Guest Column by Rabbi Steven Lebow
As everyone who has ever studied superheroes knows, almost every superhero (with the notable exception of the Fantastic Four) has a secret identity. An alter ego. As the poet T.S. Elliot would say, “They prepare a face to meet the faces that they meet.”
The traditional reason for a secret identity is “My enemies will strike at the ones I love!” Hence, Superman doesn’t want Lois Lane hurt, and Peter Parker is defensive of his elderly Aunt May.
In examining Superman and Batman, it is clear that the concept of a secret identity is different for these two archetypes.
Bruce Wayne is the REAL person. Batman is his alter ego. Bruce Wayne, burdened by the Oedipal loss of his parents, takes on the guise of a mystic creature of the night.
Superman, however, is the REAL person. He came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. He has always been Superman and always will be. It is Clark Kent who is a disguise, a made-up persona. Clark Kent, wearing geeky glasses and always stooping, is supposed to fool you into thinking that he is a wimp when in fact he could bench press — well, he could bench press an entire planet, should he choose to do so.
Bruce Wayne is real. Batman is a disguise. For Superman, the inverse is true: Superman is real; Clark Kent is a disguise.
And as I was saying about the High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are all about the faces that we wear each day in order to meet the faces that we see on the street. One hopes that the face we wear is the true one, but different circumstances and conditions can elicit a change in face, or personality, at least temporarily.
In fact, the Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, means quite simply “to look at one’s (face) in the mirror.”
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur call us to look directly into the mirror of our lives and to ask ourselves: “Am I the person that I was meant to be? Am I the best father/mother/child that I could be? Where have I erred, and where have I gone off track?”
It is not necessarily a pleasant task to look intently in that mirror, particularly if we find something in our souls that is wanting. We don’t always live up to our own best intentions.
Maybe we could have done better this past year. Maybe we should try harder in this coming year.
This difficult soul work is what makes Judaism more a philosophy than a Western-style religion.
Christianity is a Western-style religion. It has happy holidays: Christmas and Easter. Judaism has somber holy days: the Days of Awe and the Days of Judgment.
In English we use the phrase “People celebrate Christmas.” Imagine fitting Yom Kippur into that phrase. No one I know “celebrates” Yom Kippur.
Christians, it is said, celebrate their holidays. Jews observe ours. One isn’t better than the other. It is just that they have a different emphasis.
For this reason, no one I know looks forward to Yom Kippur. Who wants to spend the day beating their breast, looking into the mirror and wondering how they might have done better?
And yet, every Jew I know feels cleansed after the holy days have come and gone. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we stand revealed, with no mask and no disguise to hide us from our Creator or ourselves. We are most assuredly neither Superman nor Batman. We have no Bat Cave and no Fortress of Solitude to which we can escape.
The Jewish holy days: no mask, no cape. Just us. Just you. Just me.
And all that we can do at the holidays is sit in the synagogue for a few hours, stripped of all disguises and secret identities, and ask ourselves, “If I leave my disguise behind, who do I want to be this year?”
Rabbi Steven Lebow is the senior rabbi at Temple Kol Emeth.