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J.K. Rowling's fictional series on child wizard Harry Potter - which has been a monumental success among most Israeli children but has not been accepted as suitable reading material in the haredi community - would "not be regarded as pagan worship" by Maimonides, according to an Israeli father-and-daughter research team.
Prof. Menahem Kellner of the University of Haifa's department of Jewish history and thought, and his daughter Rivka Kellner, who is a doctoral candidate in literature at Bar-Ilan University, prepared their joint paper, "The Magic of Science and the Science of Magic: Harry Potter and Maimonides," for this week's University of Haifa conference on "Expressions of Science - Scientific and Literary Journey with Jules Verne."
The conference, sponsored by UNESCO in conjunction with the university's Hecht Museum, the Haifa Science Museum and the city's Gordon College of Education, ends Wednesday.
According to the Kellners, many generations of researchers deliberated on how to define magic. Much attention had been paid to distinguishing between magic and science on the one hand, and between magic and religion on the other. They explained that Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish sage, philosopher and physician known as the Rambam, rejected the kind of magic that was supernatural and could not be explained. He saw it as competing with religion.
The version of magic used by Rowling's Harry Potter, however, was different, they said. This magic was similar to normal science, and it was explainable - whether we understand it or not.
To demonstrate this, the researchers cited the Potter books' Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The fictional school, they contend, taught magic in a "scientific" way, and the use of magic in the world of Harry Potter depended on study and training as well as on the talent of the performer. It is, therefore, something with an explanation.
"Nothing in Harry Potter's world is based on anything that is in principle impossible to know," according to the Kellners. "The magic of that world is not supernatural. It is based on aspects of the natural universe of which we humans are simply unaware. There are no occult properties or forces beyond investigation. In principle, there is an explanation for everything, even if Albus Dumbledore [headmaster of the Hogwarts School] himself doesn't always know what it is."
For the Kellners, it was also most important that Harry's magical world was thoroughly secular. Unlike the magic condemned by Maimonides, the magic in Rowling's world did not lead to idolatry or paganism.
"It ignores astrology almost entirely. It does not constitute a rival to religion, and it certainly doesn't propose to be an alternative to religion. In fact, the books almost totally ignore religion."
The Kellners contrasted the Harry Potter books with another contemporary craze, C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, which connects its magic to Christianity.
In addition to the Kellners' lecture, the Jules Verne conference includes researchers and experts who examine perspectives of methods of science, scientists and subjects like technology, advancement, and space and time representations in different frameworks for children and youth.
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