Dan Ornstein: The Chamber Of Secrets | WAMC

Dan Ornstein: The Chamber Of Secrets

Dec 31, 2020

While everyone was going crazy over Harry Potter in the nineties, I never really got on that fandom train. I half-heartedly read the first two books, both of whose themes I barely recall.  Thus, I surprised myself when I recently started obsessing about the title of the second book: Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets. I went as far as consulting one of my children, as well as Wikipedia, to recall the book’s main theme.  In their second year at Hogwart’s, Harry and his friends investigate the opening of the chamber, which was created by Salazar Slytherin, a founder of the school and the namesake of Slytherin, the most racist and elitist of the school’s four houses.  The dark and forbidding chamber is occupied by the Basilisk, a fearsome serpent controlled by Slytherin’s leaders who threaten to use it to murder students at the school whose family pedigrees are not pure-blood wizard.

Given my lukewarm interest in the series, what got me fixating belatedly on this title of JK Rowling’s was its incidental precedent in ancient Jewish religious literature.  I’m being quite serious. Allow me to take you on my personal journey of seeming non-sequiturs, which I assure you will all make sense at the end of this essay. 

Jewish tradition tells us that in the ancient Jerusalem Temple there was a room known as the Chamber of Secrets.  Donors would go there to secretly make charitable donations and people from good families who had become impoverished would go there in secret to take the donations, to feed themselves and their loved ones.

It seems that this Chamber of Secrets served three purposes:  to ensure financial support for the economically poor of the community, to prevent the receiver, and the giver as well, from being embarrassed in the presence of the other person, and to mitigate the tendency of at least some donors to seek attention and accolades for their giving. Later Jewish law and tradition used the Chamber of Secrets as the basis for our laws of charitable giving, which demand that helping economically impoverished people should never compromise their dignity or privacy.

Certainly, the spirit of the Chamber of Secrets abounds today.  Those of us who seek to help the poor often prefer to do it anonymously.  Far from an exercise in callousness (“I’ll help those poor people as long as I don’t have to talk to them”), anonymous giving allows everyone to give and receive in a way that preserves people’s privacy, and thus their dignity.  The original Chamber of Secrets idea involved giving to the poor who were people of good families and backgrounds.  As I alluded to before, this is a likely reference to people who had lost their resources and were reduced to economic poverty.  Especially in these days of pandemic induced hunger, everyone and anyone who comes for food assistance is considered a person of good family and background who has been reduced to economic poverty.  All are unconditionally worthy of our help, and with no questions asked.

So, the spirit of the Chamber exists today, but can an actual Chamber of Secrets be found in our midst?  Yes.  One of my favorite go-to charities is located at the South End Children’s Café at 25 Warren Street, right here in Albany.  In addition to providing meals and other support to the city’s poorest kids and their families, the café has built two outdoor cupboards right at its doorstep. Anyone anytime can drive or walk up to the cupboards and anonymously drop off non-perishable food items; anyone anytime can drive or walk up to the cupboards and take items, no questions asked.

Imagine that those two outdoor cupboards are our Chamber of Secrets, just like the chamber in the ancient holy Temple. Every time we leave food there, we are, as it were, returning ourselves to that holy place: our simplest act of anonymous kindness at that moment is an opportunity to encounter the God of justice and mercy on a low-key, nondescript street in Albany.

Yet those humble cupboards are so much more, especially in light of our  recent celebration of Hanukkah, and so many other festivals of light at this time of year.  JK Rowling’s Chamber of Secrets contains the darkest secret of lurking evil which threatens to swallow up innocent people in its darkness.  Our Chamber of Secrets allows us to give and receive food under the dark cover of blessed anonymity.  This then allows all of us to do what the lights of Hanukkah and other winter light holidays remind us to do, especially at the darkest, coldest time of the year:  bring more and more light into the world by seeing to it that no one goes hungry and everyone has enough to eat.  

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel:  A Jewish Courtroom Drama (Jewish Publication Society, 2020).  An earlier version of this essay can be found at the Times of Israel.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY.  He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)

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