For many students I meet on campus today, Torah feels distant from their lived experience. Its structure resembles nothing of what they normally read, and the stories it offers feel distant from their everyday lives.
I always assumed that bringing life’s big questions to Jewish texts was key to opening Torah to my students. What I failed to understand was that for many of the young adults I work with, even though life’s big questions are a part of each of our lives, engagement with them can feel terrifying, out of reach, or even at times, an act of intellectual posturing, rather than an act of meaning making.
Just as much as students need a guide to help them experience the vitality of Torah, they need a guide to help them see their doorways into life’s big questions — doorways into the possibility that life can be transformational and not just transactional.
This spring, I had the opportunity to teach a course in the Great Works Seminar of the Drexel University Honors College. I knew I wanted this course to address the dual challenge of opening students to both Torah and life’s big questions, but I also knew that if I taught Torah directly, the only students who would register would be students already enthralled with Torah. This is where Harry Potter comes in.
Inspired by the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, I developed the Potter Seminar as a part crash course in hermeneutics and religious studies’ approaches to sacred text, and part secular exercise in a sacred reading group. I decided that by teaching Harry Potter with the same tools used to teach Torah, I might be able to help my students find both their doorways into engaging with life’s big questions and their doorways into religious and spiritual life.
Each week we read a section of the book and centered our reading around a theme — asserting that no matter the narrative, the text had something valuable to teach us.
We explored the role, method and power of midrash through analyzing fan fiction. We considered how the lessons we learned from each character shifted depending on whether we insisted on the importance of chronological reading or whether we were willing to make meaning beyond chronology. We analyzed plain meaning and allegorical meaning. We used hevruta and journaling practices adapted from mussar tradition. Students learned how to make “toasts” that drew learning and blessing from the text, modeled on basic insights about crafting divrei torah.
During the seminar, students spent 10 weeks exploring the polarities of selflessness and selfishness, questions of legacy and destiny, of friendship, power and privilege. They wrestled through how issues of race and sexuality are and aren’t tackled by their beloved Potter text. They realized that Fred and George Weasley have powerful lessons to teach about vulnerability, and Neville Longbottom is a guide to embracing the deepest meaning of bravery. The seminar helped students consider the value of categories like sanctity, spirituality and scripture in a world that extends beyond what anyone would typically think of as religious.
By teaching students to deploy Torah learning techniques in this way, they could easily see the “magic” that occurs when we engage in sacred reading. They could easily experience the power of reading not to understand the narrative, but to understand themselves.
Their engagement with the Potter text left them wanting more — they wanted to connect more deeply with each other as humans and think about their roles in the world differently. They wanted to find spaces where they could continue to reflect and grow and where they could have conversations that matter. This is where Potter leaves off, and only Torah and other sacred traditions go on.
I hope that other teachers of Torah will see in my experience the opportunity to reinvigorate our contemporary relationship with the sacred and consider the unexpected ways they can invite their students into welcoming the category of sanctity more deeply into their lives. Doing so will bring more lovers and learners of Torah into a world that sorely needs them. pjc
Rabbi Isabel de Koninck is the executive director and campus rabbi for Hillel at Drexel University in Philadelphia.