Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Bracha from Batman

Yesterday I had the interesting experience of getting a bracha from Batman.

Okay, maybe that’s not entirely accurate. I wasn't getting a bracha for myself, but rather recording him giving a video bracha for someone else. And he’s not Batman, at least not yet; he’s still only Bruce Wayne.

I’m referring to David Mazouz, a very talented young actor who plays twelve-year-old Bruce Wayne in the hit new television series Gotham. It turns that David attends the same school as my nephew. I seized the opportunity to do something special for the children of a neighbor of mine, who are big fans of the show and who have suffered a family tragedy. David kindly agreed to bless them with “bracha and hatzlacha.” (As a friend of mine quipped – it was a bat-mitzva!)

Meeting the young Batman just a few days after my encounter with the Lord on the beach, I was reminded of that post. I had reminisced about the stage of my life when I subscribed to a black-and-white view regarding the legitimacy of sources of religious inspiration. Anything [Orthodox] Jewish was in; anything not Jewish was out.

At that stage of my life, about twenty years ago, I was once speaking to a certain brilliant Jewish educator of a decidedly non-charedi disposition. He was a big Batman fan, and told me about various creative insights that he had, connecting Batman with Jewish ideas. I was appalled. As a teenager, I had always been a big Batman fan (not the campy TV show with Adam West, but rather the more serious and intense graphic novels). But to claim that Batman could be a source of Jewish inspiration seemed downright sacrilegious. In a fit of religious fervor, I took my collection of Batman graphic novels and sold them.

Fast forward many years, and, as noted in my earlier post, my view has broadened. If Bnei Brak can draw inspiration from a Christian parable about the Lord on the beach, then we can draw inspiration from wherever it is to be found. And, with regard to Batman, I came across a wonderful little book entitled “Wisdom from the Batcave.” It is written by Rabbi Cary Friedman, a prison chaplain who also teaches classes on spiritual growth for law enforcement officers, including the FBI. The book is all about spiritual lessons to learn from the Dark Knight, including such concepts as how to triumph over adversity, the value of willpower, the blessing of family, and so on.

A few years ago, I myself was spiritually assisted by Batman. I can’t remember the exact details, but it was a halachic situation in which I was being tempted to come up with some sort of rationalization for why I didn't need to observe it. Then, all of a sudden, a page from the second-greatest Batman graphic novel of all time, The Dark Knight Returns, popped into my mind.

It was where a middle-aged Batman, having come out of retirement, is in a tank-like vehicle, with an utterly evil monstrous person called the Mutant Leader in his gunsights. In the world of Batman, there are some concrete rules. One is that Batman never, ever kills. He might bruise and maim and break bones, but he never takes a life. Another rule is that criminals never remain incarcerated – they always manage to somehow escape from prison or from Arkham Asylum, to commit further atrocities.

So, Batman is looking at this monster, and thinking to himself that the only thing that makes sense is to fire the tank cannons and blow him off the face of the earth. But, he reminds himself, to do so would mean crossing a line that he drew for himself thirty years earlier. And so he doesn't do it.

In this particular scenario, it may well make perfect sense for Batman to kill the Mutant Leader rather than sparing him to inevitably end up committing more atrocities. But if Batman kills this person, then there is no real reason for him not to kill other bad guys. And once Batman becomes a mass executioner, the world is a much worse place. And so he doesn't kill him.

This is a very important concept that I have successfully since used with others, in particular with Orthodox Jews who have faith issues and who are questioning whether they should observe particular halachos. Like the situation in which the Dark Knight found himself, the question is not whether there is sufficient reason to keep a particular halachah. Rather, the question is, what kind of person do you want to be? Do you want to be part of halachic society, or not? That question can have a very different answer, which motivates a person to observe halachah even in a case where he would otherwise see no reason to do so.

Of course, this does not mean that every message communicated by Batman is of value. Indeed, in the aforementioned story, Batman proceeds to come up with a second and apparently more important reason for not killing the Mutant Leader – because he wants to see if, in his fifties, he still has what it takes to win in hand-to-hand combat. This is absurd – you don’t risk letting evil triumph in order to boost your ego! The first reason alone is valid.

So, one can draw religious inspiration from Batman. I plan to send my copy of Wisdom from the Batcave to the young Bruce Wayne – he is a very fine young man, and I’m sure that he will appreciate seeing how he can learn from the character that he plays. I hope that he will grow up to be a great man, and perhaps one day there will be many more Jews seeking a bracha from Batman!

