The Corner of Hollywood and Sinai Summer Series: The Hero

In ancient Greece, a hero was a man who died in battle and, in doing so, brought glory and posterity to his name. Today’s hero is more likely to be a man who fulfills his dream against all immeasurable odds, minus the dying, hopefully. Sometimes a hero is one who upholds the law against those who would challenge it; sometimes the hero is the very one who challenges the law. A hero can be an ordinary person who, in the face of the unordinary, does the extraordinary. A hero can be an extraordinary person who, in similar situations, does the same. A hero can be real or fictional, fantastic or fantastical. In the movies, though, a hero tends to mean one more thing: big box office sales in the summer.

For the next few months, The Corner of Hollywood and Sinai will be focusing on the portrayal of heroes, a popular central theme in summer movies. We will be considering what the definition of a hero is and how this definition parallels, both positively and negatively, the Jewish definition of a hero. During the course of this series we will be deviating from the normal format. We will also be joined by guest critics to offer fresh outlooks on the chosen focus of our series. It is, after all, rare to find that everyone is in agreement when it comes to heroics.

Redeemed Blood: Where Batman Begins

If a man kills without intention, he is not executed as the intentional killer is. Rather, he is sent into exile. He lives in one of the ‘Cities of Refuge’ where he is sentenced to remain until the death of the High Priest. If the killer should leave the City of Refuge prior to the prescribed time, one assigned relative is given permission to execute him on the spot. That relative is the Goel Hadam—the Redeemer of Blood.

Imagine a man with incredible passion, a man who has trained his body to the peak of perfection. Imagine that this man possesses abnormal intelligence and precision, with seemingly endless riches at his disposal. Now let us call this man Bruce. Bruce, for some reason or another (let’s say his parents were killed in front of him when he was a child), is driven to rid the world of evil. To protect his own identity, and so as not to risk the success of ‘the cause’ by divulging any unnecessary personal secrets, he adopts a false persona. Let us call this false persona ‘Batman’. As Batman, Bruce spends his nights fighting evil, with little or no help from the police force. The police force, you see, are generally not inclined to assist Bruce (or Batman) because they are, for the most part, also corrupt. Batman has to fight crime almost all by himself. Nobody around sees the value of good; they are too obsessed with the benefits of evil. It is all up to Batman. So Batman (or Bruce) preys upon the fears inherent in villainy and slowly, by using means beyond the letter of the law, makes a dent in the darkness that consumes his world.

But, let’s imagine, this is not enough for Bruce. This slow path towards the redemption of society is not satisfying. Batman feels as though, despite his every effort, each night gives birth to more evil. So one day, for the sake of ‘the cause’, for the sake of the greater good, for the sake of Allah, Batman hijacks a plane and drives it into the World Trade Center.

Of course this is not the story of the Batman now showing in theaters starring Christian Bale. The Batman we know would never even contemplate such a horrendous act because Batman is strictly opposed to killing, not to mention his subtle opposition to terrorism and his avoidance of the cowardice involved in attacking innocent victims. But what if Batman’s parents were devout Muslims living in the Middle East? What if their killer was not a lowly thief looking for food but rather an American neo-Nazi fundamentalist? How would such an occurrence affect a nine year old Bruce Wayne? Would you be incredibly surprised if a child in such a situation was compelled towards sacrificing his own life in the name of the God his parents’ killer desecrated? As Bruce Wayne says at the gravesite of his parents, “I will avenge your death! I swear it!”

And what if the Wayne’s were actually the Cohen’s, or the Goldberg’s, and their killer was an average anti-Semite, a little drunk and a little depressed? What would Bruce Goldberg be inclined to do? What would the murder of his parents teach him? How would Bruce retaliate? Or, more crucially, what if Bruce’s father was a Rabbi instead of a doctor and their killer was a secular Jew opposed to the backward practices of his religious brethren. Would Batman be a masked avenger for the sake of the Torah, killing all Sabbath-violators and idol-worshipers? Would Batman wait for the requisite pair of witnesses and ensure prior warning was given before he took vengeance upon his parents’ killer? Would he defer to a court of valid judges when a known criminal stands before him? Perhaps, as a law-abiding, Orthodox Jew, he would. Or, perhaps, seeing the present-day Beit Din as weak and lax in their efforts to promote Jewish law, Batman might spend several years developing a Halachically appropriate argument for why his actions were permissible—The Batman Heter, if you will.

