Top 10 Masks – with Kabbalistic Interpretations
February 20, 2013 at 12:00 pm, by Roni
A time for fun, partying, and reading an overly long book about political intrigue and machinations in the Persian court! What more could you want?
Why, costumes of course!
So in the spirit of masquerading and concealing one’s identity, I present to you my top 10 masks of pop culture. And because this is Oholiav, each mask comes with a kabbalistic interpretation, linking the mask and the character to the sacred mysteries of the divine.
Note that this article is not meant entirely seriously.
WARNING! SPOILERS ABOUND!
A constantly shifting ink-blot (and you can see a functioning mask here), Rorschach’s mask is a deep part of his identity, making the deeply troubled character feel whole.
Rorschach refers to his mask as his “face”, seeming to shut down completely when it is taken from him.
Malchut (kingship), the lowest of the sefirot, is also constantly shifting. The closest to our separated, material world, it is known as ‘all’, embodying all existence.
Just as the Rorschach test gives ambiguous images, allowing the mind of the viewer to be reflected back to him, Malchut is symbolised by the moon, having none of its own light but reflecting that of the sun.
When Rorschach is put in prison, he declares “None of you seem to understand. I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with ME!” So too Malchut, personified as the shechina, the feminine presence of God, is with us in exile, but this is not really to her detriment but to our benefit – we are stuck here with her, and so at least things are not so bleak.
You might think that I’m obsessed with Neil Gaiman in general and Sandman in particular, and you would be correct, but Dream’s strange mask more than earns a spot on our list.
In Sandman #1 a weakened Dream is captured by a cabal of English sorcerers and his totems of power are taken from him – his pouch of sand, his ruby and his mask. The first collection, ‘Preludes and Nocturnes’, deals mainly with Dream’s quest to reclaim his throne and recapture his power.
His mask has fallen into the hands of a demon however, and so Morpheus must journey to hell to reclaim it, defeating his opponent through the power of hope.
The power of dreams is most obvious in the Biblical figure of Joseph, associated with the 9th sefirah, Yesod (foundation). Joseph’s dreams are of a hopeful future, predicting first his own rise to power and then providing the means for saving not only the entire Egyptian people but also his family.
Yesod is also connected to male sexual energy, but the less said that and any images evoked by Dream’s mask the better…
Hawkman and Hawkgirl have a rather complicated history in the comics (which you can read about here) but the key element I want to focus on is that they are both reincarnations from ancient Egypt (usually), former lovers reborn to find each other once again.
Their costumes may not be the most sensible (probably why no blockbuster movie has yet been made about them) but it ties the two of them together, expressing their bond that transcends time itself.
Netzach (victory) and Hod (splendour) are similarly entwined, almost always dealt with together. While Hod is associated with the feminine and Netzach with the masculine, both are really particularistic manifestations of higher principles, just as the Hawks are defined by their relationship to the past.
And just as the Hawks use Nth metal wings (or possibly a belt) to fly, so too the Cherubim above the ark spread their wings over the sacred space in between, as Netzach and Hod flank the shechina, the presence of God in the world.
One of the most iconic masks in all comics, Spider-man’s mask with its enormous eyes and symmetrical web design totally conceals Peter Parker’s face.
While spiders may evoke fear and disgust in many people, by keeping to strong primary colours (at least most of the time), Spider-man balances fear and love, the spider and the man, the black web and white eyes, with the strong red of the costume.
Tiferet (adornment) is the 6th sefirah, lying in the middle of the sefirotic tree, with web-like links to the surrounding sefirot. Like Spider-man cracking jokes even in moments of the greatest danger, Tiferet balances chessed and gevurah, love and fear.
“With great power comes great responsibility” Uncle Ben tells his nephew, and Tiferet represents the Written Torah, the embodiment of God’s power and human responsibility.
“Men fear most what they cannot see” says Ducard in Batman Begins, setting Bruce Wayne on a path to the famous black cowl and mask. By becoming the embodiment of the thing he himself feared as a child, Bruce Wayne becomes more than a man. The Batman, with his instantly recognisable silhouette, strikes terror into the heart of the guilty, bringing a strict brand of justice to those that the law cannot reach.
