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.
Not to make more of this than it deserves, but there’s a lesson here. The way you see Batman provides a lot of insight into how you see life, and especially your understanding of the human soul and its capabilities to transcend and accomplish. In all things in life, our perception is determined by the smallness or largeness of our own soul. We see things not the way they are but rather the way we are.
The more cynical writers claim no one could experience that kind of trauma and not succumb to the rage, pain, and loneliness. That tells you more about them than perhaps they would want you to know. It gives you insight into their understanding of the human soul and its limitations. This darkening of the character – the attribution to him of motives far less than heroic – reflects and, in turn, fuels the general darkening and increasing disillusionment that pervades and poisons our society.
I might have even agreed with them if not for the fact that I know my mom, as well as all those survivors who filled our house when I was a child. They were people who endured unspeakable tragedy and witnessed unparalleled wickedness, and responded by refusing to give up. People who triumphed over adversity and evil by building new lives and families, living lives of meaning and integrity, affirming the values of kindness and justice and compassion. They carried around a lot of sadness with them, make no mistake about that. But they never succumbed to the darkness – who could have blamed them if they had? – as they created lives of purpose and holiness.
As Torah Jews, we are familiar with this model. We’ve seen it too often in our people’s long history. The world has been remarkably creative in dreaming up ways to oppress, torture, vilify, and kill us, and we repay good for bad, contributing to every society in which we live and creating a culture that affirms life. We’ve never succumbed to the darkness or given in to our “rage and abandonment issues.”
The essence of the Batman mythology is about turning tragedy into triumph. We, Am Yisrael, have been doing that for millennia.
It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to propose that Batman could serve as a mashal(parable) of the Jewish people. He was certainly the vehicle with which I, as a Holocaust survivor’s child with my own vicarious traumatic “hand me downs,” processed my mother’s Holocaust experiences.
* * * * *
The Batman comic books I read as a child provided me with the framework within which I could wrestle with notions like understanding God’s Providence, dealing with adversity, building a life of meaning, and recognizing the deep-seated desire and need in every person to be heroic. As I grew older I encountered these truths again in my Torah studies – they were, of course, much deeper and subtler and holier – but my first exposure to them came from Batman.
In Torah learning, it’s always important to identify the nafka mina – the practical differences that exist – between two competing halachic (legal) or hashkafic (philosophical) opinions. We can ask the same question here: What is the nafka mina between these two competing conceptions of Batman?
I can identify a big one. Their Batman isn’t all that different from the bad guys he fights. Fortunately, he fights on the side of law and order – at some point in time he made the decision to vent his fury on this side of that line – whereas his foes, also brutal and fury-filled, operate on the other side. But there isn’t much difference. His “war on crime” is little more than a convenient excuse for this “psychologically dysfunctional” man’s scary” “externalization” of “his rage and abandonment issues.” Luckily and conveniently, it happened to result in his avenging his parents and bringing criminals to justice.
Watching this ersatz Batman’s battles with the foes he fights, you almost have the feeling you’re watching a battle between two opposing athletes or sports teams. Sports competitions aren’t generally categorized or perceived as battles between good and evil; they’re neutral contests of skill between rival teams or participants. At the forefront of this “dark” Batman’s battles is the glorification of the violence itself; relegated way to the background, such that the lesson is obscured or lost, is the notion of a battle between good and evil. Gadgets and fighting prowess take center stage, and principle and integrity get lost in the shuffle.
In this climate, when that’s the image of heroism (read: non-heroism) we’re offered, it’s not that surprising to watch a young man walk into a theater with all his gadgets and glory in the violence. After all, he’s just venting his rage issues as well. The news commentators asked, “Who is he imitating?” The symbolism of his dress, gadgetry, and methodology is confusing – there are elements of both the movie version of Batman and his foes in this kind of behavior.
If everyone is venting his rage, there really isn’t all that much difference.
* * * * *
The Batman I know, the Batman who has appeared in my Torah teaching for the last twenty years, the Batman who inspired me to enter the rabbinate, the Batman who challenged me to exceed my own limitations in the pursuit of every goal I‘ve ever had, the Batman of Bob Kane and Bill Finger, the Batman who inspires millions of people around the world – that Batman isn’t the broken, dysfunctional man of those dark cynics of the human condition.
The Batman I know is profoundly sad, having experienced loss so early in life. But somewhere along the line, early in his youth, he made a decision – a decision born of a powerful soul and great strength of character – that he would respond to the lousy hand he’d been dealt by becoming something bigger than the sum of his pain and rage, that his suffering would have meaning to the countless people who would never know suffering because of him, that he would memorialize his parents by continuing their legacy of public service and philanthropy, that he would champion justice for all those who are too weak to uphold it themselves, as he had once been weak.
I once spoke with comic book pioneer Jerry Robinson, who along with Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger participated in and contributed to the creation of many of the essential elements of the Batman mythology we know and love, including the characters of Robin, Alfred and the Joker. After reading the manuscript that would become my book Wisdom from the Batcave, Robinson commented that “they [Kane and Finger] would have liked the book” because “they spoke in those kinds of terms” in their ambition to create a hero who possessed all the classically noble qualities.
Some years ago I heard a story, which I verified with one of the people involved, about an unlikely encounter between Batman and Rav Avigdor Miller, zt”l. One of Rav Miller’s students had been asked to make up peckalach to be given out to the kids in his shul on Simchas Torah, and he had included a comic book in each peckaleh. Another congregant objected to this, questioning the propriety of giving out comic books. He suggested inserting copies of Tehillim in the little gift bags instead. The two went to Rav Miller and asked for his opinion. Rav Miller asked them to leave the comic books with him so that he could examine them.
Sometime later Rav Miller told his student, “Tell the person who said it’s a sin to give these books out that he’s wrong, and that it’s even a mitzvah. The books teach law and order to the kids by making sure the hero always overcomes the villain, no matter what obstacles he encounters. The heroes even teach humility since they disguise their true identities and keep their good deeds confidential.”
One need not wonder which version of Batman earned Rav Miller’s approval.
That version of Batman – whether in costume or in his guise as Bruce Wayne – would feel very comfortable sitting at my parents’ Thanksgiving or Yom Tov table, listening to the Holocaust survivors share their stories of incomparable heartbreak and incredible successes. He’d recognize their strength of spirit, their resilience, their decision to embrace life and its complexities, challenges, and responsibilities.
Our society could stand to hear more about that Batman.
Rabbi Cary A. 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 was 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 email@example.com. Wisdom from the Batcave is available at www.batwisdom.com.
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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