Morality for Muggles: Ethics in the Bible and the World of Harry Potter
By Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg
Ktav Publishing House
New Jersey, 2011
Reviewed by Jack Abramowitz
A number of years ago, when there were still only five books in the Harry Potter series, I wrote an article entitled “Harry Potter Is Jewish,” using the situations in the books as metaphors for Jewish concepts. The idea was to introduce teens to authentic Jewish ideas by using a vehicle with which they were already familiar. I was surprised at the attention this innocuous little piece attracted, both positive and negative—and not only among Jews! The article was reprinted on both Catholic and Islamic web sites, and I was interviewed on an Ask the Pastor show on Canadian radio.
In a discussion on an educators’ forum, one contributor, Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg, agreed with my methodology, having tread that ground quite thoroughly through classes, clubs and essay contests of his own. He posted that “many values straight out of Pirkei Avot can be fortified through reference to this series of novels that our kids are reading anyway.” Rabbi Rosenberg, rav of Congregation Etz Chaim in Kew Gardens Hills in Queens, New York and a Judaic studies instructor at SAR Academy, a yeshivah in Riverdale, has now collected his own Jewish observations on the world of Harry Potter, thoroughly tested over the years in his classroom, in a book entitled Morality for Muggles. (“Muggles,” in Potter-speak, refers to plain old humans such as you and me.)
In his posting on the educators’ forum, Rabbi Rosenberg made such astute observations as “Harry seeing his parents in the Mirror of Erised, but being unable to reach them, is like Moshe Rabbenu [sic] seeing the Promised Land that he will never enter” and “Sirius Black is a positive character, whose name implies the opposite of his nature. Lavan is a negative character, despite the positive implication of his name.” Such relevant connections are made throughout the book, though far more fully developed.
One example of his methodology involves a comparison of Harry (protagonist of the series that bears his name) and Moshe (foremost prophet and leader of the Jewish people) vis-à-vis their closest partners and, in one instance, jealousy on the part of those colleagues.
Like Harry’s friends Ron and Hermione, Moshe’s siblings Miriam and Aharon each contributed something unique to the partnership (as demonstrated through the well, the manna and the protective clouds for which they were separately responsible). In the book Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Ron and Hermione experience jealousy over Harry’s sudden prominence as a tournament champion. In the Chumash, Miriam and Aharon speak resentfully of Moshe’s role as preeminent prophet. In each case lessons are learned and harmony is restored. Students’ familiarity with such dynamics from Harry Potter can easily translate to a more in-depth understanding of the interpersonal relationships in the Chumash.
The major sections of the book are “The Individual,” “Relationships,” “Society” and “What Really Matters.” Each of these sections includes a number of appropriate subcategories. (“Relationships,” for example, is further broken down into “Friendship,” “Parents and Children” and “Teachers and Students.”) There is also a fifth section, really more of an appendix, entitled “Kids Write about Harry Potter,” where Rabbi Rosenberg’s students share what they have learned when it comes to extracting relevant ethical lessons from the world of Harry Potter. One fifth-grader, for example, contrasts the way in which the antagonists in Harry Potter disparage “mudbloods” (wizards “tainted” by non-magical ancestors) with the way the Torah commands us to embrace converts. This section of the book is perhaps not why most readers picked up the book, but it retains a certain charm and provides a sense of gratification that the author’s methodology has borne fruit.
Do not be misled into thinking that all Morality for Muggles (for which there is a teacher’s guide) does is equate “A” from Harry Potter with “B” from the realm of Torah. Rabbi Rosenberg is quick to contrast and to point out when ideas are dissimilar or incongruous with the Jewish perspective. For example, he makes it quite clear that the method of “prophecy” practiced by Sybill Trelawney (professor of divination at Hogwarts) is not the same as that practiced by such nevi’im as Yeshayah and Yirmiyahu. Trelawney’s method is more comparable to being born a radio receiver than to achieving the spiritual levels that we understand our prophets to have attained. Rabbi Rosenberg is careful to point out such significant differences before exploring the areas of commonality.
My own experiences tell me that this book is not going to be everyone’s cup of butterbeer. (For the uninitiated, that’s the beverage of choice for students in the Harry Potter series.) Some may not approve of the Harry Potter books for their children, while others may bristle at using fantasy to teach far loftier Torah concepts. That’s okay; that’s what makes hippogriffs race. But for children of all ages who love Harry Potter, Morality for Muggles is a painless way of introducing authentic Jewish ethos, or of merely pointing out connections that one may have missed.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah content editor for the OU (www.outorah.org). He is the author of four books including The Nach Yomi Companion and the Tzniyus Book.