The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Friday, June 28, 2013

Superman, Super Jew?

Rabbi David Segal
28 June 2013 • Parashat Pinchas

Adonai spoke to Moses, saying, “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion/zeal/jealousy for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion/zeal/jealousy.
(Numbers 25:10-11)

We saw Man of Steel last week. It's the latest attempt to reboot the Superman film franchise, and it was met with a tepid response from audiences and critics alike.

I liked it. Not the gratuitously long and chaotic action sequences, but the retelling of the Superman myth, delving into the history that made him who he is, that gave him the inner conflict that led him to become a hero.

I also liked it because it felt to me like a parable of Jewish identity. Yes, this is often what happens when I see movies. Perhaps I’m a caricature of myself in that way. It's either awesome or annoying, depending on your preferences... 

Superman’s Jewish origins have been well documented. He was created by two Jews, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, children of immigrants, to be the hero -- fighting the Nazis and the Klan, to name a few of Superman’s enemies -- that Jews could not yet be themselves.

This new film version felt like a deeply Jewish fable of diaspora identity, and of peoplehood, history, and assimilation. (Warning: the following contains many spoilers.)

Kal-El (his given name on home planet Krypton) is sent as a refugee by parents from a dying world. They can’t save themselves or their world, but they can save their child, their hope for the future. This made me think of the kindertransports during the Shoah, and the wrenching decision many parents made to send their children to safety from their collapsing world, knowing that they might never see them again.

And what’s especially interesting about the way they send Kal-El off to a habitable world (Earth, we learn) is that Jor-El, his father, encodes the entire genetic database of the planet into his son’s blood. Kal-El carries with him, quite literally, the future of his people. Jor-El trusts that his son will find a way among humans to make Krypton’s legacy live again.

But Jor-El has a rival on Krypton, the military leader General Zod, who is also concerned for Krypton’s legacy. He was bred from birth to be a warrior, with a singular purpose: to let Krypton live again, to protect the People, no matter the cost. Naturally, when Zod and his team find earth and Kal-El, their approach to “making Krypton live again” differs dramatically from his.

Kal-El, or Clark Kent as we know him, is raised by humans, among humans. In the film we find him in his early 30s finally discovering the truth of his origins. We witness the beginning of his dual identity: human and Kryptonian. He cares deeply about carrying out his father’s hope, protecting his People’s legacy, but he sees the only way forward to be in harmony with us humans.

Zod, by contrast, is the ultimate Peoplehood fanatic, willing to take it to the extreme of genocide. He shows he is ready to destroy humanity in order to recreate Krypton on earth. That is his sole purpose, and he will stop at nothing.

Superman seeks a different way, a peaceful way -- truth, justice, and the American Way, as the comics have it. His conflict with Zod is wrenchingly summed up in a scene near the end. Superman, together with Lois Lane and US military, have finished off Zod’s forces. Only Zod remains. Superman corners him in the Metropolis equivalent of Grand Central Station. Superman gets Zod in a headlock, but Zod activates his heat vision, aiming for a family of four, trapped and cowering in a corner. He would burn them alive if not for Superman fighting, inch by inch, to keep Zod’s gaze from reaching them. 

And here Superman makes the difficult choice, the moral choice that goes against the peoplehood choice -- he breaks Zod’s neck, saving the humans but leaving himself alone as the last Kryptonian alive. He immediately laments this necessary choice, this necessary evil. (I myself had a flashback to being in Israel in 2005 during the Gaza withdrawal, which brought scenes of Israeli soldiers forcibly removing their fellow Israelis from their homes Gaza, carrying out their duty but with tears in their eyes.)

This conflict is at the center of the struggle of the Jew today, this tension between loyalty to our People vs. the moral and ethical principles that our People have carried through history. It’s a struggle about assimilation vs. integration, about intermarriage, about Israel, and about the Jews’ place in the world.

Very few of us, thankfully, take the extreme of General Zod -- "Peoplehood at all costs." You hear echoes of this way among some in the Settler Movement and among some of Israel’s cheerleaders in the American Jewish community. You also hear it, coincidentally, in this week’s Parshah, in Pinchas the zealot, who, in the name of God, kills the Israelite having relations with a Midianite woman. Also thankfully, our tradition has gone to great lengths to marginalize Pinchas and his extremist action.

The other extreme doesn’t get represented in the film. It would be the Kryptonian who lands on earth and renounces his Kryptonian ways in order to blend in and forget. A growing number of Jews (it’s believed) do fall into this category, because either they don’t find Judaism compelling or they haven’t found a Jewish community that engages them. And some have stopped looking.

Most of us, especially American Jews, are somewhere in the middle -- like Superman. We want to honor our Jewish past, and we value that inheritance -- even if we don’t always know what it means. We also want to live fully as Americans. We believe in the promise of America and in the capacity of Jews to add to that promise, and even to help fulfill it.

