Tonight at 92YTribeca, I’m looking forward to hosting a Comic Book Shabbat dinner with Arie Kaplan. Arie is well-known writer and author within the comic book industry, and his fascinating book From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books traces the history of Jews’ involvement within the comic book industry starting from the early 1930s until today. In anticipation of Arie’s "animated" Shabbat, I started to think about what our classical Jewish sources teach us about heroism and where we can find the tradition of these concepts in comic books.
In the Pirke Avot, the rabbis of our Jewish tradition describe that a hero is someone who can master his thoughts, impulses and desires. They wrote, "Who is a hero? He who conquers his passions, as it is written in Proverbs 16:32, "He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city." Carrying these rabbinic ideas over to comic books, we find many comic book superheroes and characters wage internal battles to control the demons in their minds. For example, Batman, a.k.a Bruce Wayne, fights to conquer the dark thoughts in his mind and the nightmares from his tragic past. On the lighter side, Archie Andrews struggles to balance his affections for the noble Betty, who always has his best interests at heart, with the troublesome Veronica, who often mistreats and manipulates Archie to get her way.
Within both Jewish tradition and comic books, there comes a pivotal moment when every hero must step into his/her destiny and take charge of his/her obligation to help those in need. However, during these moments of change and transition, a hero oftentimes has to negotiate for the opportunity to save the day! Once these characters openly convey their heroic intentions, they find the courage to step into swift action when the time calls. For example, in the book of Samuel, David morphs from small-time shepherd boy to war hero after he defeats the giant Goliath. Similarly, in Megillat Esther, Queen Esther comes forward with the admission of her Jewish identity to the King. Esther’s confession, which comes just at the right moment, saves the entire Jewish nation from the perilous schemes of Haman. In the world of comic books, we find that superheroes such as Spiderman, Superman, and Batman initially run away from their heroic duties. However, after they complete honest conversations with loved ones and supporters (like Esther!), each character eventually acknowledges that they must utilize their powers for tikkun olam (repair of the world). Looking into other sources within our Jewish tradition and history, we see that Judaism also acknowledges the role of physical strength in determining a hero. In Tanakh and books outside of the Jewish canon, various men and women utilize their brawn as a means of sustaining themselves and protecting the Jewish people from various enemies. Jacob wrestles with an angel all night long and emerges with a new name, Israel, (the one who struggles with God), as a result of his physical prowess, Moses protects Zipporah and her sisters by fighting off some rival shepherds, and Yael (Judges) and Judith (Apocrypha) kill off enemies of the Jewish people in gory physical attacks.
On the historical side, scholar Todd Pressman writes in Muscular Judaism that physical strength was viewed as an essential part of creating a new Jewish people in the land of Israel during the creation of the Zionist movement. Envisioning military leaders Bar Kokba and the Maccabees as role models for the Jewish nation, Zionist leader Max Nordau believed that a heightened awareness of fitness could enable the Jewish people to lead a healthier life and safer existence. Within the world of comics, most of us are aware of the superhuman talents of strength utilized by a hero for a mission. These physical feats include flying, jumping, and the ability to render oneself invisible. As the history of our Torah and Jewish sources teaches us, we need not leave all of the superhero fun to the creations on comic book pages. Every day, each of us is given the opportunity to save the day by using our unique superpowers to make the world a better place. We can use our mental abilities and education to help tutor someone who would not be able to afford these services, verbal abilities to cheer up a sad friend or family member, and physical abilities to lend a helping hand in the Special Olympics. During this Shabbat, let’s summon the hero inside of all of us. May we take an accounting of individuals and communities in need of our help and support, and pitch in our efforts and energies as necessary to make the world a kinder and happier place.
Hayley Siegel is the Rabbinic Intern at 92YTribeca