|Edited by John Morrow||Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.|
by and © John MorrowFrom Jack Kirby Collector #26
Roz Kirby remarked in her interview back in TJKC #10 that Jack "believed in his faith, and he liked to read the Bible." Roz went on to say that Jack loved and believed in God, so I don't think it's a stretch to state that his Jewish beliefs affected his work. The purpose of this piece is to give a brief overview of Judaism, in hopes of gaining a little insight into how it might've affected Jack's thinking, and his conceptualizing of characters and stories throughout his career. Obviously, an article of this short length can only scratch the surface of this complex faith, and I'm forced to state Jewish beliefs in generalities. No disrespect is intended by oversimplifying it here, and if I inadvertently misrepresent anything, I hope our readers—Jewish or otherwise—will let me know.
The History of Judaism
The recorded history of mankind began roughly 6000 years ago. The world was primarily pagan thereafter, and people worshiped thousands of different gods, usually one for each of the elements (sun, moon, rain, etc.) that affected their lives. Around 1800 B.C., a man named Abraham revolutionized religion with his concept of monotheism (the belief in the one and only God), based on his encounter with God (as scripturally recounted in the book of Genesis). This was the beginning of what would become Judaism. Much of the conflict and strife the Jews endured throughout history stems from their strict and literal adherence to Abraham's declaration of "one God," putting Judaism at odds with other religions.
The main common ground between Jews and Christians is the first five books of the Christian Bible's Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These "Five Books of Moses" constitute the Torah, an important portion of the Hebrew Bible. The Torah outlines God's declaration of the creation of the universe, and the covenant of faith that resulted from the encounter between Abraham and God (wherein God told Abraham his descendants would be His chosen people, so long as they obeyed His law and worshiped Him faithfully).
The Evolving Attitude Toward God
Judaism, like Christianity, has evolved into several "denominations" (for lack of a better word). Probably the two most prominent are Orthodox (those with a more traditional belief in God), and Conservative (who feel it's important to believe in God, but are constantly asking questions about God's true nature, rather than believing in a specific notion of God). From interviews he's given, Jack appears to have been affected by both at different points in his life, so we'll focus on those here.
Orthodox Jews have a two-way belief in the nature of God. First, they believe God is transcendent, standing above and beyond all living things. He is an invisible, distant judge of humanity. They are in awe of Him, knowing that at any moment, He could use His fearsome might to rain down His judgment and destroy the world. In Kirby's work, this attitude is perhaps best typified by the Celestials in The Eternals, who returned to Earth to judge mankind.
At the same time, Orthodox Jews believe God is an accessible, personal being who is present in daily life; a comforting parent who hears prayers and answers them. (This is somewhat conveyed in Jack's work through the relationship of Highfather and the Source wall, or through Highfather's parental nature itself.) These two attitudes work in tandem—at times, Jews believe more strongly in one than the other.
An important thing to understand is that Jewish belief is always self-critical, and constantly challenges itself. Because of this, Jews' ideas of God evolve over time. This could account for Jack's sometimes contradictory opinions on God in interviews; in the same way he was constantly evolving new stories and characters, his view of God was constantly changing, and this is fundamental and proper in the Jewish belief system, particularly with Conservative Jews.
In general, Jews believe every person is unique, but created in the image of God. For Jews, to know yourself is to know God. Kirby's uncanny ability to accept every person as they were—even the most rude or irritating—would bear this out. For, to deny another person—created in God's image—would be to deny God. Anyone who ever saw Kirby stand for hours at conventions talking to anyone and everyone would agree he subscribed to this belief.
Right and Wrong
Jews believe God created a universe where moral behavior is required and order prevails. The world is inherently good, and if you stay in harmony with what God expects of you, you will be rewarded with prosperity, longevity, and happiness. Likewise, if you don't obey God's law, you and your family will suffer.
Christianity and Judaism differ greatly on the concept of sin. For Christians, every person is born into a state of sin, from which they need forgiveness (through acceptance of Jesus Christ as savior), and they are rewarded or punished for their actions in the afterlife. For Jews, sin is a matter of choice, where basically "you are what you do." There is no word for "sin" in Judaism; the closest is "chet" which means to "miss the mark" of moral and ethical behavior according to God's law. Jews believe you make a conscious choice between good and evil; you take responsibility for your own actions, and you reap what you sow. Only by choosing good over evil, and getting back in harmony with God's law, will you achieve happiness, and all rewards or punishment for obeying or defying God take place in this lifetime.
This law, according to scripture, came about when God gave Moses His Ten Commandments, forming the basis for the Mitzvot (the laws that define Jewish behavior). These are the moral values and standards of behavior God expects of people. Holidays and rituals evolved to help Jews demonstrate their faith in obeying the Mitzvot. These include observing the Sabbath (from sundown Friday through sundown Saturday) as a time of relaxation and spiritual renewal, in honor of God's resting on the seventh day following six days of creation.