37 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Batman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939, both men were Jewish. David Mazouz too is Jewish. And Cary A. Friedman is a Rabbi.
      o

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    2. Don't forget Part 2:

      http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/719949/Rabbi_Aaron_Rakeffet-Rothkoff/1999-04-26_The_art_of_living_&_teaching_Torah,_a_eulogy_for_Joe_DiMaggio_#2

      It's a wonderful, wonderful shiur. And I don't only say that because my father has a role toward the beginning. :-)

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  2. Rabbi Cary Friedman was a Scholar-in-Residence at my shul in Bergen County and he was truly phenomenal. He spoke of his experiences with law enforcement and discussed Batman in separate speeches. It was riveting, mesmerizing, and quite emotional. If you have the opportunity to hear him speak, be sure to do so.

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    1. I have also heard Rabbi Friedman speak. I second the sentiment that he is well worth hearing.

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  3. R' Slifkin: You call The Dark Knight Returns the second greatest Batman graphic novel. This is true. I hope you'll agree with me that the greatest, of course, is Batman: Year One. (By the same author, as it happens.)

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  4. "Rather, the question is, what kind of person do you want to be? Do you want to be part of halachic society, or not?"

    What exactly do you mean? R'Slifkin, can you (or anyone else) elaborate on this?

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  5. I prefer to take my religious inspiration from Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Saul Bellow among others. Even Phillip Roth.

    Lawrence Kaplan

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    1. A member of my shul in the Bronx, Mr. Nathan David, o.b.m., used to have a card in his siddur, which had a quote from Hamlet (in the scene where Claudius is praying):
      "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
      Words without thoughts, never to heaven go."

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  6. "Rather, the question is, what kind of person do you want to be? Do you want to be part of halachic society, or not?"

    I have no problem with learning spiritual lessons from popular culture. Or Christian parables. But your group inclusion argument sounds like an endorsement of Orthopraxy. You could make the same argument to someone struggling with faith and observance in general - nah, none of it is true, but 30 years ago your self image and identity was tied to halachic society, do you really want to leave the group? If you believe in God and His Torah, but there is not "sufficient reason to keep a particular halachah," shouldn't that halachah be modified or abandoned to preserve the overall Truth?

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    1. If you believe in God and His Torah, but there is not "sufficient reason to keep a particular halachah," shouldn't that halachah be modified or abandoned to preserve the overall Truth?

      You can't run a run a religion that way (Guide 3:34):

      IT is also important to note that the Law does not take into account exceptional circumstances; it is not based on conditions which rarely occur. Whatever the Law teaches, whether it be of an intellectual, a moral, or a practical character, is founded on that which is the rule and not on that which is the exception: it ignores the injury that might be caused to a single person through a certain maxim or a certain divine precept. For the Law is a divine institution, and [in order to understand its operation] we must consider how in Nature the various forces produce benefits which are general, but in some solitary cases they cause also injury. This is clear from what has been said by ourselves as well as by others. We must consequently not be surprised when we find that the object of the Law does not fully appear in every individual; there must naturally be people who are not perfected by the instruction of the Law, just as there are beings which do not receive from the specific forms in Nature all that they require. For all this comes from one God, is the result of one act; "they are all given from one shepherd" (Eccles. xii. 11). It is impossible to be otherwise; and we have already explained (chap. xv.) that that which is impossible always remains impossible and never changes. From this consideration it also follows that the laws cannot like medicine vary according to the different conditions of persons and times; whilst the cure of a person depends on his particular constitution at the particular time, the divine guidance contained in the Law must be certain and general, although it may be effective in some cases and ineffective in others. If the Law depended on the varying conditions of man, it would be imperfect in its totality, each precept being left indefinite. For this reason it would not be right to make the fundamental principles of the Law dependent on a certain time or a certain place; on the contrary, the statutes and the judgments must be definite, unconditional and general, in accordance with the divine words: "As for the congregation, one ordinance shall be for you and for the stranger" (Num. xv. 15); they are intended, as has been stated before, for all persons and for all times.

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  7. If anything, you make your original argument of Torah bagoyim al taamin - if Batman could have killed Hitler before the holocaust, would he have? If he had not, would that have been considered moral in the eyes of the Torah? The Christians preach "turn the other cheek"; G-d and chazal preach: "lo taamod al dam reyecha"; the law of rodef; haba l'hargecha, hashkem l'hargo...

