Dear Rabbi and Susan,
I’m an orthodox Jewish homeschool mom of five and I love your show! Our homeschool curriculum focuses heavily on reading good literature and my kids have just reached the age where Edward Eager’s tales of magic, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as many others in the fantasy genre are on many recommended reading lists.
I’m unsure of how to approach the element of magic in children’s stories. The Torah forbids witchcraft, so should stories that feature magic be anathema to my Torah-observant kids?
Thanks for the great materials you produce. I consider them part of my continuing education. 🙂
We’re delighted that you watch our show and that you are homeschooling. As you may know, we homeschooled for many years and a number of our grandchildren are now being homeschooled as well.
Some of our children were the intended audience age when the first Harry Potter book came out. This book became a major topic of discussion among both the Jewish and Christian homeschoolers we knew. More than any other topic we can think of, the families we knew (and respected) were all over the map on this one.
Approaches ranged from an absolute ban on reading any sort of fantasy to those who couldn’t see any problem whatsoever with the genre. Our view was somewhere in the middle. We made a judgment call and will share some of our considerations, but we would like to emphasize that each child and his surroundings need to be taken into account. Unlike certain questions, such as whether a child should call a parent by his first name where the answer is clear cut (absolutely not!), this question has a lot of room for knowing an individual child, the specific book, subjectivity and praying for Godly wisdom.
When they were young, our children, like many others, delighted in books featuring talking animals who dressed and behaved like people. As parents we saw these books as imaginative, not sinister. Part of the developing toddler sense of humor was understanding that a moose would not go into a store to buy candy and a duck would not toss a salad for a dinner party.
We saw Edward Eager’s books like Half-Magic or The Enchanted Castle by Edith Nesbit as more sophisticated versions of the same idea. They are incredibly clever stories of things that can never happen; imaginative rather than sinister.
As children grow, it is important for them to understand what the Bible is warning about and forbidding one to dabble in. There are spiritual forces in the world that we cannot easily understand and that nonetheless can do great harm. For example, the focused wishing of evil on someone, for example via a voodoo doll, can have an effect. It is forbidden. In the same way, some people are capable of communing with the dead. This is possible – and forbidden. Statues coming to life under a full moon or finding a coin that allows you to move backwards in history are not real options, so we didn’t see reading about them as problematic.
Is Harry Potter, a brilliant book and not surprisingly a best-seller, different in a real way to the above books or even to the TV show Bewitched? We don’t know. Many times cultural influences are incredibly subtle.Our second-hand understanding is that the Harry Potter books became darker as the series went along. (Our children were older at that point and I think their interest waned, but anyway they were then at an age to make their own decisions.) We know parents who explained to their children that while they allowed the early books into their homes, they would not let in the later ones.
Realistically, each family needs to decide where certain lines are drawn as well as knowing the point at which forbidding something makes it intensely desirable. There are only so many issues where one can take a stand unless one moves to a community with only like-minded people and shuts out the outside world.
What we would strongly recommend is forging a relationship with your children that has them respecting and caring what you think. That means explaining your views and listening to theirs. It also means taking the time to read and watch the things to which they are being exposed and doing so with a keen eye. You and they need to develop the ability to see the message behind the message and hone an awareness of what is shaping morals and ideas. Dinnertime conversations are priceless.
We are sure you are already aware of this, but cultural messages are constantly being sent by all sorts of literature. You are raising only one area of concern but parent-child interactions, male-female relationships, views of America and attitudes to money are only four areas where values can be easily absorbed through reading. For example, we rejected Berenstain Bear books for our children because the father was often portrayed as a genial buffoon whose wife and children were clearly smarter and more accomplished than he was.
You need to be clear on what your family values are. While we appreciated C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series and most of our Christian friends loved the books, we personally chose not to share those with our children. Narnia is a Christian parable and as such, no matter how lovely a story, it wasn’t meant for our Jewish family. One of our friends, whose children grew up to be just as committed Jews as our children, made the decision to let her children read the Narnia series. Each parent should take the responsibility to make those decisions herself.
Our homeschooling was very literature based and we have wonderful memories of read-aloud sessions with teenagers perfectly capable of reading to themselves. We hope you create many wonderful memories of your own.
Enjoy these years,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin