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.
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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.
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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