September 22, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

I recently learned a surprising and strange fact.  Many of the highest grossing films in America and in the entire world are installments of some kind of superhero movie series, based on humble comic books.  In fact, six of the top 10 highest opening-weekend box office grosses of all time are superhero movies.  And we are not just talking about Superman or Batman or Spiderman, superheroes I actually heard of growing up.  These are movies about Iron Man and The X-Men and the Avengers and the Justice League and Fantastic Four and Thor and, save us, the Green Lantern and the Green Hornet.  I have never really related to comic books, but I was amazed at the variety of preposterous scenarios that spawned first the animated cartoons that used to fill drug store shelves and now the videogame-style films that fill our movie theaters.

Perhaps our fascination with heroes with impossible superpowers saving us from apocalyptically gruesome caricature villains has been animated, if you will, by the rise of real-life villains who seem quite as bizarre and evil.  I’m not at all sure Lex Luthor or The Joker or the Green Goblin are any worse than the leaders of ISIS.  Clearly we enjoy watching superheroes on the side of good triumph over evil, twisted bad guys. 

Even though I never liked comic books as a kid—or as an adult—and was spared the need to follow the exploits of some hero from another planet or a radiated everyman in a fancy magical suit and cape, I must admit to having a soft spot in my heart for comic book heroes.  After all, the entire comic book industry was invented by Jews back in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s.  In those days we usually weren’t allowed to work as illustrators or cartoonists for respectable publications—too Jewish, you see—and the shunned artists and authors invented a new medium, printed on the cheapest paper in gaudy color.  The comic book industry, and its screen versions, have now become as All-American as baseball, apple pie, and farm subsidies.  But it was Jewish kids from Brooklyn, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who created Superman, Jewish comic book icon Stan Lee who designed Spiderman and the X-Men and, with fellow Jewish artist Jack Kirby, The Hulk and the Fantastic Four, Bob Kane who invented Batman, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby who designed Captain America, and on and on. 

Now remember, it’s almost always a fancy suit that gives the superheroes their remarkable power.  Of course it would have to be Jews who understood the tremendous value of proper clothing, since we also run the shmattah business…  Plus, this idea of an iconoclastic outsider who dresses funny becoming the key to saving the whole world is a standard Jewish trope, and it is used again and again in the Bible.  Abraham, Jacob, Moses, King David, Elijah the Prophet all fit the concept.  And it was a spin-off of Judaism, the religion of Christianity, that took this Jewish superhero idea of the outsider saving the world and turned it into a real blockbuster, with screenings all around the planet… 

Acknowledging that comic books were once, and likely still are, a Jewish industry, and noting all of these Jewish elements littering the superhero universe, I just don’t share the popular fascination with these lurid characters and their improbable stories, the escapist quality we seem to crave in our entertainment.  Frankly, if I want that kind of escape I can just watch the presidential debates…  Still, when the newest of these superhero movies came out this summer Wendy and I went to see it.  Professionally, I had to.  It felt like a Jewish obligation.

The film was called “Antman”, with Paul Ruud playing the title character and Michael Douglas as his mentor.  Antman?  You are going to talk about Antman on Yom Kippur, rabbi, the holiest, most Jewish day of the entire year?

Well, look, what could possibly seem more Jewish than a film about a small, dark man who reluctantly accepts special authority, and then defeats evil enemies through cleverness, all with apparently miraculous help?  Isn’t this very much the Moses story retold?  Frankly, Antman was much better at the theme of the underdog rising to hero than the overblown “Exodus: Gods and Kings” movie that came out earlier this year.  OK, so in the movie it's not God who provides the assistance directly to Antman, but instead a fancy suit.  Again, very, very Jewish: haberdashery above all.  And the lead actors, Paul Ruud and Michael Douglas, are both Jewish.  Ruud, whose family name is Rudnitzky, was born in Passaic, New Jersey, bar mitzvahed in Kansas City, and worked as a Bar Mitzvah DJ while going to acting school; and his co-star Michael Douglas’ son was just bar mitzvahed in Jerusalem a year ago.  Besides, doesn’t Antman sound like Jewish name, you know, an Americanized version of Ahntmun or something?  Clearly, as a responsible rabbi, I had to see this film.

So I saw it.  The premise—oh, look, does it really matter what the premise of this kind of thing is?  Of course it’s completely ridiculous.  Instead of a suit that makes him bigger, impervious to bullets, or able to fly, he finds a suit that makes him very, very tiny and very, very quick.  What is fascinating is seeing the advantage Paul Ruud—er, Antmuhm/Antman—gets from being able to miniaturize himself and at the same time increase his physical power.  In other words, being small and unnoticeable has some real advantages. 

I’m not totally sure I understood what his other supposed superpowers are besides miniaturization.  But since I recall the days when computers took up entire buildings and their main function was generating enormous reams of useless printed paper, and now computers are really, really small and do everything, clearly being tiny can be a major advantage.

