On September 19, 2022, the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought invited Dr. Liel Leibovitz, editor at large at Tablet, and Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Daniel Feldman to discuss the ideal of heroism as depicted in the colorful panels of American comic books. Straus Center Director Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik moderated the discussion, in which Dr. Leibovitz and Rabbi Feldman asserted that the particular kinds of heroism embodied by certain American superheroes, especially those created by Jewish writers and artists, resonate with traditional Jewish ideals of heroism.
Early in the discussion, Dr. Leibovitz and Rabbi Feldman identified their favorite comic book franchises, with Rabbi Feldman explaining his preference for DC Comics storylines and Dr. Leibovitz expressing his partiality towards the Marvel Comics universe.
Rabbi Feldman illustrated how DC superheroes like Superman and Batman are a product of good chinuch ——the kind of strict ethical schooling celebrated in the Jewish tradition. Both Superman and Batman start off as inherently powerful individuals: Superman is an extraterrestrial with superhuman powers while Batman is the heir to an enormous fortune. However, it is not their innate power that motivates these two heroes to fight for justice, but rather the deep-seated ethical standards instilled in them at a young age. Superman’s good-natured family, the Kents of Smallville, instruct him to use his powers to help others, while Batman’s philanthropic parents inspire him to strive to make a difference in his community.
Dr. Leibovitz, drawing from his biography of Stan Lee, Stan Lee: A Life in Comics, pointed to Lee’s Jewish roots as informing the heroic evolution of Marvel superheroes. Heroes like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four receive their superhuman abilities later in life and are not wise enough to immediately use their newfound powers for good. Rather, they must come to terms with the destructive potential of their power and overcome the temptation to use it for selfish reasons, reflecting the themes of sin, repentance and growth at the heart of Hasidic theology. Dr. Leibovitz also explored how the Incredible Hulk, a superhero defined by his split Jekyll and Hyde personalities, reflects the tension between the two opposing sides of human nature identified in Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s The Lonely Man of Faith.
Finally, Dr. Leibovitz and Rabbi Feldman commented on the present-day popularity of the comic book genre in media. Both concurred that the superhero is designed to be a moral paradigm for modern societies in which traditional mediums of ethical instruction, such as religious texts, are increasingly less impactful.