Sunday, September 30, 2012

Michael Jackson's Recipe for Change

THERE'S AN OLD SEA STORY about a ship's Captain who upon inspecting his sailors found their stench intolerable. The Captain suggested that perhaps it would help if the sailors would change their underwear occasionally. The first mate responded, "Aye, aye sir, I'll see to it immediately!" The first mate went straight to the sailors berth deck and announced, "The Captain thinks you guys smell bad and wants you to change your underwear." He continued, "Pittman, you change with Jones, McCarthy, you change with Witkowski, and Brown, you change with Schultz."

The Moral of the Story: Someone may come along and promise “change,” but don’t count on things smelling any better.

I didn’t relate this joke to segue way into politics and to discuss the pro’s and con’s of the POTUS as it relates to his domestic and foreign policies vs. the Romney/Ryan Ticket. Nor did I intend to discuss the success or failure of Obama’s 2008 election promise of “change”. Rather, instead of examining the flaws and failures of others and determining the changes they need to make, we need to take a critical view of ourselves and pledge to change.

Not many people know why the 10th of Tishrei was selected as the holiest day of the year, as a day of forgiveness, of change and second chances. In fact, the Torah is also somewhat silent about it simply stating that the 10th of Tishrei marks the holiday of Yom Kippur where we ask for atonement from God. But a closer look at the text shows that Yom Kippur commemorates the single most important event in our history: the receiving of the second set of tablets. The second set carries more significance than the first set because on this day, on Yom Kippur our ancestors were forgiven for the sin of the Golden calf. From then on, this day was established as a day of forgiveness for the Jewish people.



Who Will Live On? (What Ben Folds Five Taught Me About Lists)

IN COLLECTING FANS' FUNDING for their new album The Sound Of the Life of the Mind, Ben Folds Five did something very clever. They promised that everybody who donated would get their name printed for all to see. Everybody gets to be a “Vice President of Promotion” listed in the liner notes.

Although I’ve been listening to the album since its early release for us Pledgers (September 12, Ben Folds’ birthday), today is my first day holding the physical CD that finally came in the mail.

Just a few days after the High Holidays have ended, I’m looking at this list:

And, that’s just one of two pages of names.

I’ve already spent around half an hour scanning names on one side of the page, and I still haven’t found me. The PledgeMusic site tells me that there were altogether 7525 pledgers.

In terms of paper, 7525 is a lot of people. Compare it to God’s attendance list of who’s alive in the world today.

There’s this image that recurs on the High Holidays in the prayer Untanneh Tokef (“Let’s declare power”) where God, reviewer of the Book of Life, is counting the sheep of the flock (i.e. God’s children, humanity). And as God is counting, God determines the destiny of each soul who passes before the Divine.

?מי יחיה ומי ימות Mi yihyeh umi yamut?
Who will live, and who will die?

I’m beginning to think that my name will not live on as an immortal fan of Ben Folds Five. I do not see my name on the list. Did the great BF5 actually miss me?

Right now the time is 11:29 AM.

I will check back in when I have found my name–or reached the end without finding myself.

11:37 AM. Anxiety or doubt has gotten the better of me, and I read the rest far faster than the other half.

I did not find my name.

Ben Folds Five may be human and the promise of immortalized fandom may be a small feat, but I realized very fast I was fulfilling a religious desire of so many Jews throughout history, hoping they made the list: whether it was the Heavenly list of who would make it this coming year, or if it was the human list of who would be spared from the cruelties of extermination camps.

I am lucky that this is the list that concerns me in my life. Not believing in God’s list of who gets to live is relieving. And not being concerned with lists of persecution or protection is a blessing in my life.

But, if I believed in God’s list, and I knew that the carefully programmed Pledge Music site, in coordination with Ben Folds Five’s album design team, probably in cooperation with Copy & Paste, left me off of their list, who could say that God wouldn’t have also forgotten me?


Jonah Rank is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Read his blog and follow him on Twitter at @JonahRank.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Book of Death and the Book of Mormon

I LOVE SPEAKING TO OTHER Rabbis to find out how what they are going to speak about on Yom Kippur. What are they going to focus on? What do they think are the most essential concepts to focus on going in to next year? In Manhattan, we are blessed to have a collection of some of the most talented Rabbinic speakers in the world. Yet, it is another Yom Kippur speech today that is getting all the attention.

