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THIS WEEK IN MOSES: Faster than a speeing bullet, more powerful than a locomotive.
Fifty-seven years ago this week, The Adventures of Superman debuted on American television. The show grew out of the comic book series begun in 1938 by two bookish Jews from Cleveland, Ohio, who channeled their religious anxieties into a cartoon character they modeled partly on the superhero of the torah.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster drew on many sources for their comic book hero, including Greek mythology and Arthurian legend. But many of its principal themes are drawn from the Hebrew Bible, and its backstory is taken almost point by point from Moses.
Just as Moses was born into a world in which his people faced annihilation, Superman is born a planet that is facing extinction. Just as baby Moses is put into a small basket and floated down the Nile by his mother, baby Superman is placed into a small rocket ship by his parents and launched into space. Just as Moses is rescued by the daughter of the pharaoh and raised in an alien environment where he has to conceal his true identity, Superman is rescued by Jonathan and Martha Kent in a midwestern corn field and raised in an alien environment where he has to conceal his true identity. Just as Moses receives a calling from God to use his powers to liberate his people from tyranny, Superman receives a calling from his father to use his great strength “to assist humanity.”
Even Superman’s name reflects his creators’ biblical knowledge. Moses is the leader of Israel, or Yisra-el in Hebrew, commonly translated as one who strives with God. Superman’s original name on Krypton was Kal-El, or Swift God in Hebrew. His father’s name was Jor-El. Superman was clearly drawn as a modern-day god.
As Rabbi Simcha Weinstein told me, “Today, Action Comic #1 with Superman on the cover sells for over a million dollars. But in those days it was a joke. For Jewish artists, getting into advertising was hard, getting into highbrow art was harder. But with comic books, the barriers to entry were nothing. So people like Siegel and Shuster started drawing these superheroes who were metaphors for their own lives.”
Superman even fought Hitler. In Superman #1, published in 1939, Clark and Lois Lane travel to a thinly disguised Nazi Germany, where Lois ends up in front of a firing squad, until Superman rescues her. In Superman #2, also from 1939, Clark Kent visits faux Germany again and meets Adolphus Runyan, a scientist clearly modeled on Adolph Hitler, who has discovered a gas so powerful “it is capable of penetrating any type of gas-mask.”
Americans may or may not have noticed Superman’s Jewish identity, but Hitler sure did. As early as April 1940, Hitler’s chief propagandist, Josef Goebbels, denounced Superman as a Jew. But Americans still loved him. One in four American soldiers carried a comic book in their back pocket during World War II.
Here’s the opening of the series: