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.
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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.