Leaders and Superheroes

May 8, 2009

7 min read


The Jewish "superhero" is none other than Moses.

His people faced destruction. They sent out a baby boy, placing him in a box, to ensure his survival. He grew up to be a hero, a savior, able to achieve feats that no ordinary man could do.

Moses? Or Superman?

It could be either. Superman was drawn by two Jewish boys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and was based on Moses. It is reported that the Superman comics were never drawn on Thursday night, as Mrs. Siegel needed her breadboard to knead her loaves of bread for Shabbat!

A hero represents the qualities that people admire and aspire towards. He is the kind of person that people want to look up to and respect as a leader.

If we look at the heroes and superheroes of different cultures, we can learn much about them.


Let's take the modern American superhero. He is tall, handsome, physically powerful, and he possesses outstanding fighting skills.

The current form of superhero is his own boss (compare the new, mean Batman of the 90s to the old do-gooder boy scout of the 70s). He radiates tremendous power and presence. On occasion, he even possesses superpowers. And even the alter-ego that conceals his secret identity is not too much of a slouch. He is always financially comfortable and pursues a fairly high-powered career.

While this is taken to an extreme for children's superheroes, it is also true in the adult world. Franklin Roosevelt was never photographed in a wheelchair. Bill Clinton's success can certainly be attributed in part to his great physical presence.

"He possesses no qualifications or training, but he's very tall, so we know he'll go far."

(In a Dilbert cartoon, the boss introduces a new employee with the words, "He possesses no qualifications or training, but he's very tall, so we know he'll go far. He also has executive-style hair; we think it will turn silver.")

Presidential campaigns are nowadays very much about showmanship; the candidates must be good-looking, well spoken, and have a commanding presence. And their alter-egos -– their lives before they became president -– must also be impressive, involving high-powered careers, affluence, and preferably a famous family.

Is Judaism entirely different?


Actually, no. But it is subtly different, and that subtle difference is profound.

There are four types of hero or leadership positions in Judaism:

  • the king,
  • the members of the Sanhedrin (council of sages),
  • the high priest, and
  • the prophet.


The criteria for all these are very similar, so we shall discuss them all together.

The Talmud (Nedarim 38a) states that the Divine Spirit only rests on a person who is powerful, wealthy, wise, and humble. Now, we can appreciate the importance of wisdom and humility in a prophet, but why does he have to be powerful and wealthy?

Maimonides explains this with a principle discussed in the Mishnah, which states, "Who is mighty? He that subdues his evil inclination. Who is wealthy? He that is satisfied with his lot."

The power and wealth spoken of are internal, spiritual attributes, rather than brute strength and heaps of money.

This explanation, however, does not appear to be the straightforward meaning of the Talmud's list of requirements. We are still faced with the question of why physical power and material wealth are prerequisites for becoming a prophet.

One answer is to be found in Richard Adam's best-selling story about life in a rabbit warren "Watership Down." The rabbit Fiver, a small, weak and pathetic bunny, also happens to possess the power of prophecy (admittedly unusual in a rabbit). Fiver experiences a vision that the warren is about to be destroyed by developers, and desperately tries to persuade the other rabbits in the warren to leave. But the other rabbits simple don't believe him, and who can blame them? This pathetic and sickly little rabbit is obviously delirious, deranged, and deeply disturbed.

Anyone who is sick, or poor, or generally pathetic would lack credibility as a prophet. Perhaps he's pretending to do it out of insanity or to gain attention –- after all, he's got nothing to lose. The requirement for a prophet to be healthy and wealthy is simply to ensure that people take him seriously as a man of stature.

A similar reason applies to the laws of appointing a king. Maimonides rules that one may not appoint a butcher, hairdresser, bathhouse attendant as a king. This is not because such people are innately unsuitable for the task; Judaism cares more for internal qualities than superficial prestige. However, since the work of such people is not prestigious, the public will not take them seriously and their authority will be compromised.


This requirement is based on a pragmatic outlook, rather than being an attestation to the importance of a high-powered career.

All of this ensures that the people treat the king with respect. For the same reason, it is forbidden for a king to be seen while naked or in the sauna (contrast Al Gore's promotional advertisement in which he is seen emerging from a swim). And the requirement of honoring the king applies to the king, too; after all, the kingship is much bigger than the king. Thus, he is forbidden to decline any honors due to him.

On the other hand, the king himself is only a tool to ensure that the people are united in a law-abiding society. He is therefore restricted by certain rules; he may not amass needless wealth, he may not drink excessively, and he is ordered to act humbly and with equal concern for all members of society, no matter what their status.

Still, because the requirements of a good image for a leader serve only to ensure respect for him, they definitely take secondary place to the inner traits of wisdom, willpower, and integrity. If something has to give way, it's the superficial things that are compromised rather than the character traits.

The greatest leader of all time, indeed the greatest person, the real superman, was Moses.

The greatest leader of all time, indeed the greatest person, the real superman, was Moses.

It's interesting that his title is very different from that of other great men. There was Richard the Lionheart, William the Conqueror, and Conan the Destroyer. But Moses is called Moshe Rabbeinu, "Moses, our Teacher."


His greatness -– aside from his humility -– is reflected in his teaching wisdom to his people. (Incidentally, his miracles were irrelevant to his reputation; Maimonides relates that the Jewish people were always skeptical of those, suspecting them to be illusions or sorcery rather than proving him to be the messenger of God.)

Yet Moses himself lacked what is perhaps the most important quality for a leadership candidate today: good oratory skills. The Bible tells us that he had a speech impediment! This would be devastating to anyone trying to run for the presidency today. But with Moses, it ensured that he would be followed on basis of the truth of his words, rather than the panache with which he said them.

In today's age of mass media, image is all-important. Judaism, too, sees it as important; but only insofar as a concession to human shortsightedness.

Let us try never to forget that it is inner spiritual qualities that are the real superpowers.

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