Today, the “democratically elected” president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is speaking to the UN General Assembly. This, after the attacks on US embassies throughout the Middle East, makes us wonder how we should feel about the events of the past three weeks?

The Kli Yakar (Lvov and Prague, 1550-1619) asks a basic but important question. He wonders, if the Kohen Gadol (high priest) is not allowed would die if he entered into the Holy of Holies all year round, why is he allowed in on Yom Kippur? Either it is too holy for him to enter or it’s not, how can there be a one day exception?

He answers that the reason that he can’t enter is because he is a representative of the entire Jewish people, and the discretions of the entire nation are too numerous for him to withstand the Divine judgment needed to allow him into this sanctuary. However, on Yom Kippur we are angels. We are treated as if we are free of sin and without a Yetzer Harah (desire to sin). The Kohen Gadol can enter the Holy of Holies because our merit, and lack of indiscretions, allows him to enter unencumbered by our misdeeds.

On Yom Kippur, our conscious is clear. Our minds are free. Our values are unambiguous. We need to asses and clarify those values on Yom Kippur and use that to light the way for the rest of the year. We must be true to our values, because it is very easy to allow them to be compromised.
On September 11th, 2012, as the Egyptian protesters were beginning to surround the U.S. Embassy, they released the following statement:

“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy.”


On the morning of September 13th, after the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Libya and the murder of ambassador Chris Stevens, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said:
"The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."

The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others? Really? It is now U.S. policy to actively protest and speak out against denigrating other religions? If you walk down Broadway less than 30 blocks you’ll come upon a little show called “The Book of Mormon”, which won Best Musical at the 2011 Tony Awards and opened this year’s awards with a musical number. “The Book of Mormon” openly mocks the Mormon faith. It is so popular that celebrities are often seen at the show including Cher, Jack Nicholson and none other than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

To the best of my knowledge, she was not there protesting “The Book of Mormon” for an intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. I have yet to see the government come out with statements condemning “The Book of Mormon”, or its creators’ Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s TV show South Park, which regularly lampoons every religion and creed, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Scientology.


If the United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, than we should not allow Ahmadinijad, the most blatant abuser of that tolerant ideal, to pass through customs. What does it say that this hate-monger, who props up an equally evil regime in Syria, is allowed free passage and to speak his hateful mind on U.S. soil?

If we have a value that we hold dear, then we need to be consistent about it. We need to fight for it. If we truly believe that freedom of speech is a value that we hold dear, than why would we even begin to state that we “deplore any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others”? All that does is call into question how much we truly value freedom of speech. If we want our values to have any merit, any credibility, we need to constantly be strengthening them.

We are either building trust and credibility or we are destroying it. Every action we do, every statement we make, we are either building a foundation of credibility, or we are slowly destroying it. In 1966 the United States has close to 200,000 troops in Vietnam, and polls showed that the government had a 66% approval rating for their involvement in the region. However, by the late sixties/early seventies the government had lost support for the war. Why? Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the war, wrote in his memoir In Retrospect that the problem is that the government began lying to the American people. They were understating how unlikely it was to win the war, and overstating how good the war was going. As what they were saying wasn't matching up to what people knew was happening, slowly the government lost credibility and the trust of the people.

The results might not be obvious at first, but when we are losing credibility and trust, in time it comes back to bite us. It makes small mistakes seem bigger, and it prevents people for cutting us any slack.

The big story this past week was the replacement referees in the NFL. The NFL’s big mistake was thinking that as long as the TV ratings weren’t falling, the quality of the games didn’t matter. That is very short sighted. Ultimately, you are building trust or losing it, gaining credibility or diminishing it. Every action, every statement is doing one of those two things. The NFL was losing credibility day by day, and they didn’t seem to understand that. It can take decades to build a reputation, but it can all be lost in a matter of days or weeks.

