Note: This blog post was partly inspired by this blog post from sententiaantiquae
If you have been on the internet at all in the past week, you may have seen that JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books tweeted some pretty transphobic things in the last week. Also, a large part of my undergraduate thesis was about the idea of authorship and making the point that we can get a lot out of a work without agreeing with or supporting the author of something (or even knowing who the author is, but we will get there in a minute).
Harry Potter got me through some of the worst times in my life. The books made me feel less alone at a time when I didn’t have anyone in real life to talk to. They taught me the power of love and they helped me to put my mental illness into words. The boggart helped me to deal with my anxiety and the dementor my depression. And most of all, this series brought me closer to my friends. From second grade to my first week of rabbinical school, I have made friends based on shared understanding of Harry Potter references, and that (along with the work of the HPA) is really what I am proud of. Honestly, I couldn’t care less about JK Rowling. Once she put her writing into the world, it is ours. It’s real for us.
I’ve worked hard to detach the author from the work when it comes to Harry Potter. After all, I still consider myself a classicist, and so much of classical text (including Homeric text) is without author and can still guide us, much in the same way that the bible guides others. Narrative doesn’t need a source to be powerful. In fact, assigning authorship (or too closely connecting a work with its author) can actually pose problems because it limits the interpretation, and beauty only arises when we don’t do that.
So what does any of this have to do with the documentary hypothesis? For those of you who aren’t completely saturated in the Jewish studies world, the documentary hypothesis is a theory of the origin of the first five books of the Bible. It argues that there were originally four separate texts that were then synthesized to create the Hebrew Bible. When I bring up this theory, some Jews like to argue that if one looks at the Bible in this historical-critical way, it loses it’s meaning but, this is not true. Looking at the Bible through how it has been passed down through religious people from generation to generation is beautiful. Examining how it reflects the ideas of the time that it was composed in is fascinating. Watching how various people interpreted the original text is mesmerizing. The narrative means something. It is alive, just like Harry Potter is.
We don’t have to care about authorship in order to value the communities that these books have created for us. The work that the Religious Action Center and the Harry Potter Alliance do is not negated by conflicts over biblical authorship or the insensitivity of a British billionaire. It’s still a part of who we are, and we can still take values and lessons from these texts.