This latest installment in the Superman saga begins when our favorite mentsch in tights comes back to Metropolis at the end of a cosmic quest, investigating the facts behind the destruction of his home planet, Krypton. And things at home have changed. Lois Lane, the love of Superman’s life, has moved on in his absence. Even worse, his old nemesis, Lex Luthor, is plotting to render the Man of Steel powerless once and for all - then destroy the helpless world.
It’s a long, long way from 1938, when a couple of Jewish boys from Cleveland were paid one-hundred and thirty bucks for the very first story.
The 1930s and 1940s were arguably the most anti-Semitic period in American history, and perhaps in response, Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (illustrator) invented the most famous comic book superhero of all time.
Does the early Superman mythos reflect his creators’ Jewish backgrounds? The superhero’s “origin story” bears more than a passing resemblance to the great Exodus tale, where Moses is placed in a reed basket and set afloat on the Nile escaping Pharaoh’s henchmen. Likewise, Superman’s father, Jor-El, launches a little rocket ship containing his son into outer space when he realizes Krypton is about to disintegrate.
Superman and his nebbish alter ego Clark Kent are now recognized, in retrospect, as a complex symbol of immigrant identity and assimilation - the embodiment of the American Dream, as imagined by two second generation Jewish kids. Howard Jacobson of the London Times has called Superman “the boy with the Kabbalistic name, the boy from the shtetl. Superman might be Jewish, but it’s only so long as no one knows he’s Jewish that he is capable of performing wonders. And you can’t get more Jewish than that.”
Superman’s ethics are Jewish ethics. Like all of us, Superman is called to “perform wonders,” to repair order and balance in the world. We may not do it while wearing a cape and a big “S” on our chests, but universal messages of duty and justice still come across clearly, via the unlikely vehicle of a comic book for kids.
Our sages taught that we all have a double identity. Man is the fusion of matter and spirit, of body and soul. The body cleaves to this physical world, while the soul longs for the spiritual. Likewise, Superman often wants nothing more than to retreat to his Fortress of Solitude. And who wouldn’t want to meditate up in the Alps, far from mundane cares?
But in reality, G-d created the world so He would “have a dwelling in the lower realms.” Superman knows he’s got a tough job to do in those “lower realms” fighting for what’s right without getting credit.
In the “real world” your bashert runs off with someone else, your nemesis is out to get you, your boss doesn’t give you much credit, and the weight of the world is on your shoulders. Yet, by Divine providence, you are right where you need to be.
Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is the author of the award-winning book, Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero (Leviathan Press).
You can reach him at www.rabbisimcha.com.