Just look at Joe Paterno. He was at Penn State for six decades, building a rock solid reputation that seemed to be based on a consistent commitment to his core values. In the end, he lost it all. As John Amechi, a former Penn St. basketball player said of Paterno, “You can’t be a part time man of principle.” The foundation of their moral standing had appeared strong, but ultimately it was shown to be compromised. They had cut corners, they had pushed uncomfortable truths under the rug, they had postponed difficult decisions indefinitel and allowed their credibility to slowly erode until it affected their very core.


This wasn’t one decision, one “mistake” in not properly reporting Jerry Sandusky’s crimes, it was the daily ignoring of what they had seen and what they had heard. From 2001-2012 at least four men: Joe Paterno, Tim Curley, Grant Spanier and Mike McQueery went to work every day, saw Jerry Sandusky working with children in his Second Mile program and forced their conscious deeper and deeper down until it had been blocked from sunlight. Their credibility eroded every time they chose to ignore what they suspected, and quite possibly knew. You can’t have an eleven year “mistake”, it was a willful ignoring of their most basic morality that caused things to crumble so completely.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik asked: why are there a book of life and a book of death? If there is a book of life, then by default whoever is not in that book is not getting the benefits therein. Why does Hashem need a second book, a book of death? He answers that it is not a “book of death”, but rather a “book to judge the dead”. This time of year Hashem is judging the deceased as well. They are being judged on the long term ramifications of their actions. Did our grandparents fight tooth and nail to remain Jewish when it was extremely difficult to do so, did they save money for our parents or our Jewish education? Did they help someone get back on their feet, or introduce someone to their Bashert? If so, they are still racking up merit.

Our actions can affect the merit of our ancestors, and our actions today will affect generations to come. We have to think long term. We need to build a solid foundation of trust and credibility, of honesty and responsibility. We need to be consistent to our values. We need to create something so lasting that it will last for generations to come.


Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz is an Orthodox rabbi. He is rabbi of the West Side Institutional Synagogue in Manhattan. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStrul.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Clint Eastwood's Invisible Seat for Rosh Hashana

TO ME IT WAS CLEAR that Clint Eastwood was unprepared to give a speech at the Republican National Convention. Yet his idea of the invisible Obama chair was absolutely brilliant!  I actually did prepare my sermon for Rosh Hashana and I decided to steal Clint's idea!  So in a way I feel like he was sitting in a seat at my shul for Rosh Hashana.  Can I send him a bill?

Why are we here? What is our purpose in the world? A big question, but one that we all know the answer to. Our purpose in this world is to do good.

The real question is what is "good?" That question has many answers, and it is different for every person, for every time, and for every situation.

But we can all agree that our purpose is to do good. And most of the time, if not all of the time, it is clear what good is.

So do good.

Life would be that easy, if not for one thing - the yetzer harah. God created something called the yetzer Harah whose only job is to prevent us from doing good and entice us to do bad.

Every minute of every day is a battle that we all fight against the yetzer harah in our quest to do good.

And the yetzer harah is always with us, every minute of our lives, from the time that we are first cognisant of the difference between good and bad all the way until we die.



Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sara Bareilles, Amanda Palmer and the Rabbis

Warning: This post includes strong language and refers to graphic images

SARA BAREILLES AND AMANDA PALMER HAVE A FEW things in common. Aside from their instruments, their sex, their talents, and their records produced by Ben Folds, both have recently released some provocative works about their less pleasant sides.

In “Sweet As Whole,” from Bareilles’ recent Once Upon Another Time EP, the singer puts it this way:

Sometimes I can be perfectly sweet,
Got this sugary me stuffed up in my sleeve…

But, like most creatures down here on the ground,
I’m composed of the elements moving around,
And I grow and change, and I shift, and I switch,
And it turns out I’m actually kind of a bitch.

What ensues is Sara then cussing out everyone around her over an oom-pa-pa dainty ditty. Just a few days ago, Amanda Palmer released the bloody violent music video to “The Killing Type.” Her song is mostly a stream of consciousness about how she really is ”not the killing type,” and she lists scenarios where she would dare not kill a person (in war, to restore a relationship, to save a life).

Friday, September 14, 2012

David Gregory's Jewish Life

David Gregory interviewed Jake Gyllenhall (who's mother is Jewish) on this morning's episode of The Today Show. During the interview, Gregory, who serves as the host of NBC's "Meet the Press", made a comment that he hadn't had that much fun since his bar mitzvah.  I had no idea that Gregory was Jewish so I did some research.

