Pretend to be good always, and even God will be fooled. – Kurt Vonnegut<1> Here’s a new question about the custom to dress up on Purim in masks and costumes. Which is the key moment – when we mask ourselves or when we unmask? The question has profound implications for how we understand identity.
In general, as Batman points out in one movie, “We all wear masks.”<2> The great psychologist Carl Jung would agree, though he preferred the word “persona.” In an essay on Jung, Professor George Boeree elaborates: “The persona represents your public image. The word is, obviously, related to the word person and personality, and comes from a Latin word for mask. So the persona is the mask you put on before you show yourself to the outside world.”<3>
What’s not so simple is what lies behind the mask. One possibility is that the “real you” is one stable self underneath superficiality. A person is like a pomelo, which has layers that hide the edible part. The mask may be a necessary evil, but it’s just a mask and certainly not who you really are. Prof. Boeree believes this; he continues that at its worst, the persona “can be mistaken, even by ourselves, for our true nature: Sometimes we believe we really are what we pretend to be!”<3> Let’s call this single-self approach the pomelo possibility.
Alternatively, the “real you” is many selves that express themselves in different situations. A person is like an onion, which has layers that themselves are edible. The mask is that part of you which you show at the moment, and the more you show it, the more comfortable you become with it. The popular author Kurt Vonnegut believes this; he introduces his powerful book Mother Night by commenting, “This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”<4> Let’s call this multiple-self approach the onion option.
Interestingly, each of these two possibilities has been espoused regarding that classic American hero, Batman. For example, at a convention not long before the premiere of Batman Begins, the actor Christian Bale (who plays Batman in the recent film trilogy) presented the view that Batman is the “real” character, while Bruce Wayne is just a mask to gain social acceptability. Similarly, in one comic book issue, the writer Ed Brubaker had Batman proclaim, “Bruce Wayne is a mask I wear, that I’ve been wearing since a child.”<5> However, Brubaker himself strongly disagreed with this approach, and tried to repudiate it in subsequent issues. In an interview, Brubaker remarked that “I don’t see why there was ever this obsession with dividing Batman like that except to make him seem more driven and robotic, and that’s frankly not a good way to use Batman, because it makes it impossible to have him connect with anyone on an emotional level.”<6> Akiva Goldsman and the other screenwriters of Batman Forever agreed that the character includes both selves; they had Batman recite at the climactic moment of the film: “You see, I am Bruce Wayne and Batman. Not because I have to be. Now because I choose to be.”<2> In other words, each identity is “real,” and neither one is just a mask.<7>
When it comes to Purim, the classic understanding of the custom to wear a mask dates back to Rabbi Moshe Chagiz in the 18th century. Based on an exchange in the Talmud (Megillah 12b), he suggests that masks represent God’s hiddenness in the Purim story. When friends put on masks, they can still recognize each other’s real identity; so too, although God’s intervention in the Megillah is “masked” and behind the scenes, we can still identify God through the mask.<8> Presumably, Rabbi Chagiz would say that the key moment on Purim is when we unmask, because that’s when we confirm the real identity of the mask-wearers. This is an example of the pomelo possibility, because Rabbi Chagiz assumes the mask obscures the “real you” underneath.
I think the custom of Purim masks can also fit with the onion option. On Sukkot we sit in a sukkah to remind us that God protects us, all year round. On Pesach we shun chametz to remind us that unchecked evil in us can expand like leaven, all year round. So too, on Purim we wear masks to remind us that we are multifaceted, all year round. We are remarkably flexible and may have latent abilities that we’ve never noticed. Why remind ourselves of this on Purim? Because a great example of bringing out hidden potential is the character of Esther. As Rivkah Lubitch points out:
From a systematic study of the verses in the Megillah which refer to Esther, it is clear that she combines two very different personalities in one woman during the course of the story. Esther of the beginning of the Megillah (Esther 1) plays the typical feminine role. Yet, at a certain point in the story … she “snaps” out of the dream world she has been in, and assumes a role which is good enough for any feminist (Esther 2). Esther 1 is passive, obedient, dependent and silent. Esther 2 is active, assertive, tactful, independent, and holds political power in the real world. . . . It is interesting to note that she was able to transform so thoroughly in so short a time – which proves that Esther 2 had really been present in potential.<9>
Interestingly, when Esther changes, the verse states, “Vatilbash Ester malkhut” (5:1), which might be translated as “Esther dressed up as royalty.” She saved the Jews by switching masks. Accordingly, the key moment on Purim is when we mask ourselves, because that’s when we realize that we have other selves besides the ones we normally show. In times of need, we show traits we never thought we had in us. Bring out your layers, and bring out your best.
Ultimately, perhaps, it doesn’t matter whether there’s a “real you.” As one of the characters tells Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, “It’s not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you.”<10>
1. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922-2007), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (or Pearls Before Swine) (NY: Delacorte Press, 1965), p. 177.
2. Batman Forever (1995 film). Screenplay by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler, and Akiva Goldsman.
3. Prof. C. George Boeree (1952-), “Carl Jung (1875-1961).” http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/jung.html
4. Vonnegut, Introduction to Mother Night (NY: Delacorte Press, 1966), p. v.
5. Ed Brubaker et al, Batman #600 (DC Comics, April 2002), unpaginated. This approach has ample precedent. As far back as 1978, a Batman story featured the title character noting that “Bruce Wayne has become a daytime mask for the Batman!” (Steve Englehart et al, Detective Comics #474). In 1992, Green Arrow asked Batman whether he always wore his mask, and Batman responded, “No. Only when I’m being myself” (Dennis O’Neil et al, Batman/Green Arrow: The Poison Tomorrow). In 1995, Batman mused to himself, “Maybe Bruce Wayne can’t wear a mask – because Bruce Wayne is a mask. Maybe it only works as the Batman, because I am the Batman – and everything else is just a disguise” (Doug Moench et al, Batman #518). And in 2002, when Batman and Bane consulted with Jason Blood, the latter requested: “Please, Bane, we only show our true faces inside the scrying chamber.” Bane complied but objected regarding Batman, “And what of him?” Jason Blood responded plainly, “That is his true face” (Scott Beatty et al, Batman: Gotham Knights #33).
6. Tim O’Shea, “An ORCA Q&A With Ed Brubaker,” May 27, 2003. https://web.archive.org/web/20030821042706/http://www.orcafresh.net/interview/in052703.html
7. One Batman comic book that supports the onion option has the following narration about Batman: “He has a nightmare sometimes – he dreams that the surface layers of his life are stripped away, peeled back like an onion skin. No more Bruce Wayne. No more secret identity to hide behind. There is only the flame that burns at his center – the flame that has driven him for so long – the flame that makes him what he is” (Alan Grant et al, Batman: Shadow of the Bat #2, July 1992).
8. Rabbi Moshe Chagiz (1672-1751), Eleh HaMitzvot (#543). Online at http://hebrewbooks.org/feedback.aspx?type=sefer&id=31339&page=201 and http://hebrewbooks.org/feedback.aspx?type=sefer&id=37079&page=238
9. Rivkah Lubitch, “A Feminist’s Look at Esther,” Judaism, Fall 1993. http://www.thefreelibrary.com/A+feminist%27s+look+at+Esther.-a014873615
10. Batman Begins (2005 film). Screenplay by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer.