Shay Adler – Harry Potter in the Jewish Wisdom’s Perspective

Today we have a very special Guest Post from scholar of the Talmud Shay Adler. This article has been enthusiastically previewed by “Dean of Harry Potter Scholars” – John Granger and the author of Snape the Definitive Guide – Lorrie Kim. I include John’s review down below and hope you will join Lorrie in joining the conversation in the comments. In the mean time, please enjoy Harry Potter in the Jewish Wisdom’s Perspective:

 

Harry Potter in the Jewish Wisdom’s Perspective

There’s a quote which had been said by Jewish sages thousands of years ago: “The air of the Land of Israel makes one wise” and later on, they added that there is no wisdom such as the Land of Israel’s. Interestingly , they wrote in the same page of the Talmud about Egypt that ten parts of witchcraft fell upon the world – nine had been given to Egypt and the rest gone to the whole world (Masekhet Kiddushin, Chapter 2, page 49) and it’s quite amusing while discussing Harry Potter. The innovation of the Jewish wisdom to the world was that for the first time in history, the discussion of conscience, and the nations’ fate, became the most prominent part of a nation’s philosophy; it was not just another aspect the Jewish sages had discussed about, but it was its main aim and it has led to the creation of human universal conscience; a conscience which has been derived from the rule of nature itself, and according to the Jewish folklore has been granted to us as part of G-d’s rule on this world.

The discussion on conscience and morals is, therefore, the main thing about Jewish wisdom; and this is exactly what Harry Potter books are all about: the battle between evil and good; the occupation in moral conflicts, and the question whether a man-made magic can overcome the rules of conscience as we know them. From this, I’d like to take the aim of one of the Harry Potter books’ most important message: the power of love. Every person who had read the whole series would most probably remember the Second Chapter of the Half-Blood Prince: when Narcissa and Bellatrix came to Spinner’s End to meet with Professor Severus Snape with Narcissa’s hope and request.

This chapter, in a naked eye, might be seen as unrelated to the plot itself; allegedly, J.K. Rowling could have skipped writing it, because it supposedly didn’t have any real context to do with the whole ongoing plot. What’s beautiful amongst the Harry Potter books is, beyond all, their harmony: almost every detail is properly related to the general plot in one way or another, and there’s no detail which had been said in vain (e.g., Sirius Black is mentioned randomly in the first book when Hagrid said absentmindedly he took his motorbike and the whole 3rd book was later on about him). Incidentally, this thing is mutual with the Jewish scriptures: every detail, so Jewish Sages assume, is harmonically related to a greater plot. The question is therefore, where Narcissa’s and Bellatrix’s visit in Spinner’s End had something to do with the whole plot to get the honour of a whole chapter?

I’m going to make a strong statement now and to say that this, I believe, is the most important chapter of the whole series. In this chapter, Narcissa and Bellatrix came to Professor Snape’s place with Narcissa’s desperate request, that he will save Draco, her son, from a horrible fate waiting for him. Bellatrix had firmly tried to expose Severus’s true loyalty, and interrogated him aggressively, until she ultimately became silent though unsatisfied. When Narcissa however, asked Professor Snape to protect her son, and to make the unbreakable vow his expression, the book says, remained blank and unreadable, and to Bellatrix’s surprise he knew about Lord Voldemort’s plan and agreed to the vow.

In this moment, it had been revealed how Professor Snape had managed to overcome Lord Voldemort’s powers: it was his love for Lily that was stronger than Voldemort’s magic. Severus saw Lily’s grief in Narcissa’s eyes whilst she had asked him to protect her son; he knew how much Lily was ready to sacrifice in order to save her son, and although Lord Voldemort agreed to spare her life and to comply with Severus’s request she didn’t take the offer. That he couldn’t bear; he couldn’t see another woman suffering the same thing again. This is the reason I believe why he agreed to Narcissa’s request. Thus, it was Narcissa, who represented the power of love, and not Bellatrix, who represented Lord Voldemort’s beliefs, who revealed Professor Snape’s true nature, for the first time, after being hugely vague in all the previous books regarding his true loyalties. The whole 6th book surrounding, indirectly though, the relationship of Lily and Severus, and to my comprehension I think the Half Blood’s potions book included Lily’s notes which she shared with Severus for his amazement from her talent. I think that Slughorn’s remarks on Harry’s seeming talent, with his comparison to his mother Lily, were a direct hint for the reader that he could only understand after the whole picture had been disclosed for him in the 7th book. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Professor Snape gave his memories to Harry right before his death, we learn that Dumbledore was utterly shocked that Snape had never stopped loving Lily, despite the long time that had gone by, to Dumbledore’s astonishment when he asked ‘after all this time?’ and Snape replied ‘always’. In those memories, by the way, we discover that initially Dumbledore didn’t take for granted that he could trust Snape, so when he asked him ‘and what will you give me in return?’ it was not for no reason; it was for making a Binding Magical Contract which Dumbledore had just made Snape sign.