Sure enough, Gregory did have a bar mitzvah at thirteen and lives a proud Jewish life. While only Gregory's father is Jewish, he was raised in the Jewish faith and takes it seriously as an adult.


In an interview with the Washington Jewish Week, Gregory talked to Eric Fingerhut about how he discovered the importance of Judaism in his life. He talked about studying Jewish texts with Dr. Erica Brown, scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and saying the bedtime Sh'ma with his children (a son and son-daughter twins) as a way to model Judaism for them and "create a Jewish narrative in their lives that's not just obligatory."

Gregory become a well known journalist in Washington when he was assigned by NBC to the press corps covering George W. Bush when he ran for president in 2000. During the campaign, Bush threw a party for Gregory's 30th birthday on the campaign plane. President Bush nicknamed Gregory "Stretch" because of his height (6'5") and also "Dancing Man," for his dance moves.

In the Washington Jewish Week article, Gregory explained that while he was raised in a Jewish home despite his non-Jewish mother, there wasn't much emphasis on theology or spirituality. But, with the encouragement of his non-Jewish wife (Beth Wilkinson), it was "enough to carry me to a sense of identity" and give him a desire to "probe further" the question of "Why be Jewish?"

He said, "What I decided was [that] what mattered was not just a sense of actual knowledge" or attending High Holiday services, "it was to understand how to live Jewishly ... [and] find daily meaning in Judaism. So now "Shabbat has become a lot more important to me" as a way to "stop and think about what matters most to me ... what kind of father and husband I want to be. I was born into a tradition," he said. "Who am I to let it slip through my fingers?"

In a post last year on the TVNEWSER blog, Gregory said about his Passover tradition, “I prepare a big seder where we do the costumes and a script and basically tell the story of the Exodus."

Perhaps as a way to share their common Jewish heritage, at the end of the Today Show interview Gyllenhaal let Gregory know that he was "shvitzing."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Lucrative Lashon Harah of Taylor Swift

TAYLOR SWIFT HAS BECOME famous (or infamous) for airing her grievances against the men in her life that she feels have wronged her in her music. One of her first big hits, “Teardrops on My Guitar”, is about a guy she had a crush on, but who did not return her feelings. After Joe Jonas purportedly dumped her on the phone in a 27 second conversation, she penned “Forever and Always” where she refers to him as a “scared little boy.”

John Mayer was the next to feel her wrath after their relationship went south, as she composed “Dear John”, which led her target to complain, “I was really caught off-guard, and it really humiliated me.” And now comes her latest smash hit, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” in which she derides her former boyfriend’s attempts to win her back. The smart money is that it is none other than Jake Gyllenhaal that is the focus of this latest lyrical tongue lashing.

Although she has seemed to corner the market, Taylor Swift is hardly the first musician to use her romantic missteps as the basis for a song. Who can forget Justin Timberlake completely eviscerating Britney Spears with “Cry Me a River”, a song so devastating that I contend it was the first step on Britney’s path of mental instability. Others might prefer the example of Alanis Morissette, who shot to fame with her single, “You Oughta Know”, ripping her ex-boyfriend to shreds, and, if rumors are true, completely ruining re-runs of “Full House” for me. I can never look at Uncle Joey Gladstone the same way.

Getting back to Ms. Swift, I just wonder where is the line between creative expression and lashon ha-rah, evil speech? Clearly, Taylor Swift hasn’t exactly been lucky in love and she is entitled to her pain and disappointment at her failed relationships. With that said, is there something unseemly about her desire to publicly mock, even vilify, her past romantic dalliances? As an artist, I understand her need to express herself through her music, but is there a point where her tattling tunes become hurtful, mean-spirited? Shouldn’t the gentlemen in her life, even those who were supposedly less than chivalrous, be afforded some degree of privacy and discretion?



Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Taylor Swift's High Holiday Sermon

EVERY NOW AND THEN, a song is released that resonates and speaks to you. Even if it doesn't necessarily address your particular feeling or unique predicament, you connect with it emotionally. And if the song's debut coincides with an important, significant, or auspicious event, that gives it even more meaning since Jews don't believe in coincidence.

