Samuel G. Freedman: Religion and Comic Books ... Where Did Superman’s Theology Come From?





When Rabbi Simcha Weinstein leads Rosh Hashanah services this weekend at the B’nai Avraham synagogue in Brooklyn Heights, he will read a liturgy deeply concerned with the concept of teshuva, or repentance. And when Rabbi Weinstein speaks of repentance, he often thinks of a young man he met decades ago by the name of Peter Parker.

Parker had been walking home after competing in a wrestling match, vain in the aftermath of his victory, and as a robber dashed past him, he did nothing. That same robber proceeded to attack and kill Parker’s uncle.

Coming upon the scene, the nephew was struck by such guilt and remorse that he resolved to spend the rest of his life fighting crime.

As any fan of comic books, including Rabbi Weinstein, would recognize, Peter Parker is Spider-Man, created by Stan Lee and drawn initially by Jack Kirby and then Steve Ditko. Parker’s moment of moral awakening occurred in the first issue of the Spider-Man strip, published in 1962 and discovered by Rabbi Weinstein during his own boyhood in the early 80’s.

Something else that Rabbi Weinstein came to learn much more recently was that Lee and Kirby were Jewish — born Stanley Lieber and Jacob Kurtzberg, respectively. So it seemed to the rabbi no accident that their comic resonated with a quintessentially Jewish theological theme.

That insight, among others drawn from Rabbi Weinstein’s study of the classic superhero comics, infuses a new book, “Up, Up and Oy Vey!” The volume, which has nearly sold out its first run of 5,000 copies, contends that writer-artists of the classic comics, many of them Jewish, were influenced by their religious heritage in devising characters and plots.

“I feel queasy when I read people who use pop culture to try to proselytize,” said Rabbi Weinstein, a member of the Lubavitcher Hasidic sect who is the campus rabbi at Pratt Institute. “And I didn’t want to enforce my own fantasy.

“But I knew the writers were Jewish. That’s a historical fact. And when I bought all the comics, and gave them my rabbi’s reading, I saw something there. Judaism is filled with superheroes and villains — Samson, Pharaoh. And it’s a religion rich in storytelling and in themes of being moral, ethical, spiritual.”...

comments powered by Disqus
History News Network