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.
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.