In the Talmud, there is a very interesting referral to this in the Mishna, Masechet Avot:

And the translation is this –

 

The beautiful part of this quote is that Israel’s sages chose a non-romantic love to examine what is an unconditional love; The love of David and Jonathan, which did not include any sexual intercourse between the pair, unlike that to which people assume that love should have, or they believe that love and sexual relationship go together (though, some LGBT thinkers claim that it was indeed a sexual relationship but from the way I comprehend this, I think it is not). This quote is strongly exemplified within the love of Snape and Lily, and with Snape’s answer to Dumbledore – ‘Always’, because his love for Lily never ceased after all this time (and once again even Dumbledore was shocked by this). J. K. Rowling has even mentioned once that if Snape wasn’t lured by Dark Magic Lily might have fallen in love with him romantically. This is why I believe this is the most important chapter in the book, because I strongly believe that this is the most important message of this book; the ultimate power of love. It was crucial in defeating Tom Riddle’s monster.

Shay Adler – Harry Potter in the Jewish Wisdom’s Perspective

I think your interpretation has real merit. It posits that the opening of the sixth Harry Potter novel and the ending of Deathly Hallows with all its revelations about Severus and Lily act as brackets that point to and reveal the meaning of the center, in this case, the death of Dumbledore on the Astronomy Tower, Severus’ act of obedience to his friend and fidelity to Lily. That confirms Rowling’s suggestion that the last two books are best read together and the theme throughout the books about the power of love, specifically sacrificial, selfless love. Your interpretation advances Severus’ love for Lily as a supreme example, the foundation of the victory over the Dark Lord.

John Granger “Dean of Harry Potter Scholars”

Comments

  1. “In this moment, it had been revealed how Professor Snape had managed to overcome Lord Voldemort’s powers: it was his love for Lily that was stronger than Voldemort’s magic.”

    This reminds me of a text portion I read in the Muggles’ Guide to Harry Potter wikibook. The paragraph starts with:
    “Additionally, this chapter provides a subtle clue revealing how Snape is able to fool Voldemort, “possibly the greatest Legilimens the world has ever known”. As of now, Snape’s true allegiance is still unknown to the first time reader, and Rowling hides a tiny but significant clue to alert us to Snape’s loyalties and methods. As Harry buries Dobby, overcome with grief and gratitude for Dobby’s sacrifice, he suddenly realizes that he can shut out Voldemort’s thoughts at will, and deny the prickling of his scar.”
    https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Muggles%27_Guide_to_Harry_Potter/Books/Deathly_Hallows/Chapter_24

    And this is the text from the chapter ‘The Wandmaker’ in Deathly Hallows:
    “His scar burned, but he was master of the pain, he felt it, yet
    was apart from it. He had learned control at last, learned to shut
    his mind to Voldemort, the very thing Dumbledore had wanted
    him to learn from Snape. Just as Voldemort had not been able to
    possess Harry while Harry was consumed with grief for Sirius, so his
    thoughts could not penetrate Harry now while he mourned Dobby.
    Grief, it seemed, drove Voldemort out . . . though Dumbledore, of
    course, would have said that it was love.”

    There are some typos in this article:
    Narcisa – Narcissa

  2. Nick Jeffery says

    Thanks for catching the typos Nick! Corrected.

