Op-Ed: Kal-El Meets Isra-El
Back in the early 1930s, two Jewish high school students from Cleveland created Superman. Writer and artist, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, sold their creation to what would later be known as DC Comics in 1938. I saw the latest Superman movie on Father's Day in June this year.
Sent by his father, Jor-El, from a dying planet in a distant star system, Kal-El arrives as a baby and is discovered and raised by his Earth family in America's heartland. Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman would grow up to fight for justice and against tyranny.
While various sources have attributed the Superman stories to the allegedly Leftist politics of his creators and their affinity with the idealism of FDR's New Deal, let me propose at least one other influence which might very well have had an impact.
Religious or not (and I really don't know how deeply steeped in their faith Siegel and Shuster were), the millennial impact of the Hebrew Bible (aka, Old Testament) and the Hebraic Prophets' teachings about the need to heal the world and to take care of the widow, the orphan, the poor, the oppressed, the stranger, and so forth continued to exert great influence on society even after many folks had turned away from formal religion. It is no accident that, despite their small numbers, Jews have been in the forefront of many movements for the betterment of mankind and of the world at large.
Some, like Karl Marx, would seek solutions in a broader, non (or anti-)-religious context, via political and socio-economic reform…"Liberalism," "Socialism,""Progressivism," "Marxism," or whatever.
And while Marx and others sometimes despised their Jewish roots, they too sounded, nevertheless, like Hebrew Prophets in their demand for justice. Isaiah, Micah, Amos, and later other Jewish teachers like Rabbi Hillel would have understood their passion well...Indeed, they were the teachers of such "Progressives."
So, whether Siegel and Shuster envisioned Jor-El and Kal-El in a Hebraic connection to G-d or not, as others with "El" as a suffix in their names have had (Daniel, Ezekiel, Samuel, Michael, Gabriel, Ariel, Nathaniel, Israel, etc.); or, if instead, this was just a matter of coincidence (of all the possible combinations of letters in the alphabet, why would the all-important Hebrew suffix--El - meaning "the Lord" - be selected by two Jewish boys for their super human hero?) , one way or another, the Jewish passion for justice, compassion for the oppressed, and pursuit of righteousness still manage to shine through in Kal-El's thoughts and deeds.
Since so much of the Superman narrative deals with repeated transformations of Clark Kent into his superhuman self, there is an important account about another transformation--one also involving someone who would wind up with "El" in the suffix of his name--which comes to mind at this time. And he (or, at least, his namesake) has been in the news at least as much, if not more, than Kal-El over the past century and for millennia before then as well.
While there are amazing stories, prophecies, and such linked to Biblical figures such as Samuel, Daniel, Ezekiel, Gabriel, and so forth, it's the saga involving one of the original Hebrew patriarch's grandsons which I'm now thinking about.
Some four thousand years ago, Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac, who, in turn, had two sons, Jacob and Esau, with his wife, Rebecca.
While it was evidently ordained in Heaven that Jacob, even though the younger of both very imperfect twins, should gain the birthright because he was the more spiritually suited, in the long run, to the light unto the nations task God had in mind for Abraham's descendants, according to the human mores of the time, the blessing and promise for the first born were still rightfully Esau's.
While Esau willingly ceded those rights to Jacob, that still did not change this. As usual, the Hebrew Bible makes these human imperfections of even the Jews' most important leaders very evident. At a time when cultures surrounding the Hebrews habitually turned great leaders into gods, the Jews would have none of it…
In Jewish tradition, for atonement to be made, sins committed must be dealt with in true, heartfelt devotion--teshuva, a turning of the ways. G-d knows He is dealing with imperfect humans and allows for a fresh start--as long as it is a sincere one. Having done this, however, does not clear people from sins committed against fellow human beings. For this atonement to occur, people must seek forgiveness and work out justice with those whom they have harmed, one way or another.