That is how I felt when Taylor Swift released her new song, “Never Ever Getting Back Together” on a YouTube special presentation a few weeks back. As my High Holiday preparations were in full swing, Swift's song instilled within me a greater and heightened sense of God's presence, justice, and mercy. In some odd way, I believe that Swift wrote that song for me, not Jake Gyllenhaal.

I know what you must be thinking: what does this song have to do with God? Technically, you're right. The song details her repeated frustrations with a former boyfriend who let her down over and over again. He says, "Baby, I miss you and I swear I'm gonna change, trust me." And she notes, “Remember how that lasted for a day? I say, "I hate you," we break up, you call me, "I love you." He continues pledging to change and then reverts back to his unreliable and erratic self. Finally, Swift becomes fed up with his immature behavior and screams at the top of her lungs, “we are never ever ever getting back together.”

Here's how God comes into the picture: This song spoke to me in anthropomorphic terms. I imagined that the conversation related in the song was not between Swift and her boyfriend but rather, between me and God as I faced Him on Rosh Hashanah. Then, I thought to myself: every year I pledge to Him that I'm going to change. Unfortunately, after a few days, I often revert back to my old self. What if, after so many years of pledging change, this year's offer is turned down? What if God says to me, “Josh, we are never ever ever getting back together?”


Maybe I'm overreacting. Surely, God is more compassionate than Taylor Swift. After worshiping the Golden Calf, the Jews undoubtedly knew the seriousness of their sin and the punishment for their egregious transgression. Luckily, Moshe interceded on their behalf and evoked God's mercy and compassion to forgive the Jewish people for their actions. So why should I be so concerned? If I failed to make good on my pledges for the last 5 years and God didn't punish me for my inaction, than why might this year be any different? God will give me another chance.

Such a nonchalant attitude is definitely inappropriate. God doesn't hand out an endless supply of “get out of jail free cards” for our bad behavior. In fact, the opposite is true, as is apparent from a shocking verse in the second chapter of Samuel I, discussing the depths of corruption and immorality perpetrated by Chofni and Pinchas, the two sons of Eli the Kohen. When Eli urged his children to repent for their evil ways, the verse states that God did not want want them to change. Why would God prevent someone from changing? How could the “Av Harachaman,” the father of compassion exhibit such callousness? One of the answers given is that when a person's life has already been sealed in the book of death, nothing, at that point, can be done to change it.

That's a pretty scary thought. All along we have assumed that God was going to give us an unlimited amount of do-overs. The reality is that we have no idea how many chances we will get or when God’s patience with us will run out. All we know is that we have this chance, now, and it's within our power and control to make it count.

I don't have any desire to get together with Taylor Swift, but I really do want to continue living a happy and meaningful life with my wife, children, family, community, and the Jewish people. I'm guessing that all of you reading this probably feel the same way (except for the few out there who would like to get together with Ms. Swift). Either way, let's treat these next couple of weeks with utmost seriousness by pledging to change, improving in our relationships, and then acting on it. Otherwise, God may say those frightening words, “We are never ever ever getting back together. Like, ever."


Rabbi Joshua Hess is a dynamic Orthodox rabbi in Linden, New Jersey. He is co-founder of PopJewish.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiHess.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

OJ Simpson, Forgiveness and the Other Side of the Story

FORGIVENESS IS ONE OF THE biggest challenges of the Yamim Noraim. We are told to forgive others, we want to forgive others, and yet it is so difficult to do so. Why is it so difficult?

I think in the age of the Internet tension and animosity is always bubbling to the surface. We get frustrated much quicker than in the pre-digital age as our expectations of others has increased. We call someone’s cell phone and they don’t pick up-what could they possibly be doing that is more important than picking up my call. How rude!

We send a text and it is not returned within 15 minutes. I can’t believe they’re ignoring me, the nerve of some people!

The tension goes both ways. If we feel people are intruding on our time by calling, texting or e-mailing too much we get upset. Yet, when we do the same to others, we expect them to respond promptly.

With daily tensions and frustrations at such a fever pitch, it is important that we consider the challenge of forgiveness. In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Sages), we are told to judge everyone favorably. How can we in good conscience judge everyone favorably, even when we are sure that they are guilty of their alleged crimes?


