No Demigods, No Glory: An Old-New Twist on the Superhero Genre
I didn’t start this blog to comment on the daily news.
I started it as a place to reflect on and witness our zigzag toward the future. The zig is the gradual dismantling of the liberal state. The zag is the reaction against that.
Think of the continuing decline in government supported social services and education (zig). And of the relative success of the Sanders campaign (zag). Or of 45 (zig). And the midterms (zag). Could it be that liberal government is becoming obsolete, perhaps due to global communications? And that we are seeing the back and forth movement that will take us to something new? It’s an idea, anyway–one that preoccupies me.
Events have a way of taking over, however. And like many U.S. Jews, it’s been hard not to think over and over again about the murder of eleven Jews on a recent Shabbat morning in a Pittsburgh synagogue. We are a target again–not the formerly targeted feeling sympathy for others. We’re not just grieving at a distance for the murder of Jews in France. We’re grieving for our own. And we’re processing what it all means–for our future, for our conception of ourselves, and for our sense of our place.
Place was the opening topic at Torah study this Shabbat morning. Place, ha makom, is mentioned three times in Vayeitzei, today’s Torah portion. Why? our new female rabbi asked. Wouldn’t once have been enough?
Part of an answer is that Vayeitzei tells the story of Jacob learning that an ordinary place–any ordinary place–is holy. Ma norah ha makom ha zeh (how awesome is this place) he says after a dream tells him there is a ladder to heaven right in that ordinary place. Then he sets up a rock to be an altar, the rock on which he slept and had his holy dream. Even a lowly rock can be an opening to the holy, the story tells us.
Jacob, the rabbi helped us see, is not so heroic. He’s a liar, a cheat, controlled by his mother, distrustful even of God’s gift to him that he would become a great nation, a gift he really did not deserve given his character. The discussion reminded me of an old trope about the difference between Homeric heroes and Jewish patriarchs. Heroes in Homer are big and beautiful while the patriarchs are physically flawed. Later in Torah, Jacob acquires a limp (from wrestling with God). Moses, famously, has a lisp and can’t speak for himself.
And we’re all named after Jacob–who got his wound from wrestling with God and was renamed Israel (God-wrestler). We’e not heroes but human, all-too-human. As a rock can be an altar, and an ordinary place a holy sanctuary, so a flawed person can lead a nation. In fact, only a flawed person can do that–since that is the only kind of person there is.
I’ve taken to following far right internet sites to see how bad things are and to track threats. After the death of Stan Lee, a curious piece popped up, on a well-known neo Nazi site, bemoaning Lee’s influence: “his career’s constant is to put a Jewish twist on the superhero genre, and sell that to young goyim,” the piece stated followed by a quotation from the Washington Post:
Stan Lee, a writer and editor often credited with helping American comics grow up by redefining the notion of a superhero, including the self-doubting Spider-Man, the bickering Fantastic Four, the swaggering Iron Man and the raging Incredible Hulk, died Nov. 12 at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 95.
“Redefining,” the author says incredulously. “Jews are always out there ‘deconstructing’ and ‘redefining’ things, aren’t they? Also: ‘subverting our expectations.’ What’s wrong with our expectations, kikes? Why do they all need to be subverted?”
The author goes on: “The traditional European hero is a strong, willful man fighting for his people and for glory. Our heroes are kings, demigods, saints, conquerors – or some mix of these. Not persecuted minorities living among foreigners.” He summarizes: “These modern superheroes are a totally Jewish concept, and they push Jewish themes and morals.”
You got that right, you clever Nazi. Jews: promoting the same morality after all these years–that no person is a god, that the stranger is like a neighbor, that the holy is more important than glory, and that each person is created in God’s image. Yup, you’re oh so right. We have in fact been deconstructing idols–and for a very long time.
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