Superman: The Jewish Man of Steel
Whether you are already a Superman fan or not, you won’t be disappointed by the updated Superman movie Man of Steel, directed by Zach Snyder. This new rendition of the comic-book classic is well written, well shot, well edited, and well… Jewish. To understand the Jewish Superman you must imagine two Jewish High School boys a midst of the Great Depression.
In 1932 Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created the first comic book character known as Superman. This 1932 Superman bears no resemblance to the Superman we all know and love: he was a bald villain bent on world domination and inspired directly from Nietzche’s Ubermensch.
In “The Reign of the Superman” there is no Kal-El or Clark Kent; there is a vagrant in a bread line, Bill Dunn, a normal man who is given a potion that grants him telepathic powers. What does Bill Dunn do with this special power? He chooses evil: seeking world domination and killing the scientist who gave him the potion. Siegel and Shuster create a storyline that highlights a fundamental dilemma in the comic book universe: when a character possesses some special power, he or she must choose to use the power for good or evil.
The dilemma of moral choice in the comic book universe directly corresponds to the Jewish theological view on good and evil. Judaism rejects the notion of original sin and preaches that we are morally neutral: that we must choose to either follow the good inclination (Yetzer Tov), or the evil inclination (Yetzer HaRa). The Superman of 1932 chose to use his powers for evil, but this Superman didn’t make a good comic book character, so Siegel and Shuster rewrote Superman into the character we know today: the Kryptonian sent to earth by his father to be the light to show mankind the way.
Superman embodies the good inclination (Yetzer Tov): he is constantly fighting injustice and standing up for the helpless, he is imbued with God-like powers, and he sacrifices himself for mankind. But, his father knew that the people of earth weren’t ready for him, that they would reject him if they knew who he was, so Superman takes on a secret identity so he can blend in like a normal human being: Kal-El becomes Clark Kent.
Siegel and Shuster were both Jewish, but they wrote their comic for a wider audience, borrowing Jewish ideas about the Messiah, but applying them to a character who would be a savior not just for the Jewish people, but for all people: one who brings Tikkun Olam through repairing the world. Did Siegel and Shuster know they were modeling Superman on Jesus?
Jesus came as the Jewish Messiah, but offered salvation to all people. Jesus was sent to us by His Father, but his true identity was veiled so that he could accomplish the Father’s purpose. Jesus is the only one who truly embodied the good inclination (Yetzer Tov) without being blemished by sin. Jesus stood up for the helpless and fought injustice. Jesus had the power of God to do great miracles. Jesus sacrificed himself for all mankind. Superman points to Jesus, even if Siegel and Shuster never intended it! When you see “Man of Steel” look for Jesus, and I promise that you will find Him.
Aaron Trank is minister-at-large and director of recruiting at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. He was working as a software engineer in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory before he was called into ministry. He and his wife, Rachelle, have three children, Rina, Rafi and Rocco.