Superheroes represent the dreams of the oppressed. Those who are weak and insecure imagine what they would do if they were actually more powerful. Like the neglected orphan Harry Potter who discovers he is the a powerful wizard, the nerdy Peter Parker who gains super powers expresses the deepest dreams of the bullied. The lesson of superheroes is to use those powers for good, selflessly and humbly. This message is crucial because awkward teenagers inevitably grow up and often shed their weaknesses. They become successful and sometimes wealthy. Superhero stories teach them to user those newfound powers for good, to help the needy and bring solace to the weak.
I. Super Powers?
Do super powers exist in Jewish thought? The Torah specifically prohibits using supernatural powers, such as witches (Ex. 22:17), mediums (Deut. 18:11) and necromancers (ibid., 12). The Egyptian magicians reportedly duplicated some divine miracles (Gen. 41; Ex. 7-9)! Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Avodah Zarah 11:16) derides at length all these supernatural forces as nonsense. The ancient equivalents of today’s illusionists and mentalists fooled people with these so-called powers into worshiping idols. The Torah forbids consulting these frauds.
However, Nachmanides (Sefer Ha-Mitzvos, addenda to positive commandments, no. 8) takes a less severe stand. He does not deride these witches and sorcerers as fakes. Rather, he merely states that the Jewish path consists of placing your complete faith in God. Accessing these supernatural forces is a forbidden distraction from God, who ultimately retains the power to override any other force.
Rashba (Responsa 1:13) goes even further. He places supernatural forces on par with the laws of nature. To the Rashba, what we understand we call science and what we do not we call supernatural. But really these forces are part of the way God created this world to function. However, we are forbidden to access those forces used in idolatry. (See also Derashos Ha-Ran, no. 12, p. 219 in the Feldman edition.)
According to Maimonides, superpowers do not exist. They are fantasy and illusions. According to Nahmanides and Rashba, they might. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky (Emes Le-Ya’akov Al Ha-Torah, Ex. 7:22) takes a middle position. He asks why we do not see real magicians today like they had in Egypt. Harry Houdini was certainly impressive but he was an athlete and illusionist, not a conjurer of supernatural forces.
Rav Kamenetsky explains that God ensures balance in the world. If only God’s messengers perform miracles, then people will be forced to believe in God and follow His prophets. To allow for free choice, God enables evil people to have corresponding power. In biblical times, when prophets abounded, so did false prophets and magicians. In later Talmudic times, when the sages had less impressive powers, the magicians had correspondingly weaker abilities. Today, neither good nor bad superpowers exist. We live in a world of weakness and confusion. But if superheroes ever arise, supervillains will have to join the fight to allow for free will.
II. Super Obligations
If you have super powers, are you obligated to use them to save others? Can you go on vacation or retire? In the animated movie, The Incredibles, Congress passed a law placing liability for collateral property damages on superheroes. With skyrocketing insurance premiums, superheroes were forced to retire. Are they allowed to do this?
The Torah (Lev. 19:16) forbids bystanding, watching someone die without helping. “Do not stand by idly on your fellow’s blood” requires us to attempt to save someone in mortal danger. The Shulchan Arukh(Choshen Mishpat 426:1) states:
One who sees his friend drowning in a sea or bandits approaching him or a dangerous animal approaching him, and one can save him by himself or by hiring others to save, and did not save… and similar circumstances, violates “Do not stand idly by your fellow’s blood.”
Note that we are even required to spend our money to hire someone to save a person in danger. Money concerns should not stand in our way of saving someone’s life. But another consideration is notably missing. Neither Shulchan Arukh nor the Rosh or Tur say that we are obligated to endanger ourselves in order to rescue someone else. This is particularly interesting because the author of the Shulchan Arukh, in his earlier work Beis Yosef (ad loc.), quotes the Hagahos Maimoniyoswho states that we must endure danger to save someone else.
The Hagahos Maimoniyos quotes the Talmud Yerushalmi (Terumos8:4) as his source for this obligation. The Yerushalmi tells of a time in which Rabbi Immi was imprisoned and presumably in mortal danger. Reish Lakish stated that he would charge the prison and either kill or be killed in his rescue attempt. (Note that Reish Lakish was a famous bandit before he underwent a religious transformation, so he was well trained for this attempt.)
However, since the Shulchan Arukh and others do not follow his Yerushalmi, they must have had a reason. Generally speaking, we follow the conclusions of the Talmud Yerushalmi unless the Talmud Bavli disagrees. Because the Talmud Bavli was compiled approximately 150 years after the Talmud Yerushalmi, we assume its editors were aware of the Yerushalmi and only disagreed intentionally and conclusively. Therefore, commentators searched far and wide for passages in the Talmud Bavli that could be read as disagreeing with the above Yerushalmi.
One of the passages quoted as indicating disagreement is about Rabbi Tarfon’s refusal to hide fugitives from the law. Accused murderers came to him, asking for sanctuary. He declined, saying that if they were guilty then he would also become guilty. Tosafos (ad loc., sv.Itmarinchu) quote the She’eiltos who explain Rabbi Tarfon’s refusal as a protective measure. He would not risk his life to save their lives. Some deduce from here that you are not obligated to risk your own life to save others.
But to what extent? Any excursion into public entails some degree of risk. Driving a car is risky. Are you exempt from saving someone’s life because driving on the highway constitutes risking your life? On the other hand, overly risky behavior is suicidal. Firemen are trained not to run into a building about to collapse to save someone’s life because of the risk. What is the limit?
A recent halakhic guidebook for Hatzolah emergency volunteers, Hatzalah Ke-Halakhah by R. Adi Cohen, surveys the opinions on this subject. For the author and readers of this book, this is a very relevant question whose answer has real implications for them and their families. When do Hatzolah volunteers refuse to enter a dangerous situation and when do they charge forward? Based on a responsum of the Radbaz (vol. 5, no. 218 (1,582)), contemporary authorities perceive a 50% threshold (e.g. Shevet Ha-Levi 8:87; Tzitz Eliezer 13:100:4). If the chance of survival is greater than 50%, then you are biblically obligated to try to save someone’s life despite the risk. That seems like a low threshold to me. On a personal level, I prefer a greater chance of survival than just 50%.
(Reprinted from Torahmusings.com. This is the first of a three-part series.)