To answer that, indulge me in a quick tangent that might cause you to question my sanity. If I asked a random person on the street to name the five most villainous people of the past twenty years, there is a good chance that O.J. Simpson would be on that list. He is still, twenty years after his trial, public enemy #1. He is viewed as evil incarnate. However, some very prominent news stories have caused me to question that assumption.

Over the past few years there is a growing mountain of evidence that football can cause long term cognitive difficulties. Retired NFL players have much higher rates of early onset dementia, and many experience fits of rage, depression and a multitude of other side effects. Certainly players from the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s were at a high risk. This has caused people to rethink the behavior of many former players. The suicides of former players Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, the erratic behavior of NY Giant great Lawrence Taylor (#24 in the link), and many more.

There is one jump people have been unwilling to make-did football cause O.J. Simpson’s erratic behavior and uncontrollable rage? Nobody knows, but it is a fair question to ask. Another former running back, the Packers Dorsey Levens, wrote and performs in a show about a former NFL who exhibits rage and threatens to kill family members. Running backs take a lot of hits to the head, and O.J. Simpson took as much as anyone. So it seems quite plausible that O.J. Simpson is suffering brain trauma from his football career. What if in twenty years they perform an autopsy on O.J. and find extreme head trauma from football? How would we view him then?

I’m not saying this excuses the behavior or means he she have been found innocent, thousands of former NFL players are productive and healthy members of society. However, it could create a context for understanding him that causes us to at least give him the benefit of the doubt-maybe there was more going on than we realize.

The truth is, that happens all the time. Twenty years ago if I said the names Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise and Bill Clinton-you would have a very different picture than you have of them today. Over time, our perceptions of people change, for good and bad. That is the meaning of “giving the benefit of the doubt”. It doesn’t mean we think the person is innocent, but it does mean we need to assume there is more context than we realize, and have the humility to know that we don’t have the entire story.



Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz is an Orthodox rabbi who blogs on several topics including sports and the entertainment industry. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStrul.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Matisyahu, a Dybbuk and a Haunted Box

OUT OF COURTESY TO THOSE who don't want to waste time on a film that is neither a good ripoff of The Exorcist nor a good representation of Jewish culture, I'll keep this short.

The Possession is "based on a true story," which means somebody on eBay wrote a really long-winded story, and the LA Times then picked up the story, and then Hollywood changed it and turned it into a movie.

The movie --fairly different from the internet tale-- portrays a family in which the youngest daughter gets haunted by a dibbuk (i.e. spirit of Jewish folklore--usually evil) after she takes possession of a box that is home to the haunting spirit that eventually enters her, to reside inside her.

Things almost start to get interesting after an agonizingly long cut-to-the-case of what's-the-deal-with-the-Hebrew-letters-on-the-box-that-I-could-have-read-for-the-actors-if-the-director-would-keep-the-camera-steady-on-the-words-for-more-than-5-seconds-without-the-letters-all-being-upside-down-or-at-an-awkward-angle.



Sunday, September 2, 2012

Why is This Dark Knight Different Than other Dark Knights?

RABBI CARY FRIEDMAN, A YOUNG MODERN Orthodox Rabbi whom I have great respect for - taught a generation of kids that Jewish wisdom can be found in the most unlikely places.

His classic book, Wisdom from the Batcave: How to Live a Super Heroic Life demonstrates how Batman lived a life consistent with Jewish values, and the life and mission of Bruce Wayne is in many ways metaphoric for the history and purpose of the Jewish people.

So when Rabbi Cary Friedman publishes an article in the Jewish Pressabout his thoughts on the new incarnation of Batman - as someone who also blogs about Batman I pay attention!

Rabbi Friedman contends that the "new" Batman from the Dark Knight is "definitely not the Batman I fell in love with as a child."

The "old" Batman that he loved was the hero who responded to and triumphed over tragedy by creating a life of heroism and meaning. He says that the old Batman represented the Jewish response to tragedy and hardship - bringing his own mother as an example:

"As a child of a Holocaust survivor who spent her childhood years fighting for survival and went on to create a family and life filled with meaning, compassion, for others, and dedication to justice, it is a model with which I am very familiar."