  3. Shay, I very much agree with your interpretation that Snape’s love for Lily is a love that is not conditional. This is why it is just as strong, 15 years after Lily’s death. As we can see from Dumbledore’s response, it is rare and surprising for anybody to be able to sustain love this way, over such a long time. I believe part of Dumbledore’s tearful response is that he is moved to find that Snape has been able to achieve such a thing. When Snape first came to Dumbledore, after he told Voldemort the prophecy, he hadn’t honored his love for Lily enough to turn away from the Death Eaters for her sake. It was not certain that Snape could understand Dumbledore’s challenge and learn to do difficult deeds in honor of his love for Lily. To see, after all this time, that Snape still took Dumbledore’s challenge seriously and it was worth Dumbledore’s effort as a teacher and mentor to put faith in Snape — that must have been incredibly emotional for Dumbledore to witness.

    Many readers have what is, in my opinion, a grave misinterpretation. They believe that Snape is “obsessed” with Lily and clung to her memory in a fantasy that he could somehow still have her love. That would be the opposite of the kind of unconditional love that you mentioned. It would be hoping for something from someone who is dead and cannot possibly reciprocate anymore; it makes no sense. Your reading makes more sense of the series to me.

  4. Shay, thank you for sharing that quote from the Talmud,”… and what love is unconditional? The love of David and Jonathan.” You are right, it is beautiful, and even more so for not being romantic. I read 1 Samuel 17-18 today and was struck by the literal translation of 1 Sam.18:1, “the life of Jonathan was bound to the life of David.” The use of the word “bound” reminds me of the way Narcissa’s and Snape’s hands were bound to each other as Snape made the Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa. You point out how as Snape agreed to Narcissa’s request, his expression remained blank and unreadable, and I agree with you that it was his love for Lily that gave him the power to keep his expression unreadable to the likes of Bellatrix and Voldemort. Snape could make that vow with a desperate mother while focussed on the love he carried for another mother, the woman he loved and lost, and that love was his secret weapon. Neither that vow nor the covenant between Jonathan and David were romantic, but both bore witness to the power of love.

    I was also reminded of the love Dobby has for Harry when later in HBP he makes his own version of a vow, “Dobby is a free house-elf and he can obey anyone he likes and Dobby will do whatever Harry Potter wants him to do!” There’s nothing romantic in his love either, but his love is intensely loyal and sacrificial. As Nick D pointed out already, Harry realized as he buried Dobby that his grief made his mind impenetrable to Voldemort.

    This brings me to the comment you made about Snape, that he couldn’t bear to “see another woman suffering the same thing again.” Snape suffered the loss of the woman he loved, but his love did not die with her but rather enabled him to help bring Voldemort down. He suffered the anguish of unrequited love and the remorse of having put his faith in the wrong person, but Snape seemed destined to suffer, not unlike the people in the land of Israel. Perhaps the extraordinary wisdom of the land of Israel comes, at least in part, from all its suffering.

  5. shay adler says

    Two small notes I’d like to add: firstly, just like we have an example for an unconditional love in the book (i.e. Lily and Snape) there’s an example for a conditional love: Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s. In their case, each of them was a vehicle to gain the other’s needs (with Dumbledore it was to leave his duty to care for his sick sister and for Grindelwald, it was a new friend in a foreign country). When both need ceased we all know what had happened in the end with their relationship. Secondly, the tragedy of Snape is becoming even stronger when we read that he had to live with wormtale, the one who was in charge for Snape’s tragedy. Imagine how difficult that should have been for him; what powers of restraint he should have had.

  6. I had a thought reading this that has never hit me before; When Snape answered Dumbledore “always”, I thought of Peta answering Katniss with “always” when she asked him to stay with her on the train because of her nightmares. I believe it is another example of unconditional love; Peta would love Katniss no matter her response to him. He was willing to sacrifice himself for her just as Snape was for Lily(and her son Harry). I’d never made that connection in my brain before reading this – so thanks!

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Thank you for this! What a lot of food for thought – and waking of an interest to reread the whole series with a close eye on Snape. The love of David and Jonathan is mutual. Snape loves without that wealth and support. What of bitterness? Can we see contours of Snape escaping bitterness? All Snape’s harshness and sarcasm – in general and toward Harry in particular: excellent disguise in effect, but how experienced by Snape? No mere indulgence, presumably, in his unembittered well-wishing. And what of the scope of that love of neighbor as well-wishing? Loving Draco, loving Harry. Loving Dumbledore – but what complexity of killing him in this: excellent disguise, but what more – misguided love, love horrified at carrying out the subterfuge?

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