Lessons From a Man in a Black Hat – Which Has Ears
When Jon Q. Public gets saved from a super villain by a muscular man with a pointy-eared hood, cape and a black and/or gray body-suit with a symmetric bat on the chest he tends to say "Thank you, Batman." Not so Rabbi Cary A. Friedman, author of "Wisdom from the Batcave: How to Live a Super, Heroic Life (Compass Books, $13.95)." Friedman, a veritable Batman scholar – or scholar on “the Batman” – goes to great lengths to refer to Batman as "the Batman." This conveys a subtle, but for Friedman's book pivotal, point: Batman is not a person; rather, the Batman is a persona – an adopted persona, and thus an imitable persona.
Yes, the Batman is a fictional character. Friedman is not delusional. In the book’s twelfth chapter, "The Value of Anticipating Consequences," Friedman acknowledges that "Batman manages to have the right equipment in his utility belt every time," because "He's got great writers." But nevertheless, Friedman posits, the lessons conveyed in Batman comics – such as the importance of strategizing and preparing in advance of interactions – are inherent, and deserve to be explored.
So in 18 short chapters, illustrated with panels from actual DC comics featuring the Batman, Friedman derives character traits to live by from the ethos of the Batman. These lessons include the values of willpower, hard work, self-esteem and idealism – and not to talk too much. 18 chapters is probably not a coincidental number of chapters. 18 in Gematria – the Hebrew numeral system – equals "chai," which means life. This book is, after all, a book intended to derive and provide life lessons.
These invaluable lessons are epitomized by the Batman, but are foundations of an honest, ideal life. And although the book is generally secular, albeit with a religious twinge (in chapter 4, "The value of Willpower," young Bruce Wayne – the Batman's alter-ego – prays, "Please, dear God – help me keep my promise" to avenge his parents' murder and to spend the rest of his life warping [sic] on all criminals. Similarly, chapter 11"The Value of Strong Principles," shows Batman's swearing-in Dick Grayson, the first Robin, in the fight for justice and against crime and corruption. The top of the panel depicts Dick's narration; "That night, with only God – and the Batman – as my witnesses, I swore an undying oath..." Friedman points out that "These heroes view their work as nothing less than Divine Service...”) the fact that the author is a rabbi plays a prominent role.
Friedman is by far not the first Jew to dabble in comics. In fact, he’s not even the first rabbi. As for Jews, "almost all the major superheroes of the Golden Age (1938-1950ish) and the Silver Age (1958-1972ish) were created by Jews" comic book author Mark Shainblum pointed out in an article in the (cyber) pages of Jewsweek. A recent exhibit in New York’s Jewish Museum displayed works of 15 of these Golden Age Jewish writers and artists. The Jewsweek article, by Kathy Shaidle, was titled “Up, up, and oy vey: Funny, they don't look Jewish, but several superheroes indeed are.” Aside from pointing out the ubiquity of Jewish comics writers and artists – whose Tribal members include Batman creator Bob Kane, Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster, and the creator of seemingly every other superhero Stan Lee – the article looked at superheroes who are Jewish. This list includes a few mainstream characters like the Fantastic Four’s Thing (the Thing?), as well as a few smaller label or self-published productions, many of which are geared specifically to a Jewish audience.
As for rabbis, Shaidle’s cutesy “Up Up and Oy Vey” was co-opted by Rabbi Simcha Weinstein for a 2006 book (Shaidle edited the book) with a different subtitle: “How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero.” Leviathan Press, which published the book, describes it on their webpage:
“The early comic book creators were almost all Jewish, and as children of immigrants, they spent their lives trying to escape the second-class mentality which was forced on them by the outside world. Their fight for truth, justice, and the American Way is portrayed by the superheroes they created. The dual identity given to their creations mirrors their own desire to live two lives – privately as a Jew, and publicly as an American.
Their creations are the descendants of a Jewish tradition littered with stories of super strength from Samson to the Golem of Prague…
Superheroes…are usually outsiders; gifted yet misunderstood, and strangers in a strange land.
This book observes comic book superheroes through three different lenses—historical, cultural, and biblical/spiritual…
“Wisdom from the Batcave” is a book from a very different mold. First, Friedman in no way posits that Batman is Jewish. More importantly, the Judaism of this book is only in the ever-present peripheral view of Rabbi Friedman; the book is not exclusively geared toward Jews or to those who want to explore Judaism. “Wisdom from the Batcave” is a paean to heroic, just ideals, and a call to strive to achieve them. It just so happens that many of those ideals figure in Judaism, and as a rabbi Friedman’s benchmarks are Judaic.
