Billions of years ago, when I was a child attending Hebrew school at Central Synagogue in New York City, I had a class that I couldn’t for the life of me appreciate: Jewish values. We talked about tzedakah. We talked about mitzvot. We talked about learning. We talked about helping.
I hated every minute of it.
Why? Well, for one thing, it was boring–unlike my acting class at the end of the day, which was loads of fun. Tzedakah? Who wanted to learn about tzedakah?
It turned out that I learned about it most when I didn’t expect it. And that was the other night in Brooklyn, where I sat in a cramped, rickety old movie theater to watch Wonder Woman.
Yes, Wonder Woman–the film starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot that has catapulted this nice Jewish girl into fame and showcases her kickass superhero skills … fictionalized in the context of the film, of course, but inspiring nonetheless. She smashes buildings. She defeats villains. She saves lives.
She also performs mitzvot aplenty–and speaks so eloquently about righteousness and justice that her discourse transcends the genre, normally relegated to absurd CGI pyrotechnics and all-too-vain physical posturing.
The odd thing is that what I expected to make the biggest impact on me–the fact that a stunning, talented Jewish woman has taken the role of one of the most famous comic-book characters on earth and vanquishes anti-Semitic stereotypes by engaging in feats of derring-do that could only, just a few decades back, be imagined in the wildest of yiddische dreams–didn’t. Instead, what did was the soul Gadot imbued this amazing heroine with … a soul that paralleled what I learned all those years ago in Hebrew school.
Tzedakah. Learning. Mitzvot.
Wonder Woman, in the movie, is a diligent student of the martial arts and even surpasses her teacher. But her understanding isn’t limited to battle and conflict; no, she also has read treatises on subjects that I will not divulge in this blog post owing to the humorous nature of their revelations–conveyed in a charming scene with the superb Chris Pine, who plays her romantic interest. She knows numerous languages. She’s very well educated. Then there’s the mitzvot. Set for the most part during World War I, the picture offers scenes of this Amazonian goddess reaching out to those less fortunate than her and assisting them. She shows compassion, not cynicism. She knows there’s always a way to help.
She does just that, too, in fashions that range from charging enemy trenches to saving an entire town. Despite her military training, she is anti-war and believes in the importance–and feasibility–of peace. She cares about humanity.
The tzedakah she provides is less tangible, but she fulfills one element of the pyramid that highlights the many levels of charity, from helping someone a little bit with financial or other aid to raising an individual completely to independence. I remembered this pyramid from the halls of my Hebrew school; it was documented in a poster that often puzzled and intrigued me. Why are some levels of tzedakah better than others? Why is there a ranking at all? Surely any level is commendable?
I don’t think Wonder Woman would believe that. For her, some charity is greater than others. She exemplifies that in the sequences that show her saving an entire town from destruction and servitude. She reflects that when she talks to one particularly downtrodden individual, trying to discern the best way to help.
These are Jewish values, friends. Wonder Woman is, of course, at the top of the pyramid. But she showed me that there are many ways to contest violence and hatred, destruction and apathy. She showed me the importance of tzedakah. She showed me the importance of mitzvot.
And the most important lesson she taught me? Never stop trying to help … even when it seems hopeless.
In retrospect, the myriad thrills of Wonder Woman may well overwhelm the moral subtext that pervades the celluloid it flickers on. Yet the instruction conveyed cannot be underemphasized … and the fact that a Jewish actress is disseminating such a tutorial is critical to understanding this work as one that both breaks barriers and builds equity. For the takeaway from the film is not only that tolerance will surpass bigotry and good will conquer evil, but also that value systems are real and can be recognized in action, in decision, in ambition and in effort. Those value systems reflect ours as Jews. Those value systems are exactly what I learned many moons ago in Hebrew school.
So I have to thank Wonder Woman for calling my attention to them once again. I have to thank Gadot for representing them so articulately. But I can’t forget that I also have to thank all the fans who watched and will watch the picture … and who believe in these values and will demonstrate them throughout the course of their lives in their behavior.
Wonder Woman, Jewish learning, tzedakah and mitzvot? Of course–they go together. Yet only when I saw them all on the big screen could I understand that, could they make sense in combination.
I won’t forget this lesson easily. That’s a pretty big step, all things considered.
And one great, Wonder Woman-style leap for me in my journey as a Jewish man.