Arts & Culture

The Jewish Undertones of ‘The Mortal Instruments’ Series

Cassandra Clare’s popular books—though less so the new hit movie adaptation—are rife with Jewish themes Read More

By / August 21, 2013

Today readers around the world will be flocking en masse to theaters to see The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, an adaptation of the smashing book debut that made Jewish author Cassandra Clare famous.

City of Bones is a colorful, vibrant, swashbuckling flick that combines traditional tropes of magic, romance, and the battle for good vs. evil. It stars Clary Fray (Lily Collins, daughter of Phil), a red-headed 15-year-old who lives in New York and spends her nights with best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan), hanging out in a club called Pandemonium. When she witnesses a murder and is the only one who can see the killer, her identity is called into question, and she discovers she’s descended from a special warrior caste called Shadowhunters. She’s drawn into their world and realizes that she may be far more powerful than she ever imagined.

What makes City of Bones of particular interest to Jewish viewers is that The Mortal Instruments book series, upon which the movie is based, is wholly enmeshed with Judaism, both ancient lore and contemporary practice.

Take the Shadowhunters, the special warrior caste from which Clary finds out she is descended. In the novel, Clary is informed that Shadowhunters “are sometimes called the Nephilim…In the Bible they were the offspring of humans and angels” (Page 78). This is based on the verse in Genesis 6:4, which states that, “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them; the same were mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.”

Moreover, the tale of how the Shadowhunters were originally formed stars “the Angel Raziel, who mixed some of his own blood with the blood of men in a cup, and gave it to those men to drink” (Page 78). In Jewish tradition, an entire work is dedicated to Raziel, called Sefer Raziel HaMalach, the Book of Raziel the Angel. In Louis Ginzberg (and Henrietta Szold’s) masterpiece, Legends of the Jews, Raziel is described as having appeared to Adam, bearing a book in his hand. The angel inquires as to why Adam is so downhearted, explains that his plea of repentance has been accepted, and that he will teach the contents of the sacred book he bears to the first man. The book is described by Ginzberg and Szold as a work “out of which all things worth knowing can be learnt, and all mysteries, and it teaches also how to call upon the angels and make them appear before men, and answer all their questions.”

Nerdy, lovable, Dungeons & Dragons-playing Simon is Clary’s best friend. He also happens to be Jewish (though isn’t depicted as such in the film). Through a series of unfortunate events, he ends up turning into a vampire, at which point he jokes, “What freaks out Jewish vampires? Silver stars of David? Chopped liver? Checks for 18 dollars?” (Page 305). Jewish readers understood the reference to chai-the number 18, which signifies life—but many readers of the series were confused, which led to Cassandra Clare writing a special post on her Tumblr to clarify:

Simon is Jewish because I had literally never read a book with a Jewish vampire in it and I wanted there to be one. He’s Jewish because I’ve had tons of kids (and adults — Michelle Hodkin, who wrote The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer****, did a signing with me in Long Island and the first thing she said to me was that she was so glad Simon was Jewish) come up and be thrilled that a Jewish guy got to be a hot kickass immortal vampire, that Jews are not shut out of what is (like it or not) a massive mainstream cultural trend.

And lastly, Simon is Jewish because of all the characters, he is the most like me, and I am Jewish. Which is something I am guessing that whoever posted that about Simon did not know. The general assumption is that I am Christian because the general default assumption, from my Western readers, is that everyone is. I’m glad Simon is not.

Shadowhunter warriors Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) and Alec (Kevin Zegers), with whom Clary teams up, are dubbed parabatai, which Jace explains “means a pair of warriors who fight together—who are closer than brothers” (Page 87). The ritual of becoming parabatai is explained in a different companion series by Clare, The Infernal Devices. In The Infernal Devices: Clockwork Prince, Clare writes:

“The idea of parabatai comes from an old tale, the story of Jonathan and David. ‘And it came to pass…that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul…Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul.’ They were two warriors, and their souls were knit together by Heaven, and out of that Jonathan Shadowhunter took the idea of parabatai, and encoded the ceremony into the Law.” (Page 92)

The very words of the parabatai oath are adapted from the words Ruth speaks to Naomi. The oath appears in Clockwork Princess and reads:

Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee—for whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God. Where thou diest, I will die, and there will I be buried. The Angel do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me. (Page 326)

Readers of Clare’s works will find many more references to Judaism, including passages from Song of Songs, a reference to Joshua’s sword, Solomon’s ensorcerelling of the demon Asmodai and Mitzpeh.

In 2010, Michael Weingrad wondered why there was no Jewish Narnia. He asked why Jews do not write more fantasy literature, and suggested it might be because “Jews are passionately invested in modernity,” preferring history to otherworldliness. He also considered the impact of the Holocaust, and the concern that “classical fantasy must have made redemption seem too easy.” He then claimed that “Judaism has banished the magical and mythological elements necessary for fantasy” and that Judaism is a “science fiction religion” as opposed to Christianity, the “fantasy religion.”

While The Mortal Instruments and its prequel, The Infernal Devices, certainly do not purport to disguise theological underpinnings of Judaism with pleasant encounters with lions and fawns, they are certainly an important form of Jewish fantasy. The author who penned them identifies herself as Jewish, and chose to create a distinctly Jewish main character, upending notions of traditional vampires. Her work is littered with references to Tanakh, and contains many Kabbalistic and midrashic ideas as well. While Clare’s books do resonate with a teen audience, they are much more than just another bestselling fantasy series for young adults. They represent a distinctly modern rendering of Jewish fantasy, and that ought to make them, and hopefully the movies based on them, part of our community’s conversation.

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