Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Can a Jewish Superhero fly on the Sabbath?
Something you never see superheroes do is attend services. You never see a superhero go to the bathroom either, but that’s another story. The religious affiliation of most superheroes is as mysterious as their secret identity. With the exception of Marvel Comics’ Daredevil, I can’t remember ever seeing a superhero in a church. I’ve seen Daredevil portrayed praying in a Catholic church, but I’ve also seen him fight ninjas in the church, which may have been some kind of cross-cultural event I didn’t understand.
It’s no big surprise to me that there are a number of Jewish superheroes, considering that most of the early comic book creators were Jewish. What I want to know is, does being a superhero influence how they observe Judaism or vice versa? If a Jewish superhero is a flying superhero, does he or she refrain from flying on the Sabbath? I imagine flying would be permitted if the Jewish superhero were on the way to fight crime, since crime fighting would be considered an emergency situation.
Let’s examine some specific Jewish superheroes, starting with Ben Grimm. He’s the orange rock-skinned member of the Fantastic Four, better known as the Thing. Here’s a man who could easily be mistaken for the afikomen on Passover. The Thing’s signature battle cry is “It’s Clobberin’ Time!” Does he shout “It’s Davenin’ Time!” when he arrives at shul for services?
A great female Jewish superhero is Kitty Pryde. She’s had more super names (Shadowcat, Ariel, Sprite) than any character I can think of. She once stopped a vampire by using a Star of David instead of a Cross. Her power is that she can become intangible and “phase” through any object. If she becomes intangible before she enters a mikvah and the water passes through her, does it count as a cleansing or does she have to do it again when she’s solid?
Colossal Boy is the Legion of Super Heroes’ only Jewish member. He can expand from giant size back to normal size without having to use the South Beach Diet. If he got as big as seven men, then married Triplicate Girl and got her to convert, would they make a minyan by themselves? Would it depend on which synagogue they were members?
Bernie Rosenthal is not a superhero, but she almost married one. I can only hope that Bernie is short for Bernadette. After an intense courtship, she proposed to Steve Rogers; Captain America. That’s right, she asked him. Hey, she’s a Jewish girl; she’s not shy. And what else could he say but yes. But here’s the problem- you don’t get much more Gentile than the blond-haired, blue-eyed Captain America (even if he was created by the Jewish team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby).
Due to circumstances that could only happen in a comic book, Bernie and Steve never could set a date (he always had to run off to save the world whenever she mentioned wedding plans) and eventually they drifted apart. How did Bernie ever manage to explain her relationship to her mother? Can’t you just imagine it? Bernie’s mother says “Sure, he’s a nice boy, he fights for justice, and he always remembers to wipe his feet before coming in the house, but he’s not Jewish!”
Not all comic book characters with super powers are heroes. There are a few Jewish supervillains running around in their underwear too. Two of the most infamous are Magneto, arch-nemesis of the X-Men, and Harley Quinn, the Joker’s girlfriend (what she sees in that meshuggenah, I’ll never know). Yom Kippur takes on a whole new dimension of atonement for these characters. I can’t imagine that one day of fasting is going to work for a supervillain. Maybe a week? Do they even bother with the traditional vidui, or do they have a special supervillain alphabet of sins? Something like: I annihilate, I blow up, I crush, I devastate, I eviscerate, I flay, I garrote, I humiliate, I jeopardize, I laugh like a lunatic, I mutilate, I no good, I oppress, I pummel, I quote dead tyrants at inopportune moments, I rip to shreds, I squash, I tyrannize, I undermine, I vandalize, I whack, I x-ray gun, I yearn for world domination and finally, I zap!
Probably, every day is a special challenge for Jewish superheroes. How do you perform a bris on a boy with impregnable skin? How does the busy Jewish woman superhero manage to find the time to fight crime, do her day job and keep a kosher home all at the same time? How does a Jewish superhero convince his mother that fighting crime and saving the world is better than being a doctor or a lawyer?
Considering that most of superheroes are Gentiles, how does a Jewish superhero maintain his Jewish identity when it’s hard enough to maintain his secret identity? That’s probably the biggest challenge any Jew super or otherwise has to face.
This essay originally appeared in the November 2004 issue of "Chai" magazine- a Jewish lifestyle magazine associated with the Atlanta Jewish Times.
I got most of my information as to which superheroes are Jewish from articles I found on the internet, which means the facts are hardly set in stone. In fact, I was at a comic book convention where two Jewish comic book writers claimed they were not aware of the religion of any character.
Any comic book fan can tell you that the illustration with this posting is a tracing of a famous Jack Kirby drawing of the Thing. I added the tallit and the kippot.