Prior to his experience at Beth El and meeting his brother again at Peniel, both sites in the Judean Wilderness (er, excuse me…the West Bank Wilderness), Jacob's life could be explained as a series of struggles enabling his spiritual growth. In the meantime, Esau had become a very powerful chieftain in his own right. After leaving Laban and bringing his own family back to the land of the Promise, Jacob had to pass through Esau's neighborhood…a chilling thought, indeed.
The following excerpts from www.biblegateway.com/resources/asbury-bible-commentary/Jacobs- provide a good synopsis of this evolution from Jacob to Israel. As discussed above, please note, once again, that while Jacob first had to make his amends with G_d, he also had to follow this up on the human level as well.
The theophanies (appearances of G-d to mortal man) are of historical interest for the nation. They explain why Bethel is an important religious shrine and how the nation got its name, Israel. However, the position of this theophany is particularly interesting. It is sandwiched between Jacob's preparations for encountering Esau and the actual meeting itself. Evidently, the unexpected meeting with the night stranger provides insight into the Divine Visitant before he can seek reconciliation with Esau.
Jacob's primary concern is with the brother he has previously wronged. So he does everything conceivable to ensure a peaceful reunion. He first sends messengers to announce his arrival and to begin possible negotiation for safe passage. Esau's only response to the messengers is an ominous approach with four hundred men.
Jacob, seized with fear, plans ways to minimize his losses in battle. He prays. In the prayer Jacob reminds God of the promises God made earlier and appeals to his faithfulness, which the patriarch has already experienced in the Laban crisis. He asserts that the idea to return home was God's own. Recognizing that he deserves no special favors, he nevertheless pleads for mercy. Jacob is here placing his hope in God to deliver him. It is in that state of despair that God will once more demonstrate his grace to Jacob. God will stand again as guarantor of the promise.
On the day before the encounter, as an act of appeasement, Jacob sends generous presents ahead for Esau. Later he will show extreme deference to his brother as they approach one another. It is in the context of this impending meeting with Esau that the enigmatic encounter with the stranger occurs. This One, not Esau, is the real challenge before him. The most plausible identity of the stranger is God himself, and the canonical placement of the passage suggests that Jacob has to reckon with God, not Esau. That is the a priori relationship with which he must deal.
This conflict brings to a head Jacob's lifetime of conflict (with Esau, Isaac, Laban, Leah, and Rachel). Can it be, perhaps, that all these conflicts really represented manifestations of this one? All this time can Jacob have been struggling against God?
Finally, Jacob is to become a conqueror in a profoundly spiritual sense. He finds victory in spiritual surrender. Such surrender always involves a struggle. In this case it lasts all night , and it comes amid weeping and prayer. Jacob craves a blessing no matter what it costs him—and there is a cost. The patriarch sustains physical injury and limps away... However, the blessing that the struggle brings is presented in Jacob's name and, by implication, transformed character. Jacob is forced to confess his old character by divulging his old name, “supplanter.” He becomes Israel, which may mean “God rules” (after von Rad).
The father of the tribes of Israel thus prevails by submitting himself to God. That is the only kind of victory man has with God. When day breaks, the stranger is gone. Jacob is gone. Only Israel is left. The transformation of the patriarch is complete. He is ready to meet Esau. Peniel will forever serve to remind us of a God who transforms the lives of men and women.
Another useful perspective on Jacob's transformation into Israel may also be found here http://www.jcpa.org/dje/articles/jacob-esau.htm.
While Clark Kent's transformations into Superman may not be as profound as Jacob's evolution into Israel, the quest to rise to the Higher Good and to work to achieve justice and to fight evil make Kal-El, nevertheless, a worthy namesake (courtesy of two Jewish boys in Ohio) of those who, like his own family, were given the Hebrew suffix pertaining to G-d in their names.
Like Daniel, Ezekiel, Samuel, Israel, and others before him, make no mistake about it...Kal-El's task--like that of the humanly flawed nation and people of Israel--is to still be a light and a force promoting G-d's work on Earth