fbpx
Sunday, September 27, 2020

Is Harry Potter the Jewish idea of the messiah?

I posted an earlier version of this piece prior to the release of the film, but after seeing it, I have some fresh thoughts, which I’ve limned below.
—-

The marketing campaign for the final installment in the “Harry Potter” franchise saw billboards throughout the country declare that with the film’s release, “It All Ends.” 

Presumably this means the Potter series, as “Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part II” is the purported end of J.K. Rowling’s epic literary franchise. But audiences are also meant to understand this pronouncement as a double entendre, as Potter and friends must face the threat of an apocalyptic end, in which good versus evil battle it out for the fate of the living world—unless, of course, Harry Potter is the messiah.

“And a little child shall lead them,” goes the famous verse in Isaiah that prophesies a peaceful world.

The Telegraph’s Sarah Crompton pointed out in 2010, that Harry, played by the Jewish Daniel Radcliffe is referred to in “Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part One” as The Chosen One. “No one else is going to die for me,” Harry declares, alluding to a messianic intent. The turn of phrase is bemusing because it can be read as either an affirmation or repudiation of the Christ figure. 

Death, resurrection and mastery of death are central themes in “Deathly Hallows II.” In the opening sequence of the film, Harry confers with a character who tells him that if he acquires The Deathly Hallows—three powerful magic objects comprised of the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone and the Invisibility Cloak—he can conquer death itself. “It is said that to possess them all is to make oneself a master of death,” Mr. Ollivander tells Harry, “but few truly believe that such objects exist.” Faith, it seems, is a precursor for redemption (there is another wonderful line about faith uttered by Helena Ravenclaw, who tells Harry where to find an object he’s seeking: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know; if you know, you need only ask.”)

Harry’s quest to overcome his own fate has foundational origins in the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve choose to eat fruit from the Garden – they do not choose from the Tree of Life, the guarantor of immortality. Instead they choose the Tree of Knowledge and become inescapably, ceaselessly aware of their mortality. In “Deathly Hallows Part I,” there is a scene that evokes the Garden of Eden in which Harry and Hermione stand in as Adam and Eve, falling prey to the seminal biblical curse on humanity. 

To reverse this curse, a Jewish mystical understanding of redemption posits a world in which death can be annihilated. Just as Harry’s pursuit of the Deathly Hallows can eliminate Death, Jewish mysticism conjures a world in which a child possessed of magical powers will bring about redemption.

In Aryeh Wineman’s 1997 book, “Mystic Tales from the Zohar” he speaks of the redemptive power of a child wonder or “yanuka”. In mystical literature, “the child figure is a kind of personification of Eden, a condition lacking blemish, defilement or moral complexity,” Wineman writes. The yanuka is a “wonder child capable of offering brilliant interpretations of Torah.” As it goes in prophecy, it goes in Potter: even a wonder does not work alone.

The Zohar, the major work of Jewish mysticism, suggests the importance of ancillaries in the redemption of the world. As the Potter movies can attest, Harry needs his friends. There is a concept, Wineman explains, of “a collective yanuka,” in which “the child-archetype has shifted from a single child to an entire generation of such wonder children.”

In one scene, Harry encounters Professor Dumbledore in a kind of postmortem heaven. As they discuss the nature of life and death, Dumbledore tells him, “Don’t pity the dead, Harry, pity the living. And above all pity those without love.” Harry’s ability to triumph, then, rests not on his shoulders alone, but on his ability to work in relationship with others.

No adult can save the world. In much of mythological literature (“Potter,” “The Lord of the Rings”) as well as in the bible, redemption comes through the gifts of a child. Even Moses seals his destiny as an infant. There is a midrash that tells of a suspicious Pharoah, who tries to test whether Moses is a threat to him. He places his crown on the ground, and at another distance, hot coals. If Moses were to reach for the crown, it would reveal his kingly ambitions. Since an infant is naturally drawn to the glittery crown jewels, an angel descends and promptly pushes the child toward the coals. Moses burns his hand and then reaches for his mouth, burning his lips. This, the rabbis, say explains his speech impediment, a handicap that becomes central to his development as a leader, God’s partner in Israel’s redemption from slavery. 

There are things in the earthly world that resist the power of death. In Jewish mysticism, “the innocence of children, the wonder child, pleading to spare the innocent, the powerful prayer of the broken hearted, the willingness to die” are examples of the most essential forms of goodness, according to Wineman. Only when Harry accepts his fate, can he transcend it.

There are, however, moments of doubt and despair. When Harry returns to the post-war wreckage of Hogwarts, he despairs of what he has done, of what others have risked to protect him. It is one of most poignant moments in the film, as Harry realizes that even the pursuit of his higher purpose comes with casualties.

When Harry is finally prepared to confront his fate and face Lord Voldemort, he encounters apparitions of the afterlife. Wraithlike figures of his parents and friends appear before him. “Why are you here now?” Harry asks. “We never left,” his mother answers, suggesting the interconnectedness of life and death that Harry cannot yet know. 

Likewise, in the world of Harry Potter, the magic that can save the world is inextricably linked with the dark arts that might destroy it. Harry contains within him both good and evil – it is why he can hear snakes, why he can hear Lord Voldemort’s thoughts. When Harry discovers that he harbors a piece of Voldemort within his own soul, he is anguished. No redeemer is pure. But Dumbledore reassures Harry that it was not his pure soul that was corrupted, but the evil of Voldemort that was overcome with good. “You were the heart cracks he was never meant to have,” Dumbledore tells him.

