It’s important to acknowledge this right from the beginning: I love Batman. In fact, no one loves him more than I do. He and I have a history that goes back over four decades.
Since receiving semicha from Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan twenty years ago, I have been involved in various aspects of education – everything from teaching in yeshivot and seminaries in Israel to doing outreach work on college campuses to teaching police officers (Jews and non-Jews alike) about stress management using techniques ultimately derived from the Torah literature.
Different contexts, different audiences, different levels of Torah observance, different ages and backgrounds.
But there’s been one constant throughout (besides my wife’s support and patience) in my teaching style: my love for Batman and my use of the Batman mythology to illustrate and motivate many – perhaps most – of the Torah Truths I teach.
Increasingly, however, I barely recognize the character in the comics and movies they keep calling “Batman.” The Batman I know and love, the Batman who inspires me, represents steadfast commitment to principle, nobility of character, and altruistic benevolence. Long before the tragic shootings at the premiere of the newest Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises,” in Aurora, Colorado, I had experienced discomfort with the depiction of Batman in various media because it represents a falsification of his character.
That shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone who knows anything about Batman and his portrayal over the past couple of decades or if you know anything about human nature and the culture in which we live – a culture whose values and mindset are reflected in and expressed through its pop culture.
Since the mid-1980s there’s been a tug of war between two groups of comic book creators – a struggle for the very soul of the Batman character. Consider it a battle between the traditionalists and the reformers.
A brief introduction to the character for those not familiar with Batman:
Born to a life of wealth and leisure, eight-year-old Bruce Wayne was walking home from an evening at the movies with his wealthy philanthropist parents, Dr. Thomas and Martha Wayne, when the three were confronted by a gun-wielding hoodlum who stepped out of the shadows and demanded Martha’s jewelry. A brief struggle ensued, after which the criminal shot and killed both Thomas and Martha right before young Bruce’s eyes.
In an instant, the world the little boy had known was gone forever. Traumatized by his parents’ deaths, Bruce swore at their graveside to avenge their murders by dedicating the rest of his life to fighting crime. Propelled by his oath, Bruce devoted every waking moment of his formative years to developing his mind and body to unparalleled perfection. Reasoning that criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot, Bruce used the fear-inspiring image of a bat to design a costume that would strike fear into the hearts of evildoers.
By day, Bruce Wayne maintains an image of a bored, idle man of leisure. But that persona is little more than a mask for Bruce’s alter ego – Batman.
One of the comic book writers of the new school of thought describes the character thus:
“Batman…was the externalization of a psychologically dysfunctional man who worked out his rage and abandonment issues by becoming scary, in the process avenging his parents and bringing criminals to justice.”
That’s dark stuff. And definitely not the Batman I fell in love with as a child.
I don’t mean to suggest that the Batman I love is the campy hero of the 1960s TV show (though that was my first introduction to the character). In fact, there is a serious alternative to the “psychologically dysfunctional man” that writer described.
No, the Batman I love isn’t the dark, dysfunctional, broken, angry, principle-less character many comic book creators like to portray in these dark, dysfunctional, broken, angry, principle-less times in which we live. Their Batman vents “his rage and abandonment issues by becoming scary” and beating people up; fortunately, his actions are socially acceptable because the people he beats up are criminals.
The Batman I love – and whose example I invoke in my teaching – is the hero who responded to and triumphed over an experience of unspeakable tragedy and loss in childhood by creating a life of meaning and heroism through his relentless efforts to spare others the pain and loss he had experienced firsthand and knows so well. As a child of a Holocaust survivor who spent her childhood years fighting for survival and went on to create a family and life filled with meaning, compassion for others, and dedication to justice, it is a model with which I am very familiar.
About the Author: Rabbi Cary Friedman is the associate editor of OU Press and a consultant to the law enforcement community on matters of police stress. The author of five books, including “Wisdom from the Batcave: How to Live a Super Heroic Life,” and a popular scholar in residence, he formerly served as executive director of the Duke University Jewish Learning Experience; a chaplain at the federal prison in Butner, North Carolina (where he studied Torah with Jonathan Pollard weekly for four years); and a congregational rabbi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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