Wednesday, August 01, 2007
Harry Potter's Fabulous Jewish Monsters
From the front page of this week's The Jewish Press (link):
Harry Potter's Fabulous Jewish Monsters
By: Rabbi Natan Slifkin
The fabulous world of Harry Potter, so prominent in the news right now, may seem very far removed from Judaism. After all, magic, the central feature of the series, is prohibited by the Torah. But some of the most striking inhabitants of Harry’s world are very much part of Torah. Many of the strange beasts that Harry encounters, including mermaids, giants, centaurs and dragons, were described in the Talmud and Midrash long before J.K. Rowling ever took up her pen.
Harry’s headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, owns a magical phoenix, an immortal bird that is continually reborn in fire. The phoenix is also described in several instances in the Talmud and Midrash, having received its gift of immortality as a result of not eating from the Etz Ha-Da’at (Tree of Knowledge) in the Garden of Eden. Hogwarts, the school where Harry is a pupil, houses a lake inhabited by mermen and mermaids. Mermaids are also mentioned in the Midrash, and Rashi likewise discusses people who are half man, half fish.
The Hogwarts grounds are home to a forest inhabited by centaurs, men with the legs of horses. According to the Midrash, the descendants of Enosh turned into centaurs.
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry’s teacher Hagrid makes a bonfire in his "Care of Magical Creatures" class. Out of the bonfire emerge salamanders, which continue to survive in the fire and whose blood has extraordinary powers. The Gemara likewise attests that salamanders are generated from fire, and Rabbi Akiva expresses amazement at their ability to survive only in that environment. Hagrid himself is a half-giant, standing ten feet in height, while the giant Grawp measures twenty. The Gemara puts Moshe Rabbeinu and the Levites in between, at ten cubits (fifteen feet) in height, and describes Og of Bashan as being many hundreds of feet tall.
A few years ago, I published a book titled Mysterious Creatures, which explored conflicts between the Talmud and science in the context of strange animals described in Jewish tradition. While the book was of great interest to those struggling with conflicts between Torah and science, and aroused considerable controversy in some quarters, it turned out that those most passionate about the book were of a different group: Harry Potter readers. These teenagers were thrilled to discover that denizens of J.K. Rowling’s universe were a part of their own heritage.
This month, the sequel to Mysterious Creatures, titled Sacred Monsters, is being published. It includes an expanded discussion of all the beasts in Mysterious Creatures, as well as a host of new monsters from Jewish tradition: werewolves, centaurs, gigantic giants, diminutive dwarfs, the kraken, two-headed monsters, and the enigmatic shamir. Aside from the latter, all of these are classical monsters that are also found in the Harry Potter books.
While the publication of this book was not deliberately timed to coincide with the release of the latest and final Harry Potter book, the timing is indeed fortuitous. (Editor’s Note: Sacred Monsters can be purchased at Jewish bookstores and online at www.yasharbooks.com.)
The question many readers ask is quite understandable: Given the vast accumulated knowledge about zoology and the physiology of animals that declares the existence of such animals to be impossible, how are we to react to the claims in Jewish tradition that they do exist? In Sacred Monsters, I explore various techniques used by traditional commentaries in understanding these passages.
In examining the statements of the Talmud and Midrash that describe the fabulous monsters of Harry Potter, there are several potential approaches to be used. One is to assess whether the description of the creature has perhaps been misunderstood. The Mishnah, when discussing which types of images are idolatrous and must be destroyed, includes the image of a creature called the drakon. The etymological similarity of the name drakon to "dragon" may suggest that it is the animal being referred to. The Talmud Yerushalmi and various commentaries, however, explain the drakon to mean a snake, perhaps a cobra.
There are pesukim that have sometimes been interpreted as referring to fire-breathing, flying dragons. For example, Yeshayahu (30:6) addresses the Jewish kings who sought to form a military alliance with Egypt against Assyria:
They load animals to [travel to] the south; to the land of trouble and anguish, from where the young and the old lion come, the viper and the fiery flying serpent (saraf), they will carry their riches upon the backs of young asses, and their treasures upon the humps of camels, to a people who shall not profit them.
What is this saraf or fiery flying serpent? There are some species of snakes known as "flying snakes," but they leap out of trees and glide rather than fly. No snake actually flies, nor do any snakes breathe fire.
A possibility is that the verses describing fire-breathing, flying snakes have simply been mistranslated. The appellation "fiery snake," saraf, does not necessarily refer to a fire-breathing snake; it could refer to a poisonous snake, whose venom "burns" people. The description of these snakes "flying" likewise may not refer to that which is usually understood by the term but rather jumping, as Rashi explains: "They are a type of snake, and it is not that they possess wings with which to fly, but rather that they jump and leap very far."
Another approach to resolving these types of issues is that the seemingly inaccurate descriptions of the Talmud may actually be true, contrary to the views of most scientists. For example, there are ancient accounts of salamanders being born in fires and possessing the ability to live in fire. Aristotle wrote that "the Salamander shows that it is possible for some animal substances to exist in fire, for they say that fire is extinguished when this animal walks over it."
This understanding is also evident in Torah sources. Rashi, in his commentary to Sanhedrin 63b, explains the Gemara’s term salamandra as "a small creature that emerges from an oven that has had a fire burning in it for seven years. If a person smears himself with its blood, fire has no power over him...."
These accounts are usually dismissed as myth, yet studies of these amphibians actually confirm this remarkable ability. It seems that while the salamander does not thrive in fire, it does possess an ability to survive in fire for a limited time due to the secretion of an extraordinary fire-resistant foam. Nevertheless, this creature’s remarkable ability is casually dismissed by so many zoological works – a striking example of how one should not rush to dismiss the existence of a phenomenon.