In any case, as I was watching Antman it occurred to me that we are looking for exactly the wrong thing in our escapism.  We seem to want to believe, perhaps need to believe, that superpowers are those that make us physically stronger, faster, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound or race from one end of the country to the other in no time at all.  We revel in the exploits of flying suits and X-ray eyes, human beings suddenly able to slip the surly bonds of earth and climb walls or smash through fortresses.  I’m not sure if any of us really imagine that we are these characters—whose backstories are almost always tragic narratives of lost family members and damaged pasts—but for some strange reason we enjoy seeing impossible things happen on screen.

Perhaps it’s the superpowers these otherwise ordinary heroes flourish in all the crucial moments of the movie.  We all wish to have superpowers, don’t we?

But, if you think about it, actually those are not the superpowers we should desire.  Because it’s not really how fast we are, or how strong our bodies are, or how high we can jump or even if we can fly through the air.  It’s not even that we can become miniature versions of ourselves—mini-Me’s, or minions perhaps—with the ability to do all of these impossible things.  What makes us unique as human beings is something very different.

I read a book this summer called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, written by an Israeli academic named Yuval Noah Harari.  Actually, Wendy and I heard him on an interview program, became fascinated by his ideas, bought the book and eventually I had him as a guest on The Too Jewish Radio Show.  Harari starts by exploring just what makes our species unique.  What was it that made it possible for a hominid without obvious superpowers to become the dominant species on earth? 

In fact, superficially, we human beings seem uniquely unsuited to world domination.  Compared to many other species we are physically slow, weak, and unprotected by armor, we lack sharp claws, tusks, or fangs, do not manufacture venom, have no built-in ways to adapt to changing climate, we don’t breed quickly or prolifically, and our young take an inordinate amount of time to develop into anything useful.  If you were to pick a species as the poster child for success on this earth on the basis of its actual physical prowess we human beings would be very, very far down the list—quite likely dead last.  And dead is how many species have ended up who had as little to offer as we apparently do.  We would call it extinct, which is where, logically, we should have ended up.

That is, we human beings not only do not have superpowers, we lack even average powers clearly optimal for survival in this world.  In nature, we are more or less the physical opposite of the superheroes we love to watch on screen.

Harari then asks, if all of this is true, and it undeniably is, why do homo sapiens so completely dominate the earth today?  How did we drive to extinction many stronger, and possibly even smarter, species, some of them, to judge from their remains, quite likely as intelligent as we are?

He comes up with a compellingly interesting argument.   It is partly that we have large brains, of course, and were creative about inventing fire, tools, the wheel, and so on, all the way up to the iphone.  But that’s not really what separated us from other kinds of human-like species—such as, but not limited to, the Neanderthals.  No, what allowed us to survive, and thrive, and eliminate competitors was something unique.

It was the ability to believe in fiction.  It was the fact that we homo sapiens sapiens could envision things that didn’t really exist and then share that vision with other human beings.  And eventually we all joined in believing in those ideas.  It was the extraordinary power of the abstract, our unique talent for conceiving of and having faith in things that exist only in our minds, and then for sharing these things that made the success of our species possible.   

Let me explain.

Homo Sapiens, human beings, came out of Africa for the first time around 100,000 years ago.  We were one of at least six species of human-like creatures around at that time.  We did not have the largest brains—that would be Neanderthals—and we had no particular advantages over other species in our niche on the food chain.  We ended up not making much of a mark on the rest of the world, and shortly thereafter retreated back to Africa.  Then, about 70,000 years ago, a series of events called the Cognitive Revolution took place.  Something unique happened to our species, and it changed this world permanently.  It led, ultimately, to all the things, both good and bad, that come with human beings dominating the world.

Harari explores what it was that was so extraordinary about the Cognitive Revolution.  The first piece was the ability homo sapiens sapiens had to think abstractly, and to have unusual ideas that did not reflect anything tangible or visible in the world as it exists.  That is, we can conceive of things that aren’t there, never have been, and likely never will be.  You might call this fiction but it is generally known as myth.  Human beings literally imagine stuff that isn’t there and believe it is real. 

While this might impress you, on the surface, as the kind of thing they dispense medication for in psychiatric offices, it turns out that this trait is stunningly important.  Art, literature, music, religion, finance, politics, everything that goes into making up culture and civilization, all of these are only possible if we individually can imagine that there is something greater and different from what we see, hear, touch, and taste with our senses. 

But all of that creativity doesn’t really matter if we can’t share those remarkable visions with others, and if they don’t come to share them with us.

Most of it has to do with language, and the ability human beings developed to share ideas through language at a higher level than any other species, including the other human species that existed, even flourished, in those days.  Distinctively, humans had the ability to collectively agree that something that, objectively, to our senses, doesn’t exist actually does.  And then we act collectively on that myth, that fiction, and use it to create a new reality that incorporates it.  The key is that large numbers of strangers can cooperate if they believe in a common fiction.

Homo sapiens, by the time of the Cognitive Revolution, had developed a series of myths that allowed our species to spread throughout the world, and replace the other versions of humanids present at the time.  Including ones with bigger brains and muscles, like the Neanderthals.  Why did they fail? Apparently, they lacked the same level of imagination.

