Ridley Scott’s latest film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” won’t be in theaters until December, but it already has generated a bit of controversy.
According to Christianity Today, the actor who portrays Moses in the film, Christian Bale, had this to say about the dominant figure in Jewish religious tradition: “I think the man was likely schizophrenic, and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life. He’s a very troubled and tumultuous man who fought greatly against God, against his calling.”
Living in a free and open society, Mr. Bale is free to express his opinion, and to do safe from the fear of any punishment or persecution. The biggest fear that his remarks have generated is the potential effect they may have on the movie’s box office returns, especially among the large Christian market in the United States. Of course, we in turn are free to characterize his statements as ignorant and erroneous. We also are free to express our doubts about whether he has any chance of displacing Charlton Heston as the personification of Moses, especially since Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments” has been broadcast on ABC every year around Easter for the last four decades. And we are also free to say that Mr. Bale should go back to playing Batman, a character better suited to his temperament.
And speaking of comic book superheroes, we might recall that the first of this genre, Superman, was the creation of two Jewish teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, back in 1938. As an answer to the idea of the Aryan “superman” trumpeted by Nazi ideology, their Superman was the ultimate immigrant, born on another planet but raised as an American. He was the ultimate orphan, too; his home world, Krypton, was destroyed, mirroring the Jewish immigrants who came to the United States to escape the destructive forces of discrimination and anti-Semitism, the arrests and expulsions, not to mention the pogroms, putsches, and purges. This was not an exclusively Jewish story, but one shared by many immigrant groups during the 19th and 20th centuries. This no doubt had much to do with the character’s popularity in the United States.
The immigrant experience is reflected in the depiction of the character’s double life, as well. Unlike Batman, whose real identity is Bruce Wayne, Superman doesn’t wear a mask, but instead puts on glasses to masquerade as Clark Kent, the Anglo-Saxon name he uses as he tries to blend in with humanity. And although he is never entirely outed, he often comes across as awkward, shy, and clumsy in his attempt to pass as an ordinary man. As Superman, however, his Kryptonian ethnicity is openly on display. He is in his own element, set apart from the mainstream, which is the way that immigrants and their children might feel in the privacy of their own homes, or at shul, or safely tucked away in their own community or ethnic enclave.
Ellis Island was notorious for changing immigrant’s names, and immigrants themselves commonly changed their names to Americanize them. They often gave their children Anglo-Saxon names like Clark Kent. And just as Jews often have Hebrew names that differ from their official given names, Superman has a Kryptonian name: he is Kal-El, son of Jor-El. The last name, El, is a common element of Hebrew names, translated as God, while Kal might be taken for the Hebrew word for all, or for voice. Perhaps there is also a connection to the name of the biblical hero Caleb, which also can be transliterated as Kaleb, one of the 12 spies sent by Moses, and the only one, aside from Joshua, to act with courage, loyalty, and integrity. The important point, however, is not the specific translation, but rather the way in which the idea of Superman’s Kryptonian name is drawn from Jewish experience.
But Superman’s origin also was clearly inspired by the story of how Moses was saved from the Egyptian edict that all male children born to the Israelites should be killed, how he was put into a basket to float on the Nile River, where he was found and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. The story of Superman begins when he is an infant. His parents place him in a small rocket, just the size of a cradle, and send him to the planet earth just before his planet is destroyed. Although Siegel and Shuster drew on science fiction themes rather than myth, fantasy, or allegory in telling this story, there is no denying the seemingly supernatural quality of the hero, or his role as a hero and a savior.
The same Moses motif is apparent in the ABC television series “Once Upon a Time,” created by two Jewish writers, Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, and now into its fourth season. The ABC network is owned by Disney, and “Once Upon a Time” draws on Disney’s long history of fantasy and fairy tale films, reworking and merging the characters and plots, and giving it all a twist. This is along the lines of the popular TV series “Lost,” for which both Kitsis and Horowitz wrote.
As the series opens, all the fairytale characters are under a spell cast by the Evil Queen (the one from Snow White), living ordinary, unchanging lives in the real world in a small town called Storybrooke. They have forgotten their true identities and earlier existence in another realm called the Enchanted Forest. Just before the curse took hold, however, Snow White and Prince Charming placed their infant daughter in a magic wardrobe, which transported her to our world, free of the Evil Queen’s curse. She grows up as an orphan, ignorant of her origins. The series opens with the daughter, now an adult named Emma Swan, arriving at Storybrooke, where she eventually is identified as “the Savior.” This makes it possible to reverse the spell and rouse the inhabitants from their fantasy of assimilation.
A darker version of the Moses motif appears in the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” adapted from George R. R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels by two Jewish writers, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Here too the motif is applied to a female character, Daenerys Targaryen. As the young daughter of a deposed king, she is saved from being slaughtered, exiled to a part of the world that resembles the middle east, and forced into an arranged marriage with the leader of a nomadic tribe. Rescued and adopted into royalty, she loses everything when her husband is wounded and dies. But, like Moses, she has a supernatural encounter with fire (becoming “mother” to three newly hatched dragons) that sets her on the path to becoming a leader in her own right, and a redeemer. During the series’ fourth season this spring, her liberation of slaves was shown to great dramatic effect. It is also clear, however, that she is a flawed savior, and her dragons are a dangerous weapon that can cause harm to the innocent.
Superman, Emma Swan, and Daenerys Targaryen all draw upon the powerful story of Moses in different ways. But they all convey the same profound theme of the Moses motif. That’s unconditional love, as parents sacrifice everything to save their children. (How many times has that story been enacted in real life?) As Neil Postman so eloquently put it, “children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” And what the Moses motif reminds us of is that children are the saviors who will liberate us from the tyranny of the past, and lead us into the freedom of the future.