July 21, 2011
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.