A Moment With Dov Krulwich
By day he’s Dr. Bruce Krulwich, a computer scientist working in Israel’s high-tech industry. The rest of the time he’s Dov Krulwich, literary-religious sleuth, scouring the Torah, Talmud and other Jewish texts for connections that link Judaism to the themes and story line of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Can there be nuggets of Jewish wisdom in a fantasy about a boy who discovers that he’s descended from wizards and that the evil wizard Lord Voldemort will stop at nothing to kill him? Yes, and Krulwich—who, like millions of other parents, was introduced to the series by his children—uncovers them, and to his delight finds that discussing Harry Potter is a surefire way to get children interested in Jewish teachings. “What surprises me,” the author tells Moment editor Nadine Epstein, “is that this is also true for adults. Everybody likes talking about Harry Potter.”
Is there magic in the Bible? If there is, what’s the difference between magic in the Harry Potter series and magic in the Bible?
Every miracle in the Bible is in essence magical, since it’s outside the rules of nature. However, all the supernatural things in the Bible are carrying out God’s purpose in the world and aren’t just carrying out the desires of magicians.
I think it is important to distinguish religion from fiction and to distinguish religion from magic. When I compare ideas from Harry Potter to ideas from the Torah, readers need to remember that one is fiction and one is fundamental Jewish belief. But comparing the two can help us understand both. I compare magic in Harry Potter to the miracles in the Torah, but religion isn’t magic. When saying a blessing we are not saying a magical incantation, we’re communicating with God. But communicating with God is our version of supernatural activity.
Why is it that some Orthodox rabbis believe Jewish children shouldn’t read Harry Potter?
Some Orthodox rabbis oppose reading Harry Potter out of a concern that it promotes escapism, encouraging kids to think about fantasy instead of the real world. And there are some that are against a book like mine, out of a concern that it denigrates the Torah, treating it like pop fiction. But many Orthodox rabbis support Harry Potter as a way to get kids to read and to think, and are in favor of anything that can help people connect to ideas raised by Judaism.
Harry learns that he is the only known survivor of the killing curse known as Avada Kedavra, one of three curses forbidden in the world of magic. How does this most unforgivable of all curses, relate to Judaism?
The phrase avada kedavra is actually in Aramaic and Hebrew. In Hebrew the phrase literally means “I will destroy as I speak.” It’s the only incantation in Harry Potter that isn’t based on Greek or Latin.
What’s the difference between avada kedavra and abracadabra, which is also from Aramaic?
Abracadabra means “I will create as I speak.” Abra means “I will create,” like the Hebrew word “bara” in the opening words of the Torah, “In the beginning God created.” Avada means “I will destroy.” Kedabra and kedavra both mean “as I will speak.”
Is there such a thing as a magic wand in Judaism?
We don’t use the term “magic wand” when we translate the Bible, but there are a dozen examples of staffs, sticks or rods that are essentially the same thing, objects used to carry out miracles. Both Moses’ and Aaron’s staffs were used to perform miracles, once in front of Pharaoh and then to split the sea during the Exodus from Egypt. When the Jews were in the desert, Moses’ staff brought water from a rock.
In Hasidic literature, the Baal Shem Tov teaches that before the world was created God had to create the three dimensions, and that a staff represents the creation of the first dimension. That means that a staff in the Bible represents a link to the power of God. In that sense those miraculous actions were continuations of the power used in the creation of the universe.
Ghosts like Nearly Headless Nick float around at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Do Jews believe in ghosts?
There is a small amount of discussion in the Talmud of human souls coming back from the dead, essentially the same thing as ghosts. But, unlike in the Harry Potter books, “ghosts” in Talmudic stories are there to carry out some purpose. Some return to pass on divine messages. In one such story, two ghosts are talking on Rosh Hashanah about what was decreed in heaven for the upcoming year, and a man overhears them. He proceeds to schedule his farming to be successful in the year’s weather patterns, benefiting from the ghosts’ conversation.
Are there magical creatures in Judaism? If so, do they have rights?
You’re referring to the recurring subplot in the Harry Potter books in which Harry’s friend Hermione argues that magical creatures called “house elves” should have the same rights as wizards.
There are certainly stories in the Bible about magical creatures, such as the snake in the story of creation and the talking donkey belonging to the prophet Baalam. When Baalam is beating his donkey, an angel tells him to stop. This sends a strong message against the abuse of creatures, magical or not. But the Torah does allow us to do things to animals if it’s in keeping with the animal’s purpose in the world. For example, we can’t hit animals out of anger but can hit a dog as part of its training. So Hermione might disagree with some of the things the Torah allows.
What does Judaism have to say about mudbloods, the derogatory term Rowling’s characters use for those in the magical world who are not pure-blood wizards and have at least one human parent?