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  8. Avi,

    We are not talking about someone who rejects 90% of halacha. We are talking about someone who accepts that the Torah is miSinai and that Chazal and poskim have the right to legislate and pasken. This individual, though, may think Chazal or poskim got a particular matter wrong (e.g., electricity). The question is: Do you go your own way and decide to ignore the halachic concesus? Or do you tell yourself that I accept the system as a whole and being part of this system and the halachic community means accepting decisions even when I may not agree with them?

    The truth is accepting halachic decisions even while perhaps disagreeing with them is very similar to how most people relate to secular law. I profoundly disagree with the U.S. Supreme Court on many of their recent decisions. And yet, I know that being a good American citizen (generally) means that I follow the law even if I may disagree with it. (Isaac Breuer even proposed a radical version of this argument. He said a good Jews should follow Jewish law [even if he doesn't believe in G-d!] just like a good German obeys German law.)

    Of course, this is not an exact parallel at all since many Supreme Court decisions are 5-4 and half the country might disagree with them. Disobeying the law in such instances can be counted as a form of protest or civil disobedience. The same cannot be said about halachos that have been accepted by 99% of observant Jews (e.g., electricity) for many generations.

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  9. The mishna derives inspiration from leopards and eagles, the Gemara derives it from cats and ants - why shouldn't you derive it from a bat?

    Inspiration can come from anywhere. In Baltimore (NIRC) one of the Neubergers recommended How To Win Friends & Influence People for mussar seder. A well written rock song can do the same thing, and certainly a movie. Obviously classic literature too, as Dr. Kaplan notes.

    The question is really one of marketing and taste. As an individual you can draw your inspiration from whomever, it's really not important. But should a rabbi get up from the pulpit and enthusiastically say he just listened to the Rocky soundtrack, and boy, let's get ready to daavvvveeeennn!! Probably not.

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    1. The rabbi of a shul at which I used to daven once told us that if we wanted to know how we should be davening, we should take a ride down the the Ace Hardware parking lot on Nostrand Avenue on a Sunday morning and listen to the sounds coming out of the evangelical church next door.

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  10. 1) Adam West is the real Batman. Please don't make that mistake again.
    2) "they always manage to somehow escape from prison or from Arkham Asylum, to commit further atrocities" Which is why Superman, in the Injustice Series, was right when he said that Batman was guilty of the murders and tortures of all his villians' victims over the years since everyone they harmed was due to Batman not destroying them.
    3) Is is just me or does The Mutant Leader bear an uncanny resemblance to Cyclops, leader of the world's mutants in Marvel's universe?

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    1. 3) The whole gang wears those. Never noticed that before.

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  11. As a teenager, I had always been a big Batman fan (not the campy TV show with Adam West, but rather the more serious and intense graphic novels).

    Must you always be so divisive?

    :)

    I prefer to take my religious inspiration from Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Saul Bellow among others. Even Phillip Roth.

    Lawrence Kaplan


    The academics in Shakespeare's time were probably saying that they preferred to take their inspiration from Euripides :).

    Personally, I find Primo Levi inspiring despite his avowed atheism.

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    1. I agree wjth you about Primo Levi

      Lawrence Kaplan

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  12. "This is a very important concept that I have successfully since used with others, in particular with Orthodox Jews who have faith issues and who are questioning whether they should observe particular halachos. Like the situation in which the Dark Knight found himself, the question is not whether there is sufficient reason to keep a particular halachah. Rather, the question is, what kind of person do you want to be? Do you want to be part of halachic society, or not? That question can have a very different answer, which motivates a person to observe halachah even in a case where he would otherwise see no reason to do so."

    As someone who is struggling with faith issues, I very much want to live in a halachic society. But what does one do when one comes to question the Torah basis of the halachah we serve? One almost necessarily falls into orthopraxy.

    Rav Slifkin, have you ever read the first chapter of Rav Norman Lamm's book "Faith and Doubt"? Rav Lamm writes:

    "...A doubt is spurious if it does not issue from a quest for truth. A genuine doubt must be a question that arises from a quest, not a specious excuse that spares the doubter the need to commit himself. It must be critical not only of the object of its concerns, but of itself as well, lest it be no more than an irresponsible evasion of the need to take a stand...

