Trauma, Hanukkah, & Becoming a Marvel Superhero

BatmanBy Paul Steinberg

Batman is my hands-down favorite. Of all the superheroes, Batman has always been the one with whom I relate and would want to be like. I have often thought that is because he is totally human and has no super powers, and I respect the fact that he has no special advantages over anyone. Okay, yes, he is a billionaire ninja with PhD level acumen in science and technology, but at least he can’t fly or punch through walls. But most of all, I think I like Batman the most because I personally suffer what I have coined as “Batman Syndrome.”

Batman Syndrome: A temporary state of angry enchantment whereby an individual fantasizes about abandoning their real-life identity in order to instill a deep fear and/or kick the snot out of someone that has caused them discomfort.

Now, if you are like me at all, you must admit that you have experienced Batman Syndrome at least once in your life, probably within the past year. And like me, you may have even relished the fantasy of wreaking vengeance on some annoying jerk in one of your social circles just as Batman would. After all, isn’t that what Batman symbolizes at the core – a revenge fantasy? Doesn’t Batman represent our great desire for a demonstration of raw justice? He has what we secretly wish we had, i.e., the means and ability to swoop down and terrorize the unsuspecting criminal with bone-breaking abandon.

I must confess, however, that despite the renegade badass-ishness of Batman, what also compels me to his character is a deeper psychological narrative. Truthfully, it is a narrative also found in just about every other superhero (whether among Marvel’s pantheon or Batman’s DC). That is, coping with trauma. Nearly every superhero has some sort of serious trauma with which they must contend. Batman’s is that as a child he saw his parents murdered before his eyes.

According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.”

Take Netflix’s new popular superhero series, Jessica Jones, for example. Jones has super strength and can fly (sort of). And she is characterized as a hard-drinking, snarky ruffian, in contradistinction to other female heroes, including the indiscriminately compassionate Wonder Woman and the cool-headed and often passive Invisible Woman of the Fantastic Four. Though Jessica Jones is unquestionably a superhero, she is also damaged. We can relate to her drinking and callousness, and even forgive it, because she has undergone incredible trauma as a child. She lost her parents at a young age and went into the foster care of a bullying, narcissistic mother. Finally, she was later kidnapped and placed under the mind control of Kilgrave, her arch nemesis, who raped and abused her. (This is no origin story for youngsters!)

Jessica Jones and Batman are superheroes, yet they are incredibly human and relatable because of their trauma. They feel feelings and are deeply sensitive to the plight of others who are vulnerable. When their hearts were broken, their powers became unleashed and significant to the extent that they have become sensitized to the needs of the less fortunate. All of a sudden their powers became useful. What distinguishes them as superheroes, however, is not their powers and abilities – that merely makes them “super.” Plenty of super villains have powers and have gone through trauma, too. Jessica Jones and Batman (along with a host of other popular comic book characters) are superheroes precisely because they have remained open hearted and chosen to use their powers for good and for the sake of others rather than for their own self-centered aims.

Over the past few years, comic book characters have become more and more popular, as they have been adapted into both big and small screen media sensations. This does not seem to be a fad that will fade anytime soon. This coming spring (2016) alone anticipates another four superhero films, including Deadpool, Batman v Superman (with a cameo from Wonder Woman), Captain America: Civil War, and X-Men: Apocalypse.

It is in the dark of winter, during Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, however, when we Jews remember our closest version of superheroes, namely, The Maccabees. Like comic books superheroes of the here and now, the ancient Maccabees underwent their own trauma, as they watched their Temple desecrated and their brethren unjustly put to sword. The Books of the Maccabees recount the gruesome details of the tortures Jews endured for refusing to relent to Antiochus’s decrees, forbidding circumcision, keeping kosher, and Torah study. From this heartbreak arose their passion and mission to safeguard what is true and just, ultimately fighting the first war for religious freedom. From this trauma, a priestly clan known as the Hasmoneans became superheroes – they became Maccabees, seizing victory over their evil assailants against the greatest of odds.

It is important to note that superhero status in the Jewish tradition is not given to the Maccabees for their ferocious, super powers in battle. Again, what defines a superhero is not having powers alone, for villains have those, too. What makes a superhero is, despite the experience of trauma and pain, they choose truth, justice, and compassion over selfishness, anger, and hatred. After all, the Maccabean victory song is a prophetic verse specifically emphasizing goodness and spirituality over valor: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). And it is by choosing these principles of loving-kindness over the temptations of self-pity and blame that is and has always been the hallmark of Jewish identification, indeed of being a mensch. The Hanukkah miracle is therefore not the military victory of the Maccabees, but the dedication to being good amidst traumatic circumstances. The Hanukkah miracle celebrates not merely the external victory fought on the field, but the internal one waged on the human heart.

In his book, The Trauma of Everyday Life, renowned psychiatrist Mark Epstein teaches that trauma is actually not something just a few unlucky people undergo, but that we all experience. Indeed, he writes that trauma “is in the bedrock of our psychology” and “is an indivisible part of life.” We all experience mini-traumas all the time: loss of jobs and financial insecurity, break ups and divorces, loss of loved ones, neglect and isolation, addiction, and betrayal. And because we have all faced trauma on some level, fear and anxiety about the future, as well as a lack of forgiveness and resentment for the past inherently accompany our human experience.

Thus we learn that we will all undoubtedly arrive at times when the days get short and the nights a little colder; when the forces of uncertainty and fear seem to be creeping closer; when ignorance and injustice reign as shadows of darkness over our shoulders. And in those bleak hours, we still know there is such a thing as Hanukkah and there are Maccabees. There are heroes, raising the darkness to light and casting a fire into its belly. Our heroes are sensitized to life’s pains and know darkness well, having tasted its hypnotizing potency. Nevertheless, a hero proclaims that not only is he or she greater than the darkness, but also that we all are.

In the end, it is not the capes, masks, or nicknames that captivate us about superheroes, but the illuminating qualities of courage and faith – qualities we all possess – for those are the weapons that bring the triumph of compassion over castigation, justice over discrimination, and mercy over spite.

Rabbi Paul Steinberg is an educator and spiritual counselor at Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles, a residential addiction treatment center and synagogue community. Formerly a day school director and synagogue rabbi, his most recent book is “Recovery, the 12 Steps, and Jewish Spirituality: Reclaiming Hope, Courage, and Wholeness” (Jewish Lights, 2014), which provides the first comprehensive approach to integrating Jewish spirituality with the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.