Jews believe that humans will ultimately prevail, since we're empowered by Godly sparks of goodness, compassion, and love. The Mitzvot guides Jews in fulfilling life's purpose and mission: To end all the evils of the world, and welcome an era of peace and perfection (known as the Messianic Era). Here lies the fundamental difference between Jews and Christians. Jews believe their Messiah will come when the world achieves this state of perfection. (Perhaps this is the underlying reason Kirby was drawn, even at an early age, to tell tales of good conquering evil.) Christians believe the Messiah already came to the world, in the person of Jesus, and will return again in a "Second Coming" at the end of Earth's existence.
Jews believe that God created the universe and set it in motion, and lets it take its natural course. Evil comes about in two ways. First, it's caused by humans, due to their free will; God is not responsible for it. Secondly, evil is caused by random chance. Whereas early Jews blamed much of their misfortune on God's wrath, modern Jews believe their conduct has little to do with unexplained "evils" like sickness and natural disasters—but they still believe we humans can upset the natural order of things, which explains how a sovereign God would allow so many of His chosen people to perish in the Nazi Holocaust.
Jewish Influences in Kirby's Work
It's been said countless times that the Fourth World series was Jack's most personal work. The number of Jewish influences in it bear this out:
• Jewish mystics believed that death was the return of the soul to its source (God). Any reader of the Fourth World series will immediately recognize this concept's influence on Jack.
• In the Jewish mystical tradition, God is called "Ein Sof," or Infinite ("Without End"). One can easily read into the Forever People summoning Infinity Man (with his unexplained, unimaginable powers) as a scene of Jews calling on their Infinite Being (God) to help them.
• Jews believe God gives free will to each person, so the taking away of that free will would be the ultimate act of evil. Darkseid's quest for the Anti-Life Equation (which would give him domination over everyone's free will) makes perfect sense as Jack's ultimate villainous plot.
• The New Gods' departure at the end of the Hunger Dogs graphic novel, and their search for a new home, can been seen to symbolize the Jews' search throughout history for a holy land.
There are numerous similarities between names in the Fourth World and names and words in Hebrew scriptures. The Forever People's Serifan mimics the Biblical word Seraphim (an angelic creature who purifies with fire); Esak echoes Esau from Genesis (each of whom gave up their birthright); Bekka (Orion's love interest in Hunger Dogs) is probably derived from Rebekah (Isaac's wife in Genesis, and Esau and Jacob's mother); and of course, the name Izaya (Highfather of the New Gods) comes from the prophet Isaiah; and the unused character Ramses, with his Egyptian garb, was probably originally intended as a villain, symbolizing the Biblical oppressors of the Hebrews.
The New Testament also shows an influence, with Armagetto derived from the New Testament's Armageddon (in Revelation 16:16, the place of the final battle between good and evil), New Genesis from the first book of the Bible, and even Mangog (who attempted to bring about Ragnarok in Kirby's Thor run) from Magog (a symbol for God's final enemies in Revelation, as well as the name of the land of an evil leader who makes war on the Jews in the Old Testament's book of Ezekial). And as Jesus said, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End..." (Revelation 1:8), Jack gave Highfather his Alpha Bullets and Darkseid his Omega Effect in Forever People.
Christians and Jews alike are very careful to avoid "taking the Lord's name in vain," but in different ways. For Christians, the word God is always used reverently, for fear of being sacrilegious. However, in Hebrew, God is a generic term for any of the so-called "gods" of the ancient world. Lord is the specific name of the God declared by Abraham, and is the word that's revered. So while the title New GODS may have raised eyebrows among some Christians in the 1970s, Jack probably didn't give the title—or the use of his "god" motifs in Fantastic Four, Thor, and other books—a second thought.
Many's the writer (in this issue as elsewhere) who's attempted to attach Christian (and other) influences to Jack's characters, and Kirby was probably familiar with Christian ideology (in the same way he's shown a knowledge of Hindu, Aztec, and even American Indian faiths in his work)—but we must not forget that Jack was a Jew, and that the Jewish view of God isn't static; it's constantly growing, like Jack's internal "universe" of characters. Attempts by his fans to find reflections of their own religious beliefs in his work—while fascinating, and at times probably accurate—are strictly conjecture. Likewise, attempts to find consistencies between religious influences at different times in his career are doomed to failure; as Jack's views of God evolved, so did the reflection of them in his work.
Jack's parents appeared to be devout Orthodox Jews, even naming him after the prophet Jacob, one of the "founding fathers" (along with Abraham and Isaac) of Judaism. While we'll never know exactly what Jack did or didn't believe about God, hopefully this study of Judaism will give us a little insight into some possibilities. The word Israel means "to wrestle with God," which is something we all do at different points of our lives. Undoubtedly, Jack had his own wrestling match with the topic—and just as Jews believe each person must seek and find God their own way, we must believe Jack found his.
The Nelson Study Bible, New King James Version. 1997, published by Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Thanks to Bob Bieber for his assistance and advice on this article, and to Peter Von Sholly for his detective work.
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