    ...The emet which cognitive emunah affirms is not given to us for the price of mere assent; it is the prize for which we must engage in a fierce intellectual struggle. Doubt, so conceived, becomes not an impediment, but a goad to reinvestigate and deepen cognitive faith assertions. Out of the agony of a faith which must constantly wrestle with doubt may emerge an emunah of far greater vision, scope, and attainment...This is, of course, a dangerous and risky kind of faith. But, as someone so rightly said, you cannot open your mind to truth without risking the entrance of falsehood; and you cannot close your mind to falsehood without risking the exclusion of truth. The only way to avoid cognitive doubt is to ignore it; worse yet, to abandon the enterprise of cognition, or daat Hashem. The path to the knowledge of God is strewn with the rocks and boulders of doubt; he who would despair of the journey because of the fear of doubt, must resign himself forever from attaining the greatest prize known to man..."

    Sometimes orthopraxy is a refuge while one sorts out bigger questions.

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  13. Fiction, even fantasy writing, can serve to provide insights and teach values for the interested reader. Nor are such lessons restricted to classical works. The batman modus operandi is contrasted to the Jasnah lesson in Sanderson's start of an epic fantasy, The Way of Kings in the Stormlight Archive series. She takes her reluctant young student on an evening excursion to the seamier places in town. It's a lesson in 'field philosophy', she tells Shallan. As the upper class pair proceed to ever darker and narrower alleyways to Shallan's distress, they finally encounter some 4 brigands. One lunges at Jasnah with a knife and is turned to flame by Jasnah's powers. The rest attempt to flee. One is turned to crystal and the others to smoke. Shallan is shocked at the callousness of her mentor's display. You deliberately enticed them to attack us and then killed them, she complains. Isn't a woman allowed to walk unmolested, Yasnah argues. Haven't I rid the city of violent offenders who have killed and terrorized people? Consider all the philosophical implications of my act and report to me, Jasnah says - concluding the lesson. Shallan, meanwhile is less concerned with the philosophical questions than with the morality and callousness of the deed.

    Y. Aharon

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    1. As Brandon's editor (as well as a fan of Rav Slifkin), your comment citing THE WAY OF KINGS has made my day!

      I hope you've also read and enjoyed volume 2, WORDS OF RADIANCE.

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    2. Moshe, I have long noted your name in the acknowledgments page of TWOK. You deserve much credit for helping to bring the work of such a talented author to the reading public. I wish you much continued success in your efforts. I have become a fan of Sanderson's work and expect to continue to follow his projected massive series as long as I can (I am not a youngster). Rest assured, I have read and enjoyed his 2nd installment, WOR. I also comment on the Tor reread of the latter work (I use the moniker of STBLST - for stormblessed).

      Y. Aharon

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  14. According to http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/why-batman-matters/2012/08/22/3/?print Rabbi Avigdor Miller thought it was a mitzvah to givr Batman comic books to kids.

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  15. My earliest heroes were New York City Police officers Dave Greenberg and Robert Hantz, the cops known as Batman & Robin. They had their 15 minutes of fame with their biography and film, the SuperCops. I think my main reason or identifying with them was because they were both Jewish. Although they were not at all observant, they still identified themselves as Jews, and so I identified with them.

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  16. You got money for your comic books? That's an even greater wonder.

    (Maybe its a british thing. No such thing in america.)

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  17. A response to many posters here:

    Orthopraxy IS Judaism!! If not, then how can we accept the Rambam, Ramban, Vilna Gaon, Baal Shem Tov, Rav Kook, Chazon Ish, Lubavitcher Rebbe, Satmar Rebbe and R Moshe Feinstein as all being Jews in good standing?? The only thing that binds them is the commitment to Halacha as they understood it. Their philosphies are all completely different and many times contradict each other in fundamental beliefs and doctrines.

    Judaism is defined as a commitment to the halachic system. Period.

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  18. Fiction, even fantasy writing, can serve to provide insights and teach values for the interested reader.

    I wonder about learning lessons from fiction. You learn lessons from empirical reality. A good fiction author creates their own world. If you are learning a lesson, isn't a possibly false one?

    In other words, isn't learning lessons from fiction like learning science by observing a chess game? You can learn from a chess game, but you are learning about the chess universe, not the real one.

    I know that most people devoted to literature probably disagree, but I can't see the flaw in my logic yet.

