What is the biblical concept of heroism? How does the Jewish perspective on heroes differ from that of other contexts and cultures? In The Biblical Hero: Portraits in Nobility and Fallibility Elliot Rabin offers an engaging analysis of the unique manner in which our tradition has thought about the champions of our history. Rabin, the Director of Thought Leadership at Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, analyzes figures including Moses, Samson, Abraham, and Esther through close readings of their stories contrasted with the portrayals of heroes in other tales.
Rabin shows how Jewish perspectives vary greatly from other models of biblical heroism by utilizing the work of twentieth century scholars Otto Rank, Lord Raglan, and Joseph Campbell who studied the role heroism plays in human development (they emphasized the key elements of ascending to greatness, shaping destiny and surmounting our natural limitations, respectively). As opposed to the central figures of ancient epics like Gilgamesh and Roman myths, the Bible’s heroes are not god-like creatures, rather they are deeply human, complete with personal failings and moral struggles. The measure of their success is calculated in fealty to God, not in military victories or the attainment of political power.
Rabin’s broad knowledge of literature informs his analysis. Within the span of two pages he compares the wandering first man, Adam, to a series of “Adamic outsiders,” depicted in the writings of Melville, Thoreau, Twain, Hemingway, and others, and notes how “just like American presidents, biblical leaders such as Moses and David are depicted with suspicion and subject to judgement.” Moses’ killing of the Egyptian “lends him no honor,” in contrast to the epic tales of Greek heroes, Rabin astutely notes. Equally adept in both high and popular culture in his comparisons, Rabin writes of Moses’s archnemesis, “Like Lancelot and Arthur, Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes, or Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, the menacing Pharaoh elicits the heroic features of his noble opponent.”
All the character profiles are equally as informative. Samson, though “born with all the right machinery” of a classic hero, the “Jewish Heracles” instead “loses his touch” by squandering his promising career on love for Philistine women. Esther both is and isn’t like Scheherazade, the heroine of the Arabian legend 1001 Nights who found herself similarly at the mercy of a king. Abraham’s story is brought into conversation with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and its hero’s own tale of reliance upon God and willingness to sacrifice his connection to his family. And Jacob’s life, as depicted in Genesis, is examined through the prism of the folkloric phenomenon of “tricksters,” as, after all, he was an individual whose deceptions of his brother, father, and uncle seem out of place in the “moral assumptions of the biblical universe.”
As Rabin’s excellent volume so expertly teaches us, the Bible’s portrayal of its heroes inspires us today “To have high expectations of our leaders and to tolerate their imperfections… Biblical heroes are role models precisely because of the difficulties they encounter, both out in the world and inside themselves.”
Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advisor to the Provost of Yeshiva University. He has edited or coedited 17 books, including Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity and Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought, and has lectured in synagogues, Hillels and adult Jewish educational settings across the U.S.