X-Mensch: Coming to a Synagogue Near You?

Synagogues have much to learn from the dominance of superheroes in modern pop culture.

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Michael Fassbender in 'X-Men: Days of Future Past.'Credit: AP
Michael Knopf
Rabbi Michael Knopf

Summer is upon us again, and with it movie season. This year, as with recent years, the multiplexes are being dominated by films on superheroes – from sequels to “Captain America,” “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” to the debuting “Lucy.” I personally love superhero films – always have – but whether or not you, too, geek out for superheroes, there’s plenty we Jews can learn from the genre’s dominance in the film market.

Last summer, Hollywood released four superhero movies. Two of them, “Iron Man 3” and “Man of Steel,” took in a combined $700 million in domestic ticket sales. This year, the market is also doing well. So far, three of this year’s top five grossing movies were superhero films, and there are already films of this genre lined up for every summer in the foreseeable future. Superheroes have also taken over TV. Shows like ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” draw large audiences, and other networks are following suit, launching small-screen versions of Batman (Fox’s “Gotham”) and “The Flash" (The CW) next year.

Pop-culture dominance reveals a lot about the spiritual and psychological state of the public. You cannot sell half a billion dollars’ worth of movie tickets to a niche portion of the population. Such movies and characters - whether by design or by happenstance - have to have broad appeal. This means that there is something going on in our collective hearts and souls that drives us to resonate so deeply with this genre.

A new era of superhero films emerged after 9/11, launching in earnest with 2002’s “Spider-Man.” It opened in 2002, eight months after the attack on the twin towers, and featured footage filmed in the wake of the attack. At roughly the same time, the Internet was beginning to transform through the rise of high-speed connectivity, the proliferation of videos, social media and user-generated content. 9/11 brought the brokenness of our world to our collective doorstep; Web 2.0 brought it repeatedly into our laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Every act of cynicism, callousness, and cruelty in the world got captured on camera, uploaded, shared, discussed and dissected. Suddenly, there was no refuge from bad news. Many of us increasingly began to feel our world was unstoppably crumbling before our eyes.

Superhero stories - which center on fighting injustice, helping those in need and building a better world - express a pervasive collective hope that our world is redeemable and a yearning to repair it. We love superheroes because, deep down, we want to be them; we long to save the world.

The Jewish tradition understood this profound human need long before the Internet and 9/11. Two millennia ago, the rabbis of the Talmud taught that human beings can act like God; for example, by visiting the sick, comforting mourners and burying the dead. To imitate God means being present when people are vulnerable and suffering, and to do whatever we can to alleviate their pain. It means listening to the cries of the oppressed in our world, railing against injustice, and fashioning a more compassionate and peaceful world. This ancient piece of wisdom, sometimes known by a Latin term, “imitatio dei,” imitating God, empowers us, in effect, to be superheroes. Many authorities throughout the ages have said that imitatio dei is the central message of Judaism.

Interestingly, most Jews intuitively feel that emulating God is the essence of Judaism. Perhaps that’s a reason why the first modern-day superhero, Superman, was created by two Jewish teens. And more recently, when the Pew Research Center asked American Jews what elements of Judaism they felt were essential, 70 percent said leading an ethical and moral life, and nearly 60 percent said working for justice and equality. By contrast, being part of a Jewish community and observing traditional Jewish law both scored under 30 percent.

Today’s synagogues would be wise to see the correlation between Jewish disaffection with synagogues and the spiritual underpinnings of our culture’s superhero obsession. Less than a third of American Jews belong to a synagogue, yet 94 percent are proud to be Jewish and 80 percent say Judaism is an important part of their life. Might this disconnect be due to American Jews finding that the prayer, ritual and study in their synagogues does not reflect the Judaism they see as essential: passionate responses to the issues of the day, the pursuit of justice, dignity and peace, bringing God’s love and compassion to the world?

Of course prayer, study and ritual are essential parts of Judaism. They’re like our body; they offer meaning and communal connection. They foster group cohesion and enable us to transmit our values to future generations. But caring for people in pain and making the world a less painful place is the soul of Judaism. A soul without a body evaporates into nothingness, but a body without a soul is lifeless.

The Pew Report suggests that many American Jews today see synagogue as a body without a soul. Many Jews feel that the ritual life expressed in synagogues is not responding to, leading toward or enriching our fundamental purpose as Jews.

Building the synagogue of the future, then, calls out for a return to our Source. Our synagogues can once again emphasize the essence of what it means to be Jewish. They can nurture godly action in the world and be places where one goes to become a superhero. In our broken world, many of us long to be heroes. Our synagogues will flourish if they become the places where heroes are made.

Rabbi Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and an alumnus of Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. You can follow him on Facebook.

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