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    1. David, while the writers of fiction manufacture stories, the good ones base themselves on what they have learned from experience. They may filter out some of the complexities of life in order to make the tale flow, but strive to preserve the essential aspects. Of course, there are all kinds of fiction, and some may be unrewarding other than for entertainment value. The object is not to assume that great works of fiction are a complete guide to living, but to integrate lessons from such works into one's self-understanding and world outlook. The problem with learning from experience is that it takes many years to acquire such empirical knowledge. Life as an adult, however, requires preparation for which serious literature (or even some fantasy books) can help. Even your chess example contains lessons for real life such as:
      Moves have consequences. Concentration, strategy, and anticipation of counter-moves are a key to success.

      Y. Aharon

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  19. A response to many posters here:

    Orthopraxy IS Judaism!! If not, then how can we accept the Rambam, Ramban, Vilna Gaon, Baal Shem Tov, Rav Kook, Chazon Ish, Lubavitcher Rebbe, Satmar Rebbe and R Moshe Feinstein as all being Jews in good standing?? The only thing that binds them is the commitment to Halacha as they understood it. Their philosphies are all completely different and many times contradict each other in fundamental beliefs and doctrines.

    Judaism is defined as a commitment to the halachic system. Period.


    Is that really the only common denominator? They also shared a set of common beliefs that they all would consider essential and which modern man tends to find doubtful. Among others, I would count the divinity of the Torah, Sinaitic revelation, the belief in Providence including the miraculous exodus from Egypt.

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    1. The differences between Rambam's view of divinity of Torah, revelation, providence and miracles vs. Ramban's view are so massive that it is almost impossible to use the same terminology about both.

      So to answer your question, YES, HALAHA REALLY IS the only historical common denominator linking all observant Jews in all places at all times.

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    2. The differences between Rambam's view of divinity of Torah, revelation, providence and miracles vs. Ramban's view are so massive that it is almost impossible to use the same terminology about both.

      Can you provide detail? There are differences, maybe large ones, but they still have a set of common beliefs which distinguish them from an atheist.

      Furthermore, if you are trying to find difference between the groups, halachic observance is as much of a problem. The Misnagdim thought that the Chassidim were halachically observant. Rav Karo thought that Ashkenazic practices were pagan. There is no more of a common denominator in Halacha than in thought.

      So to answer your question, YES, HALAHA REALLY IS the only historical common denominator linking all observant Jews in all places at all times.

      This is an empty statement. You've defined "observant" to be those that keep halacha (by some standard), so of course that is will be the common denominator.

      BTW, by your standard, what do you think about the Sadducees, Karaites, and halachic Conservatives? Presumably you would call them observant since they certainly follow(ed) halacha, at least by their own lights. They just differed in exactly how halacha was/is formulated and decided.

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    3. Great points, but you are mistaken. Here's why:

      According to Rambam prophesy/revelation is a human experience, meaning God is not active. His will is "realized" not dictated. Providence is Nature, and miracles are what we call things that we didn't expect to happen. Ramban is a supernaturalist who believes in a God that is imminent in the World, angels and demons as actual metaphysical phenomena, and Mitzvos as having a "spiritual" effect on a person or the world. These are simply two different religions except for the fact that they both keep the same laws, just as two citizens of a country may be polar opposites in their views but are both "good" citizens because they follow the law.

      What I mean by they keep the law - Halacha - is that they accept the system and structure of law, not that every law for every person in every place is identical.

      Sadducees and Karaites are the opposite of Halacha. They assume that the meaning of the text is important in a halachic sense and therefore their interpretations are just as valid. Rabbinic Judaism rejects that the text has any halachic validity unless the Rabbis give it such (למה לי קרא, סברה היא). For all halachic intents and purposes Tanach is meaningless until halacha grants it validity. Hence, we don't care that it says עין תחת עין, halacha says that money is paid for damages, so we interpret the verse accordingly. Had halacha developed a different approach, the verse would mean something else today.

      Conservative Judaism is a different issue. They are invalid halachically because their concerns when deciding halacha are not not solely for reasons pertaining to serving God but other things such as keeping synagogue attendance up and being sensitive to עוברה עבירה.

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    4. The Misnagdim thought that the Chassidim were halachically observant.

      Of course I meant "The Misnagdim thought that the Chassidim were not halachically observant."

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    5. I wrote a lengthy response but I'm not sure what happened to it. It suffices to say that there are clear answers to all of your good points. I stand firmly by my statement that Judaism is a commitment to halacha, nothing more, nothing less.

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  20. So what's the first-greatest Batman graphic novel

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