.K. Rowling, the British author of the series, likely seeks to make a point about stratification in her own society. Those born to so-called “noble blood” are no more entitled to the riches of this world than those with ordinary parents.

The Jew reading Harry Potter, though, can scarcely ignore the parallels between Lord Voldemort’s England and Hitler’s Germany. First, the authorities in the Rowling’s “Ministry of Magic” ignore the threat posed by Voldemort and his followers. We are reminded of Germany’s Weimer Republic and its blind eye to the dangers posed by the rising Hitler. Once Voldemort seizes control of the Ministry, the campaign against witches and wizards born to ordinary humans reminds us of Hitler’s final solution. Collaborators abound. Most ordinary witches and wizards turn a blind eye to the wickedness surrounding them. Only a dedicated band of partisans, with Harry Potter in the lead, are rescuers, bravely risking their own lives to deliver England from evil.

The seven-year tale ends, of course, with the victory of the forces of good. But that is not the final act. The last novel is called Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Our hero is ultimately offered the opportunity to possess these “deathly hallows,” and thereby to gain ultimate power, even over death. Voldemort has sought similar strength, but like the vain builders of Babel, the Dark Lord fails to attain powers that belong only to God. Harry ultimately concludes that no human, no matter how good or how magical, ought to possess such ability, and he places that power beyond even himself. Harry’s ultimate happiness is to be found in his wife and in children whose lives mirror his own, minus the epic struggle.

The Epilogue tells us briefly of Harry’s adult life with his wife, Ginny, and their children, named in memory of heroes whose lives have been lost earlier in the epic. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that Rowling has Harry and Ginny observe the European Jewish custom of naming children to honor deceased loved ones.

For me, the novels’ ending with family was fitting. For months, Harry Potter drove Robert, Daniel, and me together for a nightly ritual of reading. We shared a constant desire to turn the page, to find out what would happen next. We adopted a common language, frequently speaking about the characters in the book. Whenever transportation takes too long, or is inconvenient, we dream of “apparating,” simply disappearing and then reappearing in the desired location instantly, like the witches and wizards of Harry Potter.

Yes, many lessons are offered inside the Harry Potter novels. The most important lesson I learned, though, was that life offers few blessings that equal time with one’s children, reading. Let us all find such blessings.