Existential Teshuva And The Incredible Hulk

In this season of teshuva leading up to the yamim nora’im religious discussions primarily focus on personal change. We look to change our practices, ideally becoming more committed to Torah. We seek to change our religious perspectives, hopefully reconnecting with the Divine. For Rambam, this process of change is not simply behavioral, but existential. As we acknowledge and renounce our transgressions we also take measures demonstrating that we have changed to the point where we “are no longer the same person who committed these actions” (Hilchot Teshuva 2:4).

But what does it mean that we are no longer the same person? How does the process of teshuva effect a change so substantive that it alters our fundamental identity? In order to fully understand this transition we must tackle the philosophical question of what is the true essence of our personal identity – to find the essential determinant which makes us “us” such that changing this element constitutes a meaningful change in our identity. While this challenge may seem daunting to lesser minds, it is no match for the discerning duo of The Incredible Hulk…and an Oxford PhD.

In the delightfully colloquial volume Superheroes and Philosophy, Kevin Kinghorn addresses the question of identity using the model of Marvel Comics’ Incredible Hulk. As you may know from the comics, tv show, or movie, the Hulk is a modern adaptation of a Jekyll and Hyde character. Due to a radiation accident, brilliant scientist Bruce Banner frequently and uncontrollably morphs into a short-tempered mono-syllabic malachite monster.1 The question, Kinghorn asks, is do we consider the Banner and the Hulk to be one and the same – do they share the same identity.

Kinghorn’s first hypothesis is that the primary identity is physical, or what Kinghorn calls “bodily identity.” Since Banner and Hulk are so obviously distinguishable – 5’9 128 lbs. vs. 7’0 1,040 lbs (and green) – then we ought to consider Banner and Hulk to be different people. However, the obvious problem with such a definition of identity is that, to obviously lesser degrees, everyone changes physically over the course of their lives. Hopefully, we don’t look exactly like we did when we were children. Or to use Kinghorn’s example, the Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront looks very different than the Marlon Brando from The Godfather or Apocalypse Now, and yet Marlon Brando is still Marlon Brando.

Kinghorn continues that even defining bodily identity in terms of physical continuity – i.e. from day-to-day as opposed to over time – is still insufficient since if someone were to have most if his internal organs replaced, we would still treat the person as retaining his identity and not an amalgam of several people.2

Kinghorn’s next suggestion is to define personal identity in terms of one’s thought patterns. According to John Locke (1632-1704) man is a “thinking intelligent being, that has reasons and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places.” In other words, our identity is based on our unique mental processes and memories.3 Back to our example, Banner is an accomplished intellectual, and his alter-ego tends to exclaim “Hulk Smash!” Depending on the storyline, Banner and Hulk seem to have different memories.4 Therefore, by using this definition we would easily conclude that Banner and Hulk should be treated as different identities.

However, Kinghorn notes that this definition is problematic since, as we know all too well, memories can be forgotten. Following Locke’s definition of identity, we would have to say that someone who forgets an event would have a different identity than when he remembers it. Thomas Reid (1710-1796) argues that this would inevitably lead to a logical impossibility. Assume we find person at three stages in his life, at 5, 25, and 75. When he is 25 he could remember himself at 5 – thus retaining the same identity. When he is 75 he could remember himself at 25 – retaining the same identity as well. But what if at 75 he forgets himself at 5? Using Locke’s definition, the man at 75 would have a different identity than himself at 5, with the result being that A = B, B = C, yet A != C.

Attempts at arguing for cognitive continuity will be similarly difficult. People with Alzheimer’s or general anterograde amnesia have no short-term memory and as such, for Locke, would not be considered to have the same identity on a daily basis. Therefore it seems that Locke’s definition is not a plausible basis for determining identity.

In his final suggestion, Kinghorn suggests that we reevaluate the premise that our identity is a factor of something innately personal, which Kinghorn argues is only a product of post-Enlightenment thought. Rather, Kinghorn prefers the medieval model which defines identity not as something which is intrinsic, but rather a function of one’s relations with other people or in his words, “personhood arises through relationships with other people – a person has a continuous identity in virtue of maintaining continuous relationships with other people.” While we all have our individual tastes and personalities, they were mostly developed over the course of our lives through our interactions with other people. When we describe who we are we do so in terms of occupations or family roles, both of which depend on our relationships. In the case of the Hulk, Kinghorn