As Harari paraphrases Lewis Carroll, human beings are the only species that can believe six impossible things before breakfast.  And that is the secret of our success.

How does this work?  Well, for example, money is an abstract concept, an idea that we human beings made up and all share. The notion that a piece of metal, or a printed image of a man, or a small piece of paper with writing and numbers on it, or a bit of plastic with a metallic strip and a little chip in it are intrinsically worth something and that people will give us food, clothing, shelter, and luxury goods in exchange for them: this is a fictional idea.  The pieces of paper in your wallet, those magical credit cards, your checkbook, the app on your phone to pay bills, your bank accounts, the Stock Market, the Federal Reserve, the International Monetary Fund—these are all imaginary entities.  They bear no relationship to anything concrete, to anything that grows or lives.  Money is a construct of our imagination.  The key is that money is a shared fictional idea.  We all agree on what it means, and we have created a huge, international system for valuing everything in these imaginary units.  There can be some fragility to it when a country like Greece stops playing by the same rules and the entire magic money castle is shaken to its very foundations.  But so long as we all share the belief in this system it works well, although it is based on a whole catalogue of fictional concepts and conceits.

An old Jewish comedian, Soupy Sales, demonstrated the fictional quality of our grown-up understanding of money.  One New Year’s Day—50 years ago—Soupy Sales ad-libbed on live television on his kids’ TV show that the children watching should quietly sneak into their parents’ pocketbooks and wallets, and “Find all the funny green pieces of paper with pictures of U.S. Presidents on them.  Then put them in an envelope and mail them to me. And I'll send you a postcard from Puerto Rico!"  he said, and signed off.  When the kids actually mailed in money—$80,000 of it—he was suspended from his show by the network for two weeks.  His spot-on shtick revealed that children, who were not yet fully indoctrinated into this shared money fiction, would act dangerously until they learned the rules of the game.

We have many other remarkable fictions in our lives that unite us into community, culture, and civilization.  In fact, virtually everything that makes society possible is based on some kind of imagined, shared fiction.  Government—city, county, state, nation, international organizations, all of it—is an elaborate, created shared fiction.  Large numbers of strangers believe that they should cooperate with others they will never know for a purpose that someone they also don’t personally know tells them to accept.  And we all go along with it.  The notion that any individual owes allegiance to some entity greater than his or her family, or any people who have not directly taken care of or benefitted him or her is the kind of abstract idea we human beings specialize in. Laws, too, represent a shared fiction.  We agree that certain behaviors must be required, or prohibited for an abstract goal of achieving greater good for society, another imaginary entity we have conjured up out of our shared collection of myths.   

You can also say that, in this same sense, religion is a shared fiction, that God is another entity we cannot see or hear or smell or taste, either.  In that, you would be right.  In fact, the shared belief we have in an independent source of morality, whether it is enshrined in the Ten Commandments or Halachah or philosophy or a judicial code, is another kind of unproven, and not provable, idea that we human beings have created and mutually accept.

And you know what?  In a very real way, this talent for fiction has proven to be our true superpower.  Because as soon as we human beings began to understand that we had the capacity to work together on projects that served a greater good, even though that good was something that could not be perceived with our own senses, even though that good was beyond our capacity to verify through experience, well then we, as a species, began to succeed.  And soon to dominate.

It is the ability to join together, to share our vision, imaginary though it may be, that makes us human, and makes the human race unique and powerful.  We are extraordinary creatures of imagination, and the ability to share a vision is what has made us, as a species, great.  Because we can conceive of things that aren’t really there, and share that conception, and then we have the capacity to make these fictions real.

You see, if we can imagine things and get other people to share that dream, we can then make them happen.  It is this quality that is our true superpower. 

And on Yom Kippur it is an incredible one. 

Because on this Day of Atonement, we have the opportunity to exercise our  remarkable superpowers.  We have the superpower ability to imagine forgiving the sins of others without extracting revenge on them for their errors.  We have the capacity to conceive of ourselves as better, more generous, holier people without imagining the rewards we will receive.  We have the creative power to believe that there can be a world in which goodness is the most important quality of all, not power or money.  Why, we can even dream up a temple that we will attend more than twice a year…

And because we are the descendants of those early homo sapiens sapiens who first imagined things, and then shared those dreams, and then made them real, we can make these very things happen.  Tonight.  Tomorrow.  Right here.

We can ask forgiveness from all of those people we have offended.  And we can grant them forgiveness ourselves, letting go of all past wrongs in one great act.  And we can choose, tonight, to live lives dedicated to being good.  And we can even—imagine this!—attend temple again before next Rosh HaShanah…

On this Yom Kippur, use your own superpower capacity to imagine yourself a better person—and then make it happen.  And when we each choose to do this, and share that with others, we will collectively start to imagine a better world.  And then we will make it happen for this entire world.

 G'mar Chatimah Tovah—may you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year.  


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