The whole debate through the Harry Potter series is, to phrase it in a Jewish way, whether it’s important or not to have good lineage. Many people judge others by their family background but what I found is that Jewish thought tells us greatness can come from anywhere. David came out of very questionable family history, and yet he rose to become king. In fact, the 16th-century rabbi known as the Maharal of Prague wrote that Jewish royalty needs to come from questionable lineage in order to demonstrate its ability to overcome obstacles.
Rowling’s first Harry Potter book revolves around a sorcerer’s stone, said to have been forged by Nicholas Flamel, a great alchemist. I always imagined that Rowling made Flamel up, but I see in your book this isn’t so.
The legend of Nicholas Flamel is also mentioned in The DaVinci Code. On the Internet you can find copies of the Testament of Nicholas Flamel, which alchemy fans say he wrote himself. In fact, in this testament he describes learning his alchemy from a book of wisdom of “Abraham the Jew.” We have no idea what that book was, and I don’t mean to promote belief in alchemy or say that Nicholas Flamel even existed, but the Bible discusses Abraham teaching mystical ideas to his children, then sending them “east.” Regardless of whether Nicholas Flamel existed, the stories that are told are consistent with the idea that the source of their mysticism comes from Jewish wisdom.
In the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the evil wizard Voldemort uses dark magic to create a new body for himself. Has this ever been heard of in Judaism?
I compare this to the stories of the Maharal of Prague’s golem—a kind of Jewish mystical robot created by humans, in this case, to protect Jews from anti-Semites. Kabbalistic literature and the Talmud do talk about sages bringing new bodies to life. But these are always without souls because souls can only be created by God. Golems don’t have souls. Which is why they can’t speak; intelligent speech requires a soul.
Harry is magically protected by his mother’s love. Hogwarts is also protected by magic. Does Judaism offer such a concept of protection?
There are several examples in the Bible of good deeds rendering a protective and spiritual energy. For example, Joseph in Egypt resisted temptation, which gave the Jews the spiritual energy they needed to survive 400 years of slavery in Egypt. As another example, folklore says that the location of the temple in Judaism was chosen because of love between two brothers at that location. I couldn’t find an example where protection is on the person, only on places, but it’s a close analogy.
Is there a counterpart to the evil wizard Voldemort in Jewish literature?
In the Torah, evil is represented by Amalek, a descendant of Esau’s. When Jacob and Esau are born, the Torah says that they will eternally battle, with Jacob representing good and Esau (particularly Amalek) representing evil. But one difference is that in the Bible the battle isn’t won through fighting, the battle is won through moral behavior.
Are there any similarities between the good Jews in the Torah and the good wizards in Harry Potter?
In both, things are happening to bring about good in the world. In the Harry Potter series there is a predestined battle between good and evil, and in Biblical thought the whole world is trying to lead to peace in the messianic world.
Are there any whomping willows in Jewish literature?
There’s a story in the Zohar about Abraham having a magical tree that would only give shade to people who believed in monotheism. That tree’s shade was a reward and it was also a signal for Abraham about whom he had to teach about monotheism. If anyone had sun in his eyes, he could tell that person needed more explanations about G-d. This tree was much more benign than the Whomping Willow. It was carrying out God’s plan for the world, not its own magical whims or desires.
Can amulets protect you?
Even in the Harry Potter books, it’s not clear whether amulets really protect people. Similarly, there were amulets in ancient Jewish literature, but sages disagree about whether to believe in them. Rambam doesn’t believe in them, but the Shulchan Aruch seems to. To my knowledge, they are always similar to the mezuah, containing a parchment with a Biblical portion on it, not magical elements or spices. So they don’t give magical protection, they channel Divine protection.
Does everything happen for a reason?
In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling is constantly bringing back old, seemingly unimportant details as being significant later. For example, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, there are a lot of scenes with a beetle flying around. It turns out to be a method a reporter used to spy on Harry, but all those scenes seem irrelevant until the end. In the Torah, the story of Joseph being sold to be a slave in Egypt shows us the Jewish concept that everything that happens is for a greater reason that we won’t know about until later. Joseph’s brothers thought they were selling him to punish him, but Joseph knew that it was for a Divine purpose. Similarly, in the Purim story, everyone thought that Esther became queen because of a natural sequence of events, but Mordechai knew that it happened so that she could save the Jews from Haman’s plot.
Dumbledore is always saying that the wizards need to be unified to fight Voldemort…
The need for unity in opposition for evil is another theme in the Harry Potter series. There is no end to Jewish literature discussing the need for Jews to be united. The destruction of the temple is discussed as a divine punishment for hatred between Jews. The Talmud says that lack of unity between Jews is worse than the three cardinal sins. In the Harry Potter books, all the wizards have to unite to oppose the evil of Voldemort. In the Torah, we need to unify to bring the world to a state of peace and knowledge of G-d.