Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
“The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary.”–Franz Kafka, Parables and Paradoxes.
In the up coming, and probably final installment of director Christopher Nolan’s Batman run, The Dark Knight Rises, Batman returns to save Gotham once again (starring Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader – to be released July 20th, to see the trailer click here). In the story, it’s been eight years since New York, I mean Gotham City, last saw Batman. Eight years prior he branded himself a criminal in place of Harvey Dent (Two-Face), because, he felt, the city’s need to see Harvey as a hero was greater than the truth. Now he can’t help but come back again, this time to fight a new super villain, Bane.
So, I guess we need our heroes – or do we?
[For the real comic book nuts, eight years might be nothing compared to Batman coming out of retirement at age 55, dealing with aging and mortality as he fights for justice in Frank Miller’s 1986 instant classic, The Dark Knight Returns. Click the above book cover to read more about it.]
There is something biblical about the least likely hero (see Time magazine’s piece the Anti-hero where TV’s hit Breaking Bad is set center stage). My favorite Biblical outcast turned hero: Jephthah.
Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.” So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him.
Some time later, when the Ammonites were fighting against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob. “Come,” they said, “be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.” (Judges 11:1-6).
In just six short verses the Bible establishes Jephthah as an outcast and then quickly pivots him to be a hero (Brilliant writing! Better, divine!). Whether it’s David fighting Goliath, Batman saving us from the sadism of the Joker, or even Rocky fighting a Russian killing machine in a boxing ring, there is something biblical to the sense that at the brink of catastrophe a Chosen One will rescue us at the last possible second. The Hanukkah Song, Mi Yimalel (Who Can Retell) makes the point explicit:
Mi yimalel gevurot Yisrael, Who can retell the things that befell us,
Otan mi yimne? Who can count them?
Hen be’chol dor yakum ha’gibor In every age, a hero or sage
Goel ha’am. Came to our aid.
In the case of the song, the reference is to the Maccabees who fought back the Greek
Assyrians, and rededicated the Holy Temple that had been made impure by the enemy (Hanukkah means “dedicate”). Perhaps it’s America’s deep grounding in Biblical tradition that we so often fall for the super hero. Or maybe it’s something in the nature of man. It could be that we just want someone to look up to. When things look their worst, don’t worry – someone will step up and save the day. Personally, I fear that we have that expectation with regard to climate change, that some super scientist will invent some technology (cloud seeding, or metal trees that oxygenate the air), and hence our misguided lack of urgency. I worry about our craving and reliance on radical, heroic fixes. The Talmud teaches the dictum: “Ein somchim al ha’ness,” don’t rely on miracles. And while the theme of the the hero is so central to the history of the religious mindset, it exists as a paradox. There is a perversion, an abdication of responsibility, that comes with falling for the hero – Don’t worry, be complacent, someone, somehow will fix things.
When Queen Esther fears speaking to the king to save the Jewish people, her uncle, Mordechai chastises her:
“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape… And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”(Esther 4:13-14).
And hence the paradox of the hero:
Salvation will come at the hand of a hero – but the hero is you.
While I too fall for the hero and plan to see the new Batman this week, I know deep down that it’s just entertainment. Real life, especially a religious life, one where I feel ultimately accountable to God’s expectation to love, to uplift, to care, requires a message of personal responsibility antithetical to the super heroic. It asks us to find the heroic within ourselves, to step up to challenges instead of being frozen by them, or waiting for someone greater to save us. The need to step up to human responsibility, and not wait for a greater power to fix things, to redeem mankind, may even be central to ultimate salvation, and the ultimate redemption of the world. Rabban Yoachanan ben Zakkai (90 C.E.) said it like this: If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, ‘Come quickly, the messiah is here!’, first finish planting the tree and then go to greet the messiah’ – Avot D’Rabbi Natan 31b. Rabbi Heschel taught that God was in search of man. “God is still waiting for a righteous generation, who will live by justice and compassion,” he said.
In other words: It’s up to us to save us, or, at the very least, it’s up to us to live lives noble enough to be worthy of saving.
Pronounced: KHAH-nuh-kah, also ha-new-KAH, an eight-day festival commemorating the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks and subsequent rededication of the temple. Falls in the Hebrew month of Kislev, which usually corresponds with December.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.