Most of us approach Israel similarly. We believe in a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael but we want it to be founded on Jewish values. “Truth, Justice, and the...Israeli way.” We find ourselves sometimes quite torn -- on the one hand, feeling uncomfortable with certain things said or done by the Israeli government or by some Israeli leaders, but on the other hand feeling a responsibility to defend Israel, borne out of loyalty to our People and our People’s homeland.

This middle place, where it’s confusing and uncomfortable, and we feel torn, is exactly where we should be. It’s where productive debate occurs, where learning happens, where a vibrant future is built.

Toward the end of the film, Lois Lane asks Superman why he has an “S” on his suit. 
“It’s not an ‘S,’” he explains. “On my world, it’s a symbol of hope.”

That ancient symbol from another world became a beacon of goodness and hope on this world. That’s what we Jews can and should bring to the world, that middle way: of wrestling with our past to shape our future, of bringing ancient yearnings to life in modern ways, of tikkun olam -- the duty of repairing a broken world.

Ultimately, we bear the responsibility of holding a banner of hope, not just for Jews but for all humanity, declaring our faith that the world is redeemable, if we will only use our powers for good.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Beyond Belief

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Parshat Chukat • 14 June 2013

Our ancestors went down to Egypt, and we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors. We cried to the Lord and He heard our plea, and He sent a messenger who freed us from Egypt.
(Numbers 20:15-16)

A favorite topic of mine, that I often raise, is the question: Do you believe in God? I've even asked for a show of hands before. My fascination with this question comes from our culture’s near obsession with it as THE central question of religion and religious affiliation. That, and its utter uselessness as a question. It doesn’t actually tell me much about you.

As Stanford Professor T.M. Luhrmann says in the NY Times (5/29/13) “Belief is the Least Part of Faith”: it’s a question that "university-educated liberals ask about faith." It's a deep question. But it's also abstract and intellectual, a philosophical question.

Luhrmann spent years studying evangelical churches and churchgoers. For them, the questions are different: how can we feel God’s love, and be more aware of God’s presence? “Those,” she says, “are fundamentally practical questions.”

That we are obsessed with the True/False questions of God’s existence, always demanding evidence, shows how deeply modern we are. Ancient Judaism took God as a given, so the questions became, how do we follow God’s will? How do we act as God’s agents in the world? How shall we interpret God’s word, since the authority to do that is in our hands? They were mercifully free of the nagging and neurotic modern questions that we ask: Does God exist? How do we know? How do we know if we know anything???

Thankfully, postmodern Judaism (to the extent there is such a thing...) is coming back around to the wisdom of not obsessing over these unanswerable and unproductive questions.

As Luhrmann wisely notes, secular Americans (and many Jews!) think that the key to understanding religion is knowing why people believe in God. In our “folk model of the mind,” she writes, we think that belief precedes action and explains choice, that belief comes first.

But that’s probably backward. As Rabbi Larry Hoffman teaches: theology emerges from experience. And from Emile Durkheim, famous sociologist (paraphrasing): You don’t go to church because you believe in God; rather, you believe in God because you go to church.

Belief is more like a unifying banner, a flag you raise and wave together, than an intellectual position arrived at by reasoned argument.

Here our tradition has always been a helpful guide. Moses, when speaking to a neighboring kingdom in this parashah, doesn’t define the Israelites as the people who believe in Adonai, but rather, he tells a story about relationship:
Our ancestors went down to Egypt, and we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors. We cried to Adonai and God heard our plea, and God sent a messenger who freed us from Egypt. (Numbers 20:15-16)
As a people, we are constantly anchoring ourselves, identifying ourselves, by our story -- not by our philosophical positions. (That is a medieval and modern excursion.)

Robert Alter -- professor, scholar, critic, translator, leading voice on Bible as literature -- teaches us how to approach our tradition in this way. He speaks of the Bible as a genius work(s) of literary achievement. For him, “This is not a demotion, but an elevation.” Approaching Scripture this way, and only this way, can we hope to fully grasp its layers of meaning, and apply it holistically to our lives and experiences. As one critic said, the Bible as great literature carries the “authority of imagination” rather than the authority of religion. This kind of authority -- softer than traditional legal and rabbinic authority -- is yet deeper, more enduring, more resonant. And it is more important for the future of Judaism, and what Judaism has to offer the world.

Alter is teaching us again about the Bible's literary value with Ancient Israel, a forthcoming translation and commentary of the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. These are more historically oriented books, depicting Israel as a political entity, struggling against warring tribes, idolatry within, and questions of leadership and social organization. (Watch for this as the basis of a future Adult Education class...)

And indeed my course this summer on contemporary Jewish short stories is in line with Alter and Luhrmann’s views of religion and text. If the Bible is the literature of its day, and these short stories are the literature of our day, they all have much to say to us about what it means to be a Jew, to be a human being, facing the questions of existence.