The fifth sefirah is known both as Gevurah (strength) and Pachad (fear), and it embodies God’s aspect of strict justice, bringing punishment to the guilty. While usually the power of Gevurah is under control, like Bruce Wayne refusing to execute a thief at the order of Ra’s Al Ghul, sometimes this aspect runs rampant slaying the innocent with the guilty – just as Wayne then inexplicably blows up the entire building, certainly killing the very man he refused to harm a moment earlier.
When mild-mannered Stanley Ipkiss puts on an ancient mask associated with the trickster god Loki, he is transformed into the cartoonish figure known as the Mask (or Big Head, for the purists among you).
“If deep down you’re a little repressed, and a hopeless romantic, you become some kind of love-crazy wild man” says Stanley, expressing the boundless love that the Mask represents. Spouting endless (and unbearable) catchphrases, the Mask is an unstoppable whirlwind of energy and romantic desire.
Chessed (lovingkindness) is the fourth sefirah, the manifestation of God’s unbounded love for the universe. Just as the Mask’s mask is all-consuming, transforming not just Stanley’s face but his entire body, so too God’s love is total and unconstrained.
“Ooh, somebody stop me!”
“…a man can fail. He can be caught, he can be killed and forgotten, but four hundred years later, an idea can still change the world.” -Evey Hammond.
After suffering terrible torture in a concentration camp, prisoner five takes on the name V, becoming a force of anarchy and change in the dystopian future. Wearing the Guy Fawkes mask that has since become synonymous with groups like Anonymous, V wages essentially a one-man war against the fascist regime, not out of revenge, but to bring about change.
Unlike other heroes, V never takes off his mask, and we never see who is beneath it. His ultimate identity is always a mystery, and ultimately beside the point – because V has become the mask, become the idea.
Binah (understanding) is known to the Zohar as ‘who’, as in “who created these” (Isaiah 40:26). That’s because Binah represents the point at which human knowledge fails, at which we must recognise that there are some mysteries we will never reach beyond, some people whose masks will never come off.
Binah is also the higher palace, the womb that houses the energy of Chochma and allows it to gestate and give birth. If you’ve read the comics (and if not, what are you waiting for?) you’ll know that Evey (or E V) comes to take on V’s identity, embodying this role of leader for the new age.
Poor Cyclops. Other X-men get powers like regeneration (Wolverine), teleportation (Nightcrawler) or telepathy (Professor X). Cyclops has the power to destroy things he looks at. While this ability is reminiscent of the great Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (See Shabbat 33b for Rashbi’s little known super power), it’s not exactly the most helpful of superpowers unless you need something blown up.
Got a problem with technology? A hostage situation? A complex moral dilemma? You’d better call someone else. All Cyclops can do is either shoot people with his optic blasts, or not shoot people with his optic blasts.
But without his mask, Cyclops would lose the second of those already rather limited options, his raw energy simply pouring forth from his brain every time he tried to sneak a peek at anything.
Chochma (wisdom) is the highest male principle in the sefirot, and like Cyclops is defined by the flow of energy.
Unlike Cyclops however, Chochma has rather better luck with women. Jean Grey aka the Phoenix may be occasionally fickle (and blowing up your husband off-screen in X-men 3 is certainly fickle) but Chochma and Binah, the upper father and mother, are in a constant loving embrace.
I know what you’re thinking – Superman doesn’t wear a mask!
But, my hypothetical interlocutor, you are incorrect – Superman’s mask is his own face.
His expressions, the way he carries himself, all these things keep Superman’s identity a secret even though he conceals nothing. He is entirely on show and entirely concealed at the same time.
The highest sefirah is Keter (crown) and it is also known as ‘Nothing’. Like Superman’s mask, Keter is the most concealed but at the same time is not really anything at all. And yet, just as Superman, the first superhero, paved the way for everything to follow, so too Keter is the genesis of all the other sefirot, creating masks about itself like layers around the tabernacle, or flesh over bones.
“Even though you’ve been raised as a human, you are not one of them” says the disembodied voice of Jor-El in the original Superman movie, and Keter, while it is among the sefirot, is not truly one of them, but close to Ein Sof (without end) the infinite God that is beyond everything.
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Hope you enjoyed your tour through my top 10 masks (and why would there be 11?). May you have a wonderful Purim and find your true self revealed through your body’s concealment.
Roni Tabick is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. You can read more of his work (including his kabbalistic novel, ‘Radiance’) here: www.mythicwriting.blogspot.com. Or follow him on twitter: @rtabick