I do not mean to attack Batman’s place atop the hierarchy of ‘Fictional Men Who Save the World.’ Batman has always been one of my heroes. But after seeing the most recent Batman film, I was forced to reconsider my perception of the film’s protagonist.

As an orthodox Jew, I usually saw my childhood heroes a little differently than the way my secular friends viewed their heroes. Most young boys saw Michael Jordan as a living possibility—with enough effort and practice, they too could achieve Jordan’s professional basketball success. Friday night games, among other considerations, prevented me from dreaming of the NBA player’s life. I saw Jordan’s work ethic as a template for what was necessary in any discipline. But, when I watched Michael Jordan playing, I saw him only as a distant master of physicality, not as a man I could practically become. My religious practices prohibited such a future. And such was the case often: From Jimi Hendrix to Neil Armstrong, there was invariably some facet of my heroes’ careers that did not mesh with the directives of Orthodox Judaism.

But Batman was different. Batman fought for justice. Batman was just the kind of man Halacha applauded. I, as a religious Jew, I thought, could be Batman. But, as I grew, my conviction here was challenged. And, after seeing ‘Batman Begins,’ I feared that Batman, my hero for so many years, was far from the ideal for (what my grandmother would have called) ‘a good, Jewish boy.’

Batman is motivated by vengeance. Halachic Jews are taught to conquer their vengeful desires. Batman answers to his own moral code. We adhere to a code given by God. Batman is a strong proponent of the ends justifying the means. Only rarely does Halacha permit such an attitude. Batman works alone. Judaism, like any religion, cannot survive in isolation. Most significantly, Batman believes only in the justice he perceives. Belief in God mandates a belief in a justice that sometimes goes unwitnessed by human beings.

And then, of course, the alternate-universe Batmans I started with: Batman as an extremist Muslim terrorist; Batman as a crazed Jewish anti-anti-Semite; Batman as Halacha’s own self-appointed “judge, jury and executioner.” Of course I could not respect Batman. Batman could be any one of these people. In different circumstances, different places, Bruce Wayne could have grown up to be any number of awful combinations. How could I respect a man who defines his own moral code? How could I even consider a hero a man driven by vengeance?

So I should reflect and allow Batman to take his place among Michael Jordan, Jimi Hendrix and the rest. I should adjust to the fact that I will never be Batman. I can learn from him, emulate his devotion and passion, admire him from afar, but never adopt his ideologies, never consent to his philosophy. But something within me will not allow such an acceptance.

Batman is not what he could be. A man is not measured by the choices he would have made. Batman is what he is. Like DeNiro says in Deer Hunter, “This is this.” Batman lives in a decrepit society and, like the man whose relative was killed inadvertently, seeks vengeance in the name of that which he fears. For him, it is in the name of the bat. For the goel hadam, it is in the name of God. But are they so different then? In this world we are called to act. There can never be certainty: are we right or are we wrong? Batman and I have our differences, and some of these differences may be significant. But I have complete faith that if Batman were me, he too would not desecrate the Sabbath to play basketball. And it is there that we meet. Because the fine line of life is such that with every good deed there is the capacity for evil. To balance on such a beam is a duty which leaves most lying on the floor. Batman walks with care and definition upon such a beam each night. Does he falter? Yes. Does he repent? Each morning. Would my grandmother have been proud? Well she might ask him to slow down, look both ways once in a while, and make time for lunch with her on Thursday afternoons, but in essence: yes, I’m quite sure she would have been. Because Batman is one of the most devout people I have seen on film in a long time. And I think the Jewish people could use a few Dark Knights right about now.

Chai Hecht

2005 NISHMA