The new Batman is a dark and dysfunctional character who resolves his anger and abandonment issues by beating people up and "fortunately his actions are socially acceptable because the people he beats up are criminals." In his opinion, the "new" Batman is all about violence and "isn't all that different than the bad guys he fights."

At the forefront of this "dark" Batman's battles is the glorification of the violence itself; relegated way to the background, such that the lesson is obscured or lost, is the notion of a battle between good and evil. Gadgets and fighting prowess take center stage, and principle and integrity get lost in the shuffle.

With all respect to Rabbi Friedman - who is definitely someone who knows his Batman - he writes as if he never watched even one episode of the old Adam West afternoon show. Did he forget about the POW! BOOM! SPLAT! When Batman and Robin would hand deliver justice to the villains - dynamic duo style?

Did he forget about the amazing utility belt that always happened to have just the right Bat-device or Bat-gadget to help him and Robin escape from some giant elaborate death trap? (Let us not forget when he whipped out the Bat-Shark repellent!)

The old Batman used violence, and the new Batman uses violence. Violence is terrible, but sometimes violence is terribly necessary. In World War II the allies did not throw flowers at the Germans.

Interestingly, in the Dark Knight Rises, Batman does not personally engage in that much violence. From the start of the movie we see Batman as getting older -and he even visits a doctor who reports the terrible toll that the fighting has taken on Batman's tattered and worn body.
In the entire movie Batman only is only in two fights - one where he is beaten, and one where he wins - but not by way of his super skill, but because of his heroic will!

The many profound lessons of the Dark Knight and the Dark Knight Rises, two of the most popular movies in history, are too many to enumerate here. But I do want to express my complete disagreement with Rabbi Friedman, particularly with his statement:

This darkening of the character - the attribution to him of motives far less than heroic - reflects, and, in turn, fuels the general darkening and increasing disillusionment that pervades and poisons our society.

When I read that, I almost suspect that Rabbi Friedman didn't even see the movies he is writing about.

Starting with Batman Begins (which was actually a pretty good movie - but also pretty forgettable) a young Bruce Wayne struggles with the death of his parents. He is filled with rage as well as a desire to save the city that his parents loved. At first he acts rashly and recklessly. He eventually becomes Batman as a way of channeling the anger that he has - the anger that he rightfully should have - from the loss of his parents.

Rabbi Friedman has a big issue with Batman's anger. Of course he is angry! His parents - smart people, generous people, altruistic people, righteous people - were murdered in cold blood over a petty theft. The Rambam says that one who can simply walk away from tragedy and say, "that's life!" is a cruel person. Batman is not cruel. Batman is real. But he channeled his anger and used ti for good.

And if Adam West didn't seem angry it could be because Adam West was an older Batman and he learned how to hide it better.

But more than anything, the Dark Knight flies directly int he face of Rabbi Friedman's piece. Batman says explicitly that the whole point of being Batman was to bring about a wold that no longer needs Batman. He vies for the day when the people of Gotham will be ready for a hero like Harvey Dent. A real hero that can fight crime by day with with the rule of law, rather than by night with the rule of might. Gotham City is in bad shape, but Batman never loses hope in the people. At the end of the movie Batman triumphs over the Joker - not through violence! He triumphs when the people of Gotham foil the Joker's plan with acts of human decency and virtue. The movie ends on a down note (like all great second installments in history - a laEmpire Strikes Back) but we are left with the hope that one day the people will get the hero it needs - not the hero that it currently deserves!

Dark Knight Rises is a similar theme. The bad guys want to bring chaos and destroy the world. Batman is willing to die to stop them.

If "new" Batman is "darker" than "old" Batman it is only because "new" Batman's world is darker. I don't think Adam West would have been so chipper if he had to fight Heath Ledger instead of Cesar Romero. But even so, Batman always maintains his integrity. He dedicates his resources and his life to fighting evil - in whatever form it takes - and he davens every day for a world that does not need Batman.

I think if Rabbi Friedman searches a little harder he will find a good deal of wisdom in the Dark Knight's Batcave as well.


Rabbi Jon Gross is an Orthodox rabbi in Omaha. Follow him on Twitter at @Jon_Gross.