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The Incredible Hulk: A Classic Jewish Archetype


It’s been almost five years since director Ang Lee’s big budget movie The Hulk roared into theaters. Fans and critics alike were less than impressed, so moviegoers eagerly anticipated last week’s release of director Louis Leterrier’s new half-remake/half-revamp of the Bruce Banner saga, called The Incredible Hulk.

The basic story of the Hulk has become a staple of popular culture, thanks to the long running comic book and blockbuster 1970s TV series: a gamma ray accident saddles scientist Dr. Bruce Banner with a violent, unshakable alter ego. Known as the Hulk, this strapping, spinach-colored powerhouse has little patience for compound verbs (or much else), and has apparently been wearing the same pair of torn yet strangely intact blue trousers for more than forty years. This time around, the Hulk is played by Oscar-nominated actor Edward Norton (“Fight Club,” “American History X”).

As an involuntary superhero, the Hulk archetype originally served as a stark warning against the dangers of scientific experimentation and as a thinly veiled metaphor for the volatile social climate of the early sixties.

When the Hulk made his comic book debut, the United States and the Soviet Union were still locked in the Cold War, one in which physical casualties were few, but the emotional fallout was palpable. Anxiety about an imminent atomic attack colored everyday life.

The Hulk was created by two Jewish comic book legends, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, so it is particularly poignant that a symbolic parallel can be made with the Jewish state of Israel. Israel has enriched the world in countless ways, making numerous breakthroughs in medical research and technology. Sadly, all too often these contributions to humanity are overlooked, and its enemies view Israel as the world’s pariah.

Likewise, Bruce Banner is pursued by the American military, the very same men who’d once employed him. Led by the stern General Ross, they devote their entire arsenal to killing the Hulk. Ross’s daughter Betty has feelings for Banner, but Banner’s tragic, secret double life renders him unable to return her affection.

In the new movie, Banner is closer than ever to finding a cure for his affliction, but he has his (big green) hands full: while being pursued by another monster called The Abomination, the lonely, loveless Hulk is called upon to save New York City from destruction.

Just as the Jewish people were forced to wander from place to place to survive, so too the misbegotten Hulk wanders the planet in an elusive search for sanctuary.

A Jewish version of the Hulk can be found in the Golem, Judaism’s own monster-hero. While many comic book superheroes bear a superficial resemblance to the Golem, the Hulk truly personifies this mythical being; he is a powerful if extremely unpredictable protector, the result of an experiment gone horribly wrong.

As Stan Lee once remarked, “When you think about it, the Incredible Hulk is a Golem.”

Like other superheroes, Hulk’s strength recalls that of the biblical Samson. The series contains more obvious references to Samson as well. A character named Doctor Leonard Samson, a psychiatrist who believes he can cure the Hulk, appears in #141 (1971). The nerdy Doctor Samson empowers himself through a controlled dose of radiation and becomes Doc Samson, a massively muscled, green-haired superhuman with gamma-boosted strength, sporting long hair like his biblical namesake. Cutting Doc Samson’s hair saps his power, too.

In #227 (1978), Samson proposes therapy (a particularly Jewish remedy?) for the Hulk and even constructs a steel-reinforced psychiatrist’s couch. And in #373 (1990), Samson’s Jewish roots are confirmed when he admits he attended “yeshiva” and that he was intimidated by “a very strict rabbi.”

Over the course of the comic book series, as the Hulk roams the world in search of meaning and acceptance, it was inevitable that he would eventually reach the place to which people throughout history have made pilgrimages: the holy land of Israel. In the 1981 issue (#256) titled “Power and Peril in the Promised Land,” the Hulk does just that, aboard a freighter called Star of David.

Rudely awakened when the ship docks in Tel Aviv, Banner turns into the Hulk. Little does he realize he’s about to meet another superhero: his exact opposite in appearance, but one who shares the Hulk’s “anger issues.”

Patrolling the dock at this time is a young dark-haired, feisty Israeli policewoman with a secret.

“The military are in no shape to go after the Hulk!” she declares. “That leaves me to stop the monster before he menaces the rest of Tel Aviv!”

At that, the policewoman transforms into “Sabra, super heroine of the state of Israel.” Sabra’s costume, like the Israeli flag, is blue and white, emblazoned with a Star of David.

“Sabra” is the word used to describe a Jew born in the Land of Israel. The word is derived from the Hebrew tzabar, the “prickly pear” cactus, Opuntia ficus-indica. Rough to the touch, this desert plant has a sweet interior. Israelis may sometimes seem “prickly,” but this is simply a natural defense mechanism. Israel is a kind and benevolent nation at heart.

The Incredible Hulk himself is the ultimate sabra: angry on the outside, but inside he yearns to use his powers for peace. He represents all oppressed minorities who are feared because they look or act different. From the original comic books to his latest cinematic incarnation, the Hulk is a classic archetype whose appeal spans generations because his circumstances speak to us all.

About the Author: Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, an internationally known best-selling author whose first book, "Up, Up and Oy Vey!" received the Benjamin Franklin Award, has been profiled in leading publications including The New York Times, The Miami Herald and The London Guardian. He was recently voted New York’s Hippest Rabbi by PBS Channel 13. He chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at Pratt Institute. His forthcoming book is “The Case for Children: Why Parenthood Makes Your World Better.”


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