‘Chochma BaGoyim, Taamin’ – Lessons we can learn from Batman

In this article I am going to take a selection of quotes from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (Batman) and see what chochma we can glean from this movie masterpiece. This article has been adapted from a Forbes Tech article entitled “Five Leadership Lessons From Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy” by Alex Knapp


“People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.”


In Batman Begins, one key aspect of Bruce Wayne’s desire to become Batman is so that he can be a symbol of something. A beacon of hope so that people can aspire to do better. This is what we see in The Dark Knight Rises, where Batman is honored as the savior of the city, not Bruce Wayne or any one person.


Sometimes we encounter a leader that becomes something more than just a leader, like the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l, they become a symbol around which the community can rally and draw inspiration from, even after their death they continue to inspire movements. However, we often see upon the passing of great leaders, the community struggling to function normally. What we can learn from Batman is that communities should not be dependent on any one particular individual, but should rather be founded on ideas and ideals. In this way we ground our religious life in a lasting and enduring way, giving us meaning and also leaving a lasting legacy to those that come after us.


“It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.”


During one scene in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is exiting an expensive restaurant and getting into an expensive sports car. It’s all part of his act to maintain a wealthy bachelor image so that nobody suspects he’s Batman. On his way out, he runs across his childhood friend Rachel Dawes, who looks at him condescendingly as Bruce tries to defend himself, “It’s not who I am underneath.” Rachel’s response is pointed: “Deep down you may still be that same great kid you used to be. But it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.”


Mitzvot are the fundamental currency of yiddishkeit, physical deeds are the foundation of our religious life. In halacha there is a famous debate about whether mitzvot tzrichot kavana, do our good deeds need to have the correct intentions to count as a mitzvah? Do we need to understand the words we pray to fulfill the mitzvah of tefilla? Is there any value in actions without their meanings? Judaism has always placed an emphasis on doing the right actions, as opposed to thinking the right thoughts (although the halacha does mandate kavana ideally). As Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits puts it eloquently regarding tefilla:


 “it is no small achievement to have taught the lips to “pray” on their own, without the conscious participation of the heart and mind. It shows that the human organism, from whose own nature hardly anything could be further removed than the wish to pray, has actually submitted to direction by the will to prayer…. Automatically “praying” lips may count for little in comparison with kavana, the directedness of the praying soul toward God in ecstatic submission; yet, they too represent a form of submission of the organic self to the will to pray”.  


We sometimes belittle our avodah when we do not think the right thoughts or have the proper intentions but we should appreciate the deed itself and the value of doing the right actions as an important part of that lifelong journey of growing closer to Hashem.

“You have been supplied with a false idol to stop you from tearing down this corrupt city. Let me tell you the truth about Harvey Dent.” 


At the end of The Dark Knight, Gotham’s District Attorney, Harvey Dent, had gone on a murderous rampage as the super villain Two-Face. Confronted with this fact, Commissioner Gordon and Batman agreed to tell the people of Gotham a lie. Gordon would tell the City that Batman had committed the murders that Dent had. This would allow Dent’s memory to go untarnished. It was upon that memory that the City built up a new Gotham. But not one that truly dealt with crime – one that merely pushed it underground. In The Dark Knight Rises, the truth about Batman and Dent is revealed to be a lie that corroded the foundation of Gotham’s institutions. At the end of the film, a new Gotham is built on a truth – that Batman is a hero. And that “a hero can be anyone.”


What was refreshing about the ba’al teshuva movement (in its early days) was its intellectual honesty and quest for the truth. It was this openness that tempted scientists (Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz), philosophers (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks), and various intellectuals to engage with the Torah honestly, and spread its light to others, this created a not so insignificant movement of returnees. Unfortunately, times have changed and this openness is now seen as a threat to Orthodoxy. As we have seen with the continued libels against sincere Orthodox scholars like Rabbi Natan Slifkin, truth is now perceived to be a threat to the status quo of Orthodox Jewish life. Sincere and honest engagement with Torah sources is now replaced with censorship and works of propaganda and pseudoscience. Leaders often trick themselves into thinking that people can’t be trusted with the truth, and that if they learn it, bad things will happen, this is a fundamental mistake. Education at its core has to be truth seeking, people need to be treated as adults and trusted with the truth. If we believe that the Torah is a Toras emes then what are we afraid of? As the yiddish saying goes “Man starbt nicht von a kasheOne does not die from a question”.


“You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak …  How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death?”


During the mid-point of The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne is trapped in a hellish prison. It’s a prison made terrible, says his enemy Bane, because it offers hope. There is a pit leading to the surface that the inmates can try to escape from. The only problem? Only one prisoner ever made it – a child. Wayne makes two escape attempts and fails both times at the same point – a point where he has to make a jump that seems impossible for a person to make. In discussing the jump, Wayne reveals to a fellow prisoner that he isn’t afraid of death. His fellow prisoner chastises him for this – pointing out that it’s the fear of death that will drive you to “move faster than possible, fight longer than possible.”


Shlomo Hamelech taught: It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for that is the end of every man, and the living shall lay it to his heart. (Kohelet 7:2)

I have heard of party crashers, but not so many Shiva crashers. Fear of death is a common human fear and in some cases can lead to various medical conditions ranging from hypochondria, anxiety, depression, panic attacks etc. What we learn from Shlomo Hamelech (and Batman of course), is that fear can in fact be used for the good. How differently would we live on a daily basis, if we lived with the knowledge that each day could be our last. How differently would we talk, behave?  A bit of fear of death, like when visiting a Shiva house, can be a catalyst to act differently and be better people in our day to day lives. Life really is too short, so make the most of every day and use that fear of death to drive you to do the things that you would regret not doing.


“And why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”


One running theme of Nolan’s Batman trilogy is the idea of failing. It first appears at the beginning of Batman Begins, when a young Bruce Wayne falls into a well full of bats. Upon rescuing him, his father simply notes that the reason we fall is “so we can learn to pick ourselves up.” This is the entire story of The Dark Knight Rises after Batman’s defeat at the hands of Bane. Rather than destroy himself, Bruce Wayne escapes from the prison that he’s put in and reclaims the mantle of Batman and vanquishes the threat to Gotham.


Judaism is very comfortable with failure, says Shlomo Hamelech “For there is not a righteous man upon earth, that does good, and sins not” (Kohelet 7:20). In fact the flip side of the mishnah we read after Pirkei Avos ratza Hakadosh Baruch hu lezakot et Yisrael lefichach hirba lahem Torah uMitzvot Hashem desired to grant merit to Israel therefore he multiplied for them Torah and mitzvot (Makkot 3:16), is that in fact there are just as many opportunities to fail! Our holiest prayer service of the year, on Yom Kippur, describes the elaborate and inspirational service of the Kohen Gadol in the Temple to cleanse the nation of their sins and the relief of the people to be granted another year to try and live up to their ideals. The Torah teaches us that failure is never final, it is never too late for teshuva, in fact it is hardwired into how we have been programmed since Odom left the Garden of Eden. Shlomo Hamelech teaches us “The tzaddik will fall seven times and will rise.”(Mishlei 24:16). Here is the guarantee that despite us falling, with Hashem’s help, we pick ourselves up again and will ultimately rise to the challenge. Maybe deep inside everyone of us is a ‘Dark Knight’ just waiting to rise!



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