Teshuva in Gotham: Something worth believing in?
When I think of teshuva, I don’t usually think about Bruce Wayne.
But I do now.
The Dark Knight Rises and the entire new Batman trilogy has generated terabytes of reviews, tweets, articles, and treatises on the cultural and even spiritual implications of the storylines. There’s a lot to evaluate in the films about morality, terrorism, love, honesty, economic inequality, and a host of other topics.
But perhaps the most fascinating recurring theme throughout the movie is that of Gotham City’s tendency to be hateful, base, and sinful, and the capacity (or lack thereof) of people to change.
Each movie in the trilogy contains a villain who seeks Gotham’s destruction. R’as al Ghoul, the Joker, and Bane may approach this issue through different lenses, but each of them believes in what they are saying and trying to do.
And they aren’t completely wrong, either. R’as al Ghul takes note of the corruption, inequity, and rampant lawlessness in Gotham while he seeks its destruction. The Joker plays on the fears and raw emotions of the people in attempting to cause the city to tear itself apart at the seams. Bane, in the new picture, co-opts some lingo from the Occupy movement to point out the class inequity and economic injustice taking place. But while they seek to destroy Gotham, “like Rome and Constantinople before it,” Bruce Wayne/Batman has a consistent message: Gotham is worth saving.
Luckily, each time he does.
It’s a remarkable parallel to some of Judaism’s most famous stories.
In Genesis, God sees the wickedness of mankind and sends a flood to wipe out all flesh and start from scratch with Noah.
Later on in Genesis, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah despite Abraham’s desperate plea to spare the cities for the sake of ten righteous people (who were ultimately not to be found).
In Exodus, on top of Mount Sinai, God sees the wickedness of the Golden Calf and makes Moses an offer he almost can’t refuse- to destroy all of the Hebrews at the foot of the mountain and to start over with just him.
In the Book of Jonah, Jonah refuses to go to Nineveh to prophesy its destruction, instead fleeing on a boat leaving Jaffa. We all know how that worked out: Jonah goes to Nineveh, the city repents, and is spared from God’s punishment, much to Jonah’s chagrin.
And, most relevant to today, according to the prophets and the Book of Lamentations, which we will read on Saturday night and Sunday morning to mark the occurrence of Tisha B’av, Jerusalem was destroyed and laid waste due to the senseless hatred of its habitants.
What are we to do with these lessons? What causes God to relent? What causes God to destroy?
We’d all like to believe that Judaism is always about the Bruce Wayne answer, that there is always capacity for teshuva (repentance) and forgiveness. Yom Kippur gives us this out each year.
But on the other hand, we also are presented with the fact that sometimes total destruction is, in fact, the only way to really be taught a lesson and to be able to move on. The Great Flood and the destruction of two temples both happened as a result of wicked behavior that was not going to change.
We look back and celebrate Abraham’s and Moses’s steadfast defense of their brethren when God pronounces their doom. We mock Jonah for not believing in teshuva’s redemptive powers. We challenge Noah’s decision to not speak up to save mankind.
What is clear, though, from these stories is that sometimes the answer is not black-and-white. Sometimes there is ultimate evil that cannot be changed (Noah, Amalek, Jerusalem), and other times there is the capacity to change course and save yourself or your people (Moses, Abraham to an extent, Jonah).
As we enter the fast of Tisha B’Av tomorrow night and Sunday, these are issues worth exploring.