Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Rosh Hashana Sermon: Marvel’s Venom and Akedat Yitzhak

Last year, a Marvel Entertainment film known as Venom was released on October 5, shortly following Rosh Hashana. The films proximity to the holiday couldn’t have been more intentional and well thought-out. The film circles around the themes of today, Rosh Hashana, and the story of Akedat Yitzhak. Unfortunately for rabbis and congregants alike, the theological commentary of the film had to wait a while, as the film was only released after Rosh Hashana.

The legends of superheroes and supervillains are interwoven into the psyches of our people. Told and retold for millennia, the biblical stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, Jonah and the Whale, and Samson and, later, folklore describing the Golem all appeal to a very basic understanding of our people. Our people are a people in need of superheroes. Defenseless victims are what we are accustomed to being. We know all too well what Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”

For this reason, superhero and supervillain production has been largely a Jewish enterprise in the United States. Think back to some of the earliest comic strips you can remember. All-American Publications, the publication house that later would merge with DC comics, was founded and funded by names like Max Gaines, Harry Donenfeld, and Jack Liebowitz. All were first- and second-generation Jewish-Americans looking at inclusion in the tapestry of American society — a difficult challenge in the 1940s. During a period of high xenophobia, Jews were barred and discriminated against by way of immigration, neighborhoods, profession, and education. According to Gerald Hartman, a renowned expert and collector of World War II era comic books, “The comic book industry was really created by Jews, […] because they couldn’t get jobs in certain industries such as advertising or illustration art due to antisemitism. As a result, they came up with their own medium that really appealed to the masses.”[1]

During this period, our imagination ran fluid with thoughts of inclusion, equality, and justice. The earliest superheroes demonstrated these characteristics. During a period, when Jewish-appearing, dark-completed actors were customarily sidelined from starring in glamourous roles given to blonde-haired, blue-eyed, faired-skin men; Superman was an exception. As Rich Goldstein pointed out in a Daily Best article, of the two first-generation, Jewish-American creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shushter, it was “Jerry [Siegel, who] was the model [for superman].”[2] Goldstein also pointed out that from Jerry Siegel Superman would inherit his ethnically unique dark and curly hair, brown eyes, and chiseled jaw,[3] and that again in 1945, the team would use another Jewish male model for inspiration, named Stanley Weiss.[4] It is no surprise, given the period and the ethnic origins of the earliest comic book creators, who and what the earliest villains were for our beloved superheroes. Superman appears fighting Nazis and, later, the Soviet Union alongside other pseudo-Jewish superheroes like Captain America.[5] The animosity felt by Germany was so strong during the Second World War that German propaganda issued a response to the person they referred to as “the inventive Israelite”[6] or “Superman.”[7]

DC Comics main competitor, Marvel Comics, shares a similar genesis. The comic house was founded by Moe Goodman, who was also a second-generation Jewish-American. The late, second-generation Jewish-American Stan Lee acted as the publisher of Marvel Comics. Jewish themes persisted in Marvel Comics as well. Of the Marvel characters, the X-men’s Magneto—a Holocaust survivor—Kitty Pryde and Sabra were all featured Jews with connections to the Holocaust and personal vendettas against injustice, bigotry, and hatred.

But the Jewish story of overcoming adversity, of justice, of echoing the timeless words of Rabbi Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” would mean nothing without a proper grounding in our biblical narrative. Our parsha read on Rosh Hashana of Akedat Yitzhak, which grounded these timeless words and bound them into a superhero saga with Marvel’s Venom.

Avi Arad, the Israeli founder and producer of Marvel Studios and the film Venom, interweaves the Akedat narrative into his theatrical piece. As the storyline and plot progress, three extraterrestrial bodies escape from an alien host planet only to live off of living terrestrial hosts. A symbiosis of lifeforms guarantees both the extraterrestrial and terrestrial lifeform survive on Earth; failed symbiosis results in the expiration and death of terrestrial hosts. The extraterrestrials are initially captured and exposed to terrestrial humans as part of a human experiment. The objective of the experimentation is the symbiosis of the lifeforms. Although the projected outcome of this failed symbiosis is certain death, experimentations move forward.

During the first round of experimentation, the film appears to directly mimic the Akedat Yitzhak saga. The scene opens with the villain, the CEO of the Life Foundation, Carlton Drake referring to the binding of Isaac in a powerful monologue. During the scene, Drake turns to his fellow scientists and declares—boisterously and obnoxiously, “Thank you all for bringing us to this moment, our names will be spoken of long after we are dust. History starts now. This is day one” [Drake turns to the test subject, a young man introduced by the name of Isaac]. Drake states, “There is no reason to be frightened Isaac. There is no need. Isaac, do you know that is a biblical name? G-d said to Abraham give me your son, show me you’re willing to sacrifice the one thing most precious to you, and Abraham was willing.” Drake continues, “you know what has impressed me most of that story, it isn’t Abraham that sacrifices, Isaac, […] I don’t know what sort of G-d would ask that of someone. That doesn’t change anything for me. Isaac is still the hero of this story. Look around you. Look at the world. What do you see? War. Poverty. A planet on the brink of collapse.”[8] Drake continues, “I would argue that G-d has abandoned us. He didn’t keep his end of his bargain, Isaac, and so now it is up to me and you to put this right. And this time, Isaac, we can, we will. This time, I will not abandon us.”[9]

The abandonment felt by Drake refers to G-d’s promise to Abraham in the ending verse of our parsha today, which states an angel is sent by G-d to Abraham for a second time. The angel promises to Abraham in Genesis 22:16-22 that “Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command.”

The tragedy of Akedat Yitzhak and of the film, is at times, it feels as though G-d has abandoned us upon this promise. The Holocaust, immanent ecological disasters, Israel’s struggle with her neighbors, this list of tragedies goes on. It is tempting to become a villain in such a world. To want to intercede upon G-d as the true arbiter of justice, equality, and righteousness is alluring and only human. The problem is that we are only human. We can fight like hell, in court, in politics, or in an army. But at the end of the day, even if we are right, we may still lose. We wish to imagine ourselves and our people as superheroes, overcoming adversity and challenges with heroic outcomes. Sadly, we are not gods, this is not always the outcome. We can merely live by the heroic endeavors of our people—as G-d’s chosen people. Our heroic endeavor is that, despite the reality of the brokenness in our world, we, as a people, will persist in our faithfulness in G-d, of good over evil, and will live by the message of Rabbi Hillel that “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” Let this year be a reminder to our people to recommit to these values.

[1] https://www.aish.com/j/as/Superman-vs-the-Nazis-How-Comics-Influenced-American-Public-Opinion.html

[2] https://www.thedailybeast.com/superman-is-jewish-the-hebrew-roots-of-americas-greatest-superhero?ref=scroll

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] https://www.aish.com/j/as/Superman-vs-the-Nazis-How-Comics-Influenced-American-Public-Opinion.html

[6] https://research.calvin.edu/german-propaganda-archive/superman.htm

[7] Ibid

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YD8FIGM1T48

[9] Ibid

About the Author
Shmuel Polin is a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A Greater Philadelphia/New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations. Currently living in Cincinnati, he is finishing up his studies at HUC-JIR, while serving as the rabbinic intern of Adath Israel and as the student rabbi of Beth Boruk Temple.
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