The world is not perfect when Harry defeats evil, it simply goes on. Harry must choose goodness and humility over power and control again and again. In his symbolic final act as a young man, just after he defeats Voldemort, Harry finds himself in possessesion of Voldemort’s wand. “That’s the most powerful wand in the world,” Hermione and Ron remind him. With it, he could become a kind of God.

But Harry’s truest act as a messianic figure is also his most human act: he snaps the wand in half and tosses it over the cliff, into the sea. He rejects power in favor of relationship. He doesn’t separate himself from his friends, he joins them in a final act of, you could say, true love. Interestingly, though the film values romantic love, the ultimate love combines sexual love with Godly love which is seen near the film’s end when Harry Hermione and Ron all hold hands together. It is a mirror of the Garden, a metaphorical ‘going back’ to a place where death, vulnerability, class, race and religious distinctions don’t exist, with three friends serving as stand ins for Adam and Eve and the Godly figure that saves the world.

Did you enjoy this article?

You'll love our roundtable.


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Enjoyed this article?

You'll love our roundtable.


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Latest Articles

Politics at Kol Nidre: Yes or No?

Once a rabbi starts to promote specific policies to address societal ills, the message becomes a source of communal division. Two people can share a concern for a problem without agreeing on the solution. Once a rabbi picks a side on solutions, we’re back to divisive partisanship.

Avoiding Politics Is a Political Act, No Matter What Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Says

Political neutrality is a form of political expression supporting those in power or those destined to remain in power without the voice of opposition.

Break the Fast with Jonah and the Whale Placemats

After reading the story of Jonah on Yom Kippur, what better way to break the fast than with a meal featuring these Jonah and the Whale placemats? 

Israel File Appendix: Numbers Under Lockdown

The weighted average below takes into account the timing of the poll (more recent, more important); the number of people surveyed (more people, more...

It’s Time to Look at Palestinian-Israeli Conflict With Fresh Eyes

How the Abraham Accords were achieved and what the “Palestinian cause” now requires.

Can We Forgive Each Other in the Midst of a Tribal Culture War?

At a time when Jews are supposed to look within and admit fault, too many of us are virtue signaling and delegitimizing our opponents. Can we stop?

150-Year-Old Time Capsule Found in a Wall of Oldest Synagogue in British City

Construction workers at the site of a former Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in Manchester, England, found a time capsule from the 1870s.

What Does it Mean to Have a Deeper Yom Kippur?

Rosh Hashanah begins the work. Yom Kippur seals it. But only if you are willing to go deep.

Lisa Edelstein Joins the Cast of ‘ 9-1-1 Lone Star’

Lisa Edelstein (“House,” “The Good Doctor”) has joined the cast of FOX’s “9-1-1 Lone Star” as the ex-wife of the fire captain played by...

AOC Withdraws From Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Event Following Pro-Palestinian Criticism

The event will be held in October by Americans for Peace Now.

Culture

Break the Fast with Jonah and the Whale Placemats

After reading the story of Jonah on Yom Kippur, what better way to break the fast than with a meal featuring these Jonah and the Whale placemats? 

Lisa Edelstein Joins the Cast of ‘ 9-1-1 Lone Star’

Lisa Edelstein (“House,” “The Good Doctor”) has joined the cast of FOX’s “9-1-1 Lone Star” as the ex-wife of the fire captain played by...

Prosecutors Drop Solicitation Charges Against Patriots Owner Robert Kraft

They said they didn't have a case when they couldn't use a video for their case.

‘RBG’ Filmmaker Julie Cohen on Justice Ginsburg’s Death: ‘I Was Stunned’

Cohen made her comments during a Zoom event with Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival Executive Director Hilary Helstein on Sept. 24. 

Dr. Mandy Cohen on Guiding North Carolina’s Pandemic Response Wearing a Chai Necklace

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Mandy Cohen has provided steady guidance to the people of North Carolina. As the secretary of the North Carolina...

Latest Articles
Latest

Politics at Kol Nidre: Yes or No?

Once a rabbi starts to promote specific policies to address societal ills, the message becomes a source of communal division. Two people can share a concern for a problem without agreeing on the solution. Once a rabbi picks a side on solutions, we’re back to divisive partisanship.

Avoiding Politics Is a Political Act, No Matter What Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Says

Political neutrality is a form of political expression supporting those in power or those destined to remain in power without the voice of opposition.

Break the Fast with Jonah and the Whale Placemats

After reading the story of Jonah on Yom Kippur, what better way to break the fast than with a meal featuring these Jonah and the Whale placemats? 

Israel File Appendix: Numbers Under Lockdown

The weighted average below takes into account the timing of the poll (more recent, more important); the number of people surveyed (more people, more...

It’s Time to Look at Palestinian-Israeli Conflict With Fresh Eyes

How the Abraham Accords were achieved and what the “Palestinian cause” now requires.

Hollywood

‘Dirty Dancing’ Sequel Starring Jennifer Grey Announced

It’s official: A “Dirty Dancing” sequel is coming, and it’s starring Jewish actress Jennifer Grey, who played Frances “Baby” Houseman in the 1987 original.

Roy Moore’s Lawsuit Against Sacha Baron Cohen Over Being Pranked Can Proceed, Judge Rules

By the time the episode aired, it was widely known that Cohen was punking public figures.

Podcasts

Pandemic Times Episode 90: Yom Kippur in a Pandemic Can Be Our Most Meaningful

New David Suissa Podcast Every Tuesday and Friday. Reflections from Rabbi Mordecai Finley on going deep on Judaism's holiest day. How do we manage our lives...

Pandemic Times Episode 89: Honoring Ruth Bader Ginsburg

New David Suissa Podcast Every Tuesday and Friday. Reflections on the life and legacy of a Jewish and American hero. How do we manage our lives...

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

x