Phoenix from the Flames
Still another approach, and the one that I use most prevalently in my books, is that when Chazal spoke of these creatures, they were speaking allegorically rather than describing actual existing beings.
The phoenix is a bird of ancient legend fabled for its extraordinary lifespan and method of regenerating itself by being consumed in fire, then growing anew from the ashes. It is this supposed power that makes a phoenix so useful as a pet to Dumbledore, the wizard headmaster in the Harry Potter books.
Descriptions of the phoenix can be found as far back as the writings of the ancient Egyptian historian Herodotus, in the fifth century BCE. The phoenix is also mentioned in our holy Jewish texts of the Talmud, Midrash, and arguably even in Tanach itself. The Midrash Bereishit Rabbah (19:5) says that in the Garden of Eden there was a bird that "[l]ives for a thousand years, and at the end of these thousand years, a fire emerges from its nest and incinerates it. A volume equivalent to an egg is left, which grows limbs and lives."
The phoenix is known as the chol or the avrashna, and grounds for its immortality are given in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 108b):Noach found the avrashna hiding in the hold of the Ark. He said to it, "Do you not want food?" It replied, "I saw that you were busy, and I didn’t want to trouble you." He said to it, "May it be His will that you never die, as it says, ‘I shall expire with my nest, and as the chol, I shall increase my days.’ "Rashi explains: "Avrashna – a type of bird, called chol in the language of Scripture, and it never dies." This certainly is reminiscent of the phoenix.
Do these Torah sources confirm the existence of such a naturally impossible creature as a phoenix that lives forever and regenerates itself in its old age? It seems that some of the commentaries understood it to be a real bird, as do some people today. But there were those who argued that it is intended to be a metaphor, as the Yefeh Toar explains:If the matters are not as their simple meaning, one can say that the chol bird alludes to the flight (te’ufas) of the intellect, which is never consumed, and it is called chol because of the proliferation of its insights, like the sand of the sea. And even though the animal aspect inside man, and the animalistic energy, are consumed, such that he dies, his intellect nevertheless still flies and attains new insights after his death for all eternity…This general approach of explaining passages allegorically was one that was adopted and brought to great heights by the Maharal and Ramchal.
The final approach to these types of issues takes a different line. There are authorities who state that although the sages of the Talmud were towering in their Torah scholarship, their knowledge of the natural world was not something received at Har Sinai. When it came to science, they accepted the reports of the experts of their era, which included information that we now know to be false.
For example, the Gemara describes a mouse that, instead of being born from parent mice, grows from dirt. This was a prevalent belief in the ancient world, but modern science firmly rejects the notion that a mouse could grow from dirt. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that since the naturalists of Talmudic times reported of such creatures, the sages of the Talmud had no reason not to rely on these experts. Acknowledging that no such mouse exists is no reason to view the Talmudic sages with any less respect.
It is this approach that was recently branded as heresy by numerous distinguished rabbinic authorities in the haredi world. Their position is that every single statement in the Talmud must be understood as either received from Sinai or otherwise divinely inspired, even statements about the natural world. Accordingly, they would state that if the Talmud describes a mouse that grows from dirt, such a creature must indeed exist.
Be that as it may, I am writing for those communities whose rabbinic leaders follow the position of Rambam, Rav Hirsch and scores of other Rishonim and Acharonim over the ages who took the rationalist approach that Chazal were not infallible on scientific matters.
The Talmud records a dispute between Chazal and non-Jewish scholars as to where the sun goes at night, with the Jewish sages taking the position that the sun goes behind the sky at night rather than on the other side of the planet. The Gemara itself cites Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi acknowledging that the non-Jewish sages appeared to be correct. While there were some authorities who reinterpreted this passage differently, the vast majority of authorities over the ages accepted its straightforward meaning – that the Jewish sages were not infallible on matters pertaining to science.
There are those who acknowledge that this rationalist approach has legitimate roots from a historical perspective but nevertheless oppose it on the grounds that it could be dangerous. They fear that if we teach our students that Chazal could err in some matters, they might start questioning Chazal on everything.
I do not discount these concerns, but it is clear to me that, for the communities to which my book is targeted, the dangers in the other direction are even greater. People who grow up in a world where there is exposure to modern science and popular culture might enjoy reading Rowling or Tolkien, but they know these monsters are fictitious. When they encounter statements in the Talmud or Midrash that run counter to their knowledge of the natural world, they are challenged in their faith. If their rabbinic leaders dismiss their questions or, worse, chastise them for asking, their difficulties become a crisis.
For such people, learning that the great Torah authorities of history did not see any need to accept Talmudic statements of science as being infallible is a great reassurance, and can be a lifeline for someone whose emunah is drowning. Precisely that approach which causes a crisis in rabbinic authority for some, rescues rabbinic authority for others.
Sacred Monsters is not a book for everyone. But for the person challenged by statements in the Gemara about Moshe Rabbeinu being fifteen feet tall; for the reader curious about the role of centaurs and werewolves in Jewish tradition; or for the teenager interested only in Harry Potter and who finds Torah boring, the book will prove most valuable.
In my utterly unbiased opinion, I can even assure the reader that Sacred Monsters is more worthy of purchase than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Although, judging by the print run of both books, apparently there are 11,998,000 people who disagree with that assessment.
Rabbi Natan Slifkin ( www.zootorah.com) writes and lectures on Judaism and the animal kingdom. His books include "Man and Beast: Our Relationship with Animals in Jewish Law and Thought" and "The Challenge of Creation: Judaism’s Encounter with Science, Cosmology & Evolution."