Perhaps a better comparison from the world of rabbinic comics writing (not to be confused with the world of comic rabbinic writing) would be to the works of the great and prolific Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski. In 1988 Twerski, a Chasidic Rabbi and Psychiatrist with a renowned specialty in work with addicts, wrote a book titled "When Do the Good Things Start? A therapist looks at life’s ups and downs (with a bit of help from Charlie Brown and his friends)." The book (so too its follow up "Waking up Just in Time") uses peanuts cartoons to illustrate life lessons. Twerski explains, "The loveable characters created by Charles Schulz do more than amuse; they depict important psychological principles in a manner so deceptively simple that it masks the force of their impact."
Of course Charlie Brown is no Batman, but, as Friedman explains, part of the appeal of the Batman is that Batman is no Superman either. "Most other heroes gained their powers originally without a lifetime of pain and preparation...In sharp contrast anything Bruce Wayne has attained has been won – or rather, earned – through unstinting hard work." (Although, in defense of the rest of us, the kind of unlimited money coupled with access to state of the arts armory that Bruce possessed makes for a kind of "power" that can be used for unspeakable evil or for well-nigh ultimate good...)
And so Friedman presents the lessons of a fallible mortal whose strength of character and ideal, unbending principles guide his self-actualization and his quest and commitment to save the world from lurking evil. Friedman explains how the Batman's (illegal) vigilantism fits into his worldview considering his dedication to true justice as opposed to dedication to the law. Friedman explains that "Bruce realized that the law can be too harsh, and does not serve the interest of justice. That's where the Batman – soft, compassionate, liberal Batman! – comes in." Friedman admits that that is a "bit of a politically correct stretch." It is also a more literal usage of terms than are found in today's parlance. After all, when was the last time you saw someone referred to as liberal actually stand up and proactively do something good as opposed to screeding on about the perceived world evils. Vernacular liberals would be more likely to find reasons that excuse the poor Joker's behavior; he had a tough upbringing (– or are there Jews to blame in Gotham?)
(Almost?) conversely, Friedman highlight's the Batman's single minded straight forwardness as if the Batman were somewhat of a neocon. Why, to our exasperation as readers, does the Batman repeatedly risk his own life to save whatever evil, insidious, and dangerous nemesis he is facing? Because "The Batman has explained many times that it's not for him to decide who should live and who should die. His self proclaimed goals...include the saving of life...If...you value the sanctity of life only when it is a life that you value, that's a sham; you aren't following that value – you're following your own arbitrary prejudices.” Friedman is far more subtle than I, but Bam! Pow! Take that, pro-choicers...
Doesn't saving the life of a recidivist attempted-world-conqueror constitute a grave public safety hazard? Do "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – or the one"? The Batman doesn't seem to be forced to paint in such wide strokes; the life at hand is paramount – no matter what villain possesses it.
Friedman reports that he knows of a police department that incorporates into its culture a decision-making exercise called WWBD – What Would Batman Do. "How do you maintain a constant, inviolate value system in the face of an onslaught of rationalization, immorality, temptation and situational moral relativity?" Use the Batman to "Make a daily position check from the GPS of absolute standards and values of morality." You can use an unflinching constant "to correct your position and prevent yourself from drifting way downstream toward moral relativism."
The issues in the book, like the comic book panels it displays, are basic black and white. The world, like most comics, is far more complex and multicolored. Still, the lessons of the Batman are of clear value within this dynamic confusion. Friedman epitomizes this fact in chapter 3, "Recognizing the Extent of Human Potential." He asserts, "[The] lesson about the endless capability of every human being is the single most important theme of Batman...The Batman, more than any other literary character, reminds us that every person has an infinite capacity for achievement." 'nuff said.
"Wisdom from the Batcave" draws a picture of idealized living, penciled with good humor, inked with Talmudic wisdom, and colored with Friedman's exuberance and sincerity. Friedman suggests, "…We are all citizens of Gotham City." That being said, the book's cover, with its depiction of a spotlight shined brightly above a Gothamesque metropolis but with the telltale bat symbol conspicuously missing from its center, makes you wonder if the publisher ran into copyright/trademark issues regarding using the renowned bat logo, or if the symbol was intentionally left off. Perhaps the artwork is telling readers to ask not to whom the beacon shines to call to action; it shines to call us all.
Mayer Waxman is a New York based rabbi, social worker and humorist. [For e-mail use email@example.com]