How Can Orthodox Jews Read Harry Potter If Witchcraft Is Prohibited in the Torah?
Dear Jew in the City-
Harry Potter was just translated into Yiddish but isn’t witchcraft prohibited in the Torah? How is this book okay to read?
Why should it not be okay to read? Witchcraft is prohibited in the Torah, reading about witchcraft isn’t.
Along similar lines, murder is prohibited by the Torah; is it therefore prohibited to read Agatha Christie novels? Theft is prohibited by the Torah; is it prohibited to read the Hardy Boys? Eating shellfish is prohibited by the Torah; is it prohibited to read Alice in Wonderland because the Walrus and the Carpenter eat oysters? Could we even read the Bible, which describes people engaging in every form of illicit behavior from incest to cannibalism? Where would one draw the line?
Let’s take a quick look at the Torah’s prohibition against sorcery. There are actually a number of prohibitions addressing a variety of behaviors like divination, soothsaying and necromancy. The question is whether magic is real. There is an opinion that dark forces of sorcery do exist, practitioners accessing them through names of impurity and via other methods. I, however, favor the opinion of the Rambam that magic isn’t real and that what the Torah prohibits is tricking people into thinking that one has supernatural abilities. He writes (Avodas Kochavim 11:16) that all the prohibited forms of sorcery are tricks intended to deceive people; if a person believes that the magic prohibited by the Torah is real, then he’s a fool.
According to this understanding, even the magic attributed to Pharaoh’s sorcerers in Egypt or to the witch of Endor might just be trickery, the Torah just describing the appearance of things. This is not difficult to understand. If you went to a magic show and someone asked you what tricks the magician performed, you might reply, “Oh, the usual. He sawed a woman in half.” Of course you know that he did no such thing, you’re just describing the appearance. Similarly, when the Torah says, “Then Pharaoh summoned his wise men and sorcerers, and the magicians of Egypt duplicated the feat with their secret arts” (Exodus 7:11), it might just be describing the way things looked. (I say “might” because there are a variety of opinions on the matter, including “magic is real,” “all magic is false including that described in the Torah” and “all magic is false except for the magic described in the Torah.” Take your pick.)
You might ask, if magic is prohibited because it’s trickery, then how are birthday party magicians permitted? Rav Moshe Feinstein addresses this in Iggros Moshe (Yoreh Deah 4:13). There he explains that birthday party magicians aren’t trying to trick anyone. They don’t claim to have supernatural powers in order to mislead their audience, they’re just performing sleight of hand for entertainment purposes. It’s inconceivable, Rav Moshe wrote, that the Torah would prohibit a person demonstrating his natural abilities even if they far exceed those of the average person. As examples, he mentions Naftali and Shimson (Samson), who had speed and strength (respectively) far superior to other people, bordering on supernatural. Using these abilities was not seen as problematic.
This brings us back to Harry Potter. Is the magic in Harry Potter the same kind of sorcery prohibited by the Torah? After all, in the world of Harry Potter, there are wizards, muggles and squibs. In other words, you’re either born with the gift or you aren’t. Harry intuitively performed acts of magic before he even knew he was a wizard. Filch, as a squib, is incapable of performing magic. A muggle, no matter how hard he tries, will never be able to cast a spell. So is this the witchcraft prohibited by the Torah or is it the kind of God-given innate ability that we can’t expect one to refrain from using? I’ll let readers form their own opinions.
Many years ago, when there were only five Harry Potter books, I wrote an article entitled “Harry Potter is Jewish!” (The original is long gone but it’s referenced and reprinted multiple places on the web for those who care to look for it.) In it, I use the world of Harry Potter as a useful metaphor for Jewish concepts. Around the same time, someone else wrote an article decrying Harry Potter as antithetical to Jewish ideals. What amused me is that this person asked, “Why can’t kids read wholesome books, like Mary Poppins?” The logic of this eludes me as I fail to see how the world of Mary Poppins is any less steeped in magic than that of Harry Potter!
Lest you think that my opinions are colored by a love for Harry Potter, allow me to clarify that I have little to no interest in the franchise. I read all 14 original Oz books by L. Frank Baum (plus numerous sequels by other hands), all seven of C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books and all eight Mary Poppins books by P. L. Travers. I only read the second through the fifth Harry Potter books. When people ask me why I didn’t read the first and how I could stop before the series was completed, I reply that “My wife read the kids the first one; by the time the sixth came out, they were all old enough it to read it for themselves.”
Bottom line, I’m not sure that the characters in Harry Potter practice the same kind of magic that would be prohibited by the Torah if it were real and, even if they do, I don’t think that reading about prohibited things is itself prohibited. (If it were, how could we read the Torah?) But a person has the right not to read things that offend their sensibilities, as well as the responsibility to monitor what their children read. Even if it’s permitted to read Harry Potter, one is not obligated to do so. One has every right to refrain, especially if one thinks it’s bad chinuch (education) to glorify certain behaviors. This is also true when it comes to TV shows, movies, video games, web sites and other forms of media.
Of course, monitoring what one’s children watch and read, it’s important not to play “morality police” with others. If your tolerance level includes Mary Poppins but not Harry Potter, by all means let your kids read Mary Poppins and not Harry Potter. Just remember that somewhere there’s someone else who doesn’t approve of Mary Poppins, either. So treat Harry Potter readers as you would want to be treated.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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