And our summer concert, too -- Beyond Belief: Sounds of Sacred Searching -- will be in a similar vein. It will feature interviews with valley locals, sharing their stories of faith and doubt, of struggle and affirmation. We envision it as a presentation not to “prove” a philosophical argument, but to lift up a network of stories and relationships that make this valley a spiritually special place.

Luhrmann concludes: "These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold."

Let us continue to be defined by the questions we ask, and by the stories we tell of our ancestors’ quests, and our own. Let us leave for the next generation a legacy of questions, and the wisdom to ask them together in sacred community.


Friday, June 7, 2013

Summer Session 2013 - Adult Ed

"Who Will Be For Me?"
Jewishness and Otherness in Selected Contemporary Jewish Short Stories
with Rabbi David Segal

Wednesdays 2:00-4:00 pm
July 3-August 14, 2013
Aspen Chapel Gallery

Course Summary

Over seven weeks this summer, we will read ~15 Jewish short stories by contemporary authors. Nathan Englander's recent collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank and Jonathan Papernick's The Ascent of Eli Israel will be our primary reading, coupled with additional selections by Lara Vapnyar, Shalom Auslander, Joan Leegant, Etgar Keret, Savyon Liebrecht, and Scott Nadelson -- and three classics by Kafka, Ozick, and Roth. These stories will lead us to thought-provoking discussions about the following themes, among others: Jews relating to non-Jews; Jews relating to different Jews; search for authenticity and identity; exile and homecoming; sexuality; Holocaust and memory; Diaspora & Israel; the fractured Jewish experience in the modern world.

Registration Info

Suggested donation of $60/person includes all reading materials.
An additional $25 sponsors refreshments for a week.

Or contact Faith at the AJC office, 970-925-8245 or 

If you are interested in enrolling long-distance via web-conferencing, the option is available; please contact Rabbi David at or 970-925-8245 x.1.

Course packets are available from Rabbi David with registration. The other books are sold out locally but you can order them yourself online, either paperback or digital versions. They are:
• Nathan Englander, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
• Jonathan Papernick, The Ascent of Eli Israel and Other Stories
• Joan Leegant, An Hour in Paradise

  1. July 3: To Hide or Not to Hide?
    1. Nathan Englander, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank"
    2. Lara Vapnyar, "There Are Jews in My House"
    3. Emmanuel Litvinoff, "Introduction" from the Penguin Book of Jewish Short Stories (1979)
    4. optional - "General Introduction" from the Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature
  2. July 10: A Room of One's Own?
    1. Jonathan Papernick, "An Unwelcome Guest"
    2. Etgar Keret, "Plague of the Firstborn"from The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God & Other Stories
    3. Dara Horn, Introduction to Papernick's Ascent of Eli Israel
  3. July 17: A History of Violence...
    1. Nathan Englander, "Free Fruit for Young Widows"
    2. Etgar Keret, "Siren"from The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God and Other Stories
    3. optional - Nathan Englander, "Camp Sundown"
  4. July 24: Otherness Embodied
    1. Shalom Auslander, "Metamorphosis" from Beware of God
    2. Jonathan Papernick, "The Art of Correcting"
    3. optional classic - Franz Kafka, "A Report to an Academy"
    4. optional - John Updike, Foreword to The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka
  5. July 31: Motherhood and Memory
    1. Savyon Liebrecht, "Morning in the Park Among the Nannies" from Apples in the Desert
    2. Jonathan Papernick, "For as Long as the Lamp is Burning"
    3. Grace Paley, Foreword to Savyon Liebrecht's Apples from the Desert
    4. optional classic - Cynthia Ozick, "The Shawl"
    5. optional - Lily Rattok, Introduction to Savyon Liebrecht's Apples from the Desert
  6. August 7: (Jewish) American Daughters
    1. Scott Nadelson, "The Cantor's Daughter"
    2. Joan Leegant, "The Lament of the Rabbi's Daughters" from An Hour in Paradise
  7. August 14: What Goes Up...
    1. Joan Leegant, "Seekers in the Holy Land" from An Hour in Paradise
    2. Jonathan Papernick, "The Ascent of Eli Israel"
    3. optional classic - Philip Roth, "Eli the Fanatic" from Goodbye, Columbus
Helpful links:

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

3rd Annual Summer Concert

Save the Date 
for our 3rd annual summer concert! 

This year's concert will be a refreshingly eclectic mix 
of new and not-so-new songs inspired by personal stories from our valley 
of spiritual journeys through childhood, faith, doubt, and gratitude. 

Tuesday, August 6, 5:00 pm 
Aspen District Theatre 
(at the Aspen Elementary School) 

featuring Aspen's own 


along with multi-talented returning artists 
Elana Arian, Noah Aronson, Cantor Joshua Breitzer, and Joyce Rosenzweig, 
and first-time world class artists Cantor Andrea Rae Markowitz 
and Cantor Daniel Mutlu 

For patron tickets, please call our office, 970-925-8245. 
($750 per patron, includes catered dinner with musicians)