Posted on September 20, 2017
Faster than a speeding bullet. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Is it a bird, is it a plane. No … it’s a nice Jewish boy from Krypton. This past year Gal Gadot gave us a Jewish Wonder Woman, but before she assumed the role, we could claim Superman as one of our own. And this is not one of those times where we claim a celebrity is Jewish because her grandmother’s first cousin married someone from the community. The man of steel really is a member of the tribe. The comic book creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster grew up in the Cleveland Jewish community of the 1920s and 30s. They drew on their immigrant experiences to create a Jewish character that would come to embody the American heroic ideal. Superman had escaped from the foreign world of Krypton before his entire family and race were destroyed by a disaster of epic proportions. Siegel and Shuster came from Eastern Europe and witnessed the Holocaust as those communities were devastated and their families killed. And just like the American Jewish community, Superman sought to find a way to assimilate and fit in through his alter ego of Clark Kent; only in secret could his true identity be revealed. To this end, he changed his name. On Krypton, he was known as Kal-El, a beautifully symbolic name derived from the Hebrew, ‘Kol El’ meaning either ‘All is God’ or ‘The voice of God’. On earth, he was only ever Superman or Clark Kent. Superman was sent to earth with a purpose. His father said to him about us: “They only lack the light to show them the way. For this reason, above all-their capacity for good-I have sent them you.”1 In Jewish terminology Superman is sent here to be an ‘or le’goyim’ – a light unto the nations. He came here to help bring out the good in us, to help us to be the best we can be, and to make this world a better place. The brilliance of the message of Superman is that he is only able to accomplish his purpose on earth when he stays true to his heroic identity. The ‘S’, emblazoned on his chest, and the cape are not the costume, they are his true essence. Superman’s costume is the two-piece suit worn by Clark Kent and the cowardice that accompanies it. Superman strips himself of his heroic qualities to become human; heroism is his nature and humanity is his costume. 1 This quote comes from the original Superman Movie (1978). 2 This is the disturbing truth concealed in the Superman stories; when the man of steel looks at human society, he sees us as weak, cowardly and unheroic. Clark Kent is his attempt to assimilate into this culture. We require a savior from Krypton to save us, as we are incapable of saving ourselves. And it’s not just Superman; in a comparable vein, neither Peter Parker nor Bruce Wayne are heroes; they need to conceal their human identities to be able to behave in a heroic way when they become Spiderman and Batman. But why can’t humans be heroes? Why do comic book creators require that their heroes come from distant planets or conceal their humanity with masks and costumes? Why is it so unbelievable that humans are capable of heroism? As a 20 year old, Mariuma Ben Yosef opened her home in Tel Aviv to serve dinner to children and teenagers who had nowhere else to go.2 Six years earlier she herself had been homeless, living on the streets of Boston, sleeping on benches and surviving from food she found in the garbage. Getting her life back on track required a heroic effort, but this was not enough; she wanted to find a way to help other children who found themselves without a place to go. Today her organization, the Shanti House, has two facilities, one in Tel Aviv and one in the Negev. And both of them are always alive with the sound of teenagers who have found a place to call home. Walk through the door and you will see Ethiopians, Jews, Russians, and Arabs, all living together, co-existing peacefully, everyone is welcome regardless of religious, race or sexual orientation. She doesn’t just give them a home, she also provides them with a family, a place where they can feel loved and secure, a place for them to finally be happy. She channeled her experience of suffering and did something simple, she opened up her doors. She recognized the power she had to act, her special gift. And from there it grew, one small step has to date helped over 46,000 young people. She saw a problem, she considered what she could do about it and she offered a solution. She is a hero. When we look at the world around us, it is disturbing to see just how similar our reality is to the fantastical world created in comic books. In today’s society, it is too easy to focus on the villains, making it that much harder to locate the heroes. This past year we have watched as the voices of bigotry and hatred have grown louder with marches and demonstrations, most notably in Charlottesville but even here in Boston. In North Korea we have a world leader who resembles a comic book villain in almost every way, bringing us to the brink of nuclear war. And in virtually every corner of the world, we have witnessed terror attacks by people who have pursued fundamentalist ideologies at the cost of human life. 2 http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/27/health/cnn-hero-mariuma-ben-yosef-shanti-house/index.html 3 If this is what humanity has become, is it any surprise that we require a superhero to come down from a distant planet to save us? If this is what humanity has become, is it any surprise that humanity and heroism are adversarial terms instead of interchangeable ones? If this is what humanity has become, is it any surprise that human nature is often used as an excuse for someone’s negative qualities rather than their positive ones? In a world where no one can be super-human, we need to be humans who are super. Superheroes present us with a magic solution for the problems and ills within society. It is highly reminiscent of the messianic idea which dominated Judaism from the destruction of the Second Temple through to the birth of Reform Judaism. Our ancestors accepted an imperfect world and their powerlessness to change it because they were waiting for their Messiah to come; and they are still waiting. Reform Judaism said something different. We rejected the idea that a Messiah would come and save us, and instead we developed an understanding of a Messianic Age. This time would not come about as a result of God or an external superhero. Instead, we will be the builders of a Messianic Age. We will be the masters of our destiny. The wait for a Messiah encouraged passivity; the need for a Messianic Age is a call to action. We need to hear the call, and we need to respond! While comic book creators imagined a world where only someone from another planet had superpowers, I see a world filled with humans who are super each and every day. Imagine if you heard the roar of 16 Harley Davidsons and assorted motorbikes making their way down your street. How would you react? I know what my reaction would be. But while they might look the part with heavy boots and bodies covered in tattoos and leather, this is no ordinary biker gang. If you look a little closer you will notice the following words on their vests: “No child deserves to live in fear.” This biker gang is a chapter of the international group Bikers Against Child Abuse. With biker names such as Spyder, Trigger, Hammer, Gypsy, and Irish the gang rode up to a neighborhood in Bay City, Missouri to provide support for a teenager who had been abused. They told the girl that she was now part of their big ugly family and that if she is ever afraid again, then all she needs to do is call them, any time of day or night and they’ll be there immediately. If necessary, this gang will camp outside the child’s house 24-7 to make sure they feel safe. After being taken for a ride on one of their bikes, she’s part of the gang. But being part of the family doesn’t end there. When she had to give evidence at the trial of her abuser; she didn’t have to go to court alone. As she delivered her 4 testimony the courtroom was filled by her biker family, there for moral support and to ensure that she knew she was safe.3 And she’s not the only victim who has been helped. In another case, an eight-year-old girl gave evidence while sitting on the lap of a biker named Cheetah, and on another occasion a young boy told the judge he was no longer afraid: “Because my friends are scarier than he is.”4 The bikers know what they look like, they know the power they wield and together they have made the choice to use this power for good; to elevate those who have been abused, to give strength to those who are weak, to support the cause of justice. First impressions can be deceiving. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. But when we open our eyes a little wider, there are countless people offering us a heroic example today. And if we open them just a little more, perhaps we can see our own heroism within. That is our challenge to identify the gifts that God has given us and the way that we can use them to make this world a better place. Rabbi Shimon ben Zoma asks the question in Pirkei Avot: ‘eyzeh hoo giboor?’ ‘Who is a hero?’ And he answers; the hero is the one who suppresses his evil inclination, the yetzer harah. I agree with Shimon ben Zoma, but I would phrase my answer slightly differently. The hero is the one who maximizes his good inclination, the yetzer hatov. We are heroes when we pursue what is good and right. We are heroes when we act courageously in the pursuit of justice. And we are heroes when we actively serve to better the world. When it comes to heroism, we always have a choice. Superman could have hidden his powers, or used them for sinister purposes; instead he chose to be a hero. He chose to follow his good inclination and use his powers to fight for what was right. We need to make the same decision, behaving in a way that is worthy of our best qualities. It is not always easy. Even Superman, our Jewish man of steel, was fallible. When exposed to Kryptonite he became weak and frail, and he would on occasion succumb to his anger and seek revenge. But every day was a new day to make it right; every day was another opportunity for heroism to triumph. In a world where no-one can be super-human, we need to be humans who are super. When Abraham and Sarah received the call from God, the task was simple: veheyeh bracha – to be a blessing and to bring blessing into this world. At it’s core this is 3 http://www.mlive.com/news/bay-city/index.ssf/2017/04/bikers_lend_support_to_sexual.html 4 http://archive.azcentral.com/news/azliving/articles/2012/07/13/20120713bikers-against-childabuse-make-abuse-victims-feel-safe.html 5 what Judaism has always been about. We are in a covenant with God to bring blessing into this world. As such we are called to be superheroes, protecting our planet, nurturing our community and making the world a better place. And today our world and our country are in desperate need of our help and action. It is no coincidence that many of the foundational comic book heroes began with the fight against racism, bigotry and prejudice. The original Wonder Woman fought against the Nazis,5 in 1946 Superman took on the Ku Klux Klan,6 and in his first Captain America comic our hero is portrayed punching Adolf Hitler.7 Superheroes came to fight this evil, but without them to save us, we must be the ones to save ourselves. Being super and heroic does not mean being perfect in an imperfect world; being super and heroic means trying to make our imperfect world a better place. To be superhuman is an impossibility. Such a thing does not exist, nor should it exist. But to be a human who is capable of super acts – therein lies a word of possibility. We can reclaim humanity so that the phrase “it’s just human nature” is not a justification for negative or destructive behavior, but is instead synonymous with heroism and doing the right thing. This coming year, how will we change the world? Whom will we protect? What are we willing to fight for? There’s a website called The Real Life Super Hero Project. It’s a place that seeks out the genuine heroes who bridge the gap between the fantastical and the practical. Anonymous and selfless, they make a choice each and every day to make a difference in the world around them. These aren’t people who can leap tall buildings in a single bound or move faster than a speeding bullet, but they are people who make a difference. They’ve identified their gift and the way it can be utilized to help others. They are the ones who feed the hungry, comfort the sick and clean up their neighborhoods. They are the real heroes and they remind us that being a hero starts with a single, often simple, action. This Rosh Hashanah as you leave the sanctuary you will find that our ushers have baskets with Shir Tikva Superhero cards; take one and make a heroic commitment for this forthcoming year. As you will see the first step is to write down what your special gift is and then how you will use it to make a difference in this world. No two superheroes are the same, we have each been endowed with unique abilities, talents 5 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wonder_Woman 6 https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2013/06/07/fighting-nazis-and-terrorists-superman-actsamerica-moral-compass/u7JMVJkXNLoxKNwltgL5GL/story.html 7 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Captain_America 6 and gifts that we can use in a variety of ways to make our world a better place. Identify your gift and how you will use it to make a difference. And then, all I ask is that you carry the card with you as a reminder of what you’ve pledged to do. We can have our own Superhero Project. I look around this Sanctuary and see so many people already engaged in this work. I know that together we have a tremendous power to make a positive difference. The story is told of a man who came up to Heaven, the angels asked him questions about his life and the way he lived. As the final question one angel asked him: “Do you have any scars?” The man was puzzled and thought for a moment before responding “No, none that I can think of.” The angel looked at him and said: “So was there nothing worth fighting for?”8 The story does not mean that we have to go out into the world ready for a physical fight, but it does suggest that we should be prepared to ‘fight for what is right’ and be prepared to bear the emotional scars and bruises. Humanity is something worth fighting for. Being a hero is not always easy, and it can be difficult to make a difference, but we must be prepared for the struggle. This new Jewish year, we must fight to make humanity worthy of heroism. We must fight to make humanity synonymous with heroism. We must fight to make humanity heroic. Let’s live up to our human nature. In a world where no-one can be super-human, we need to be humans who are super. Shana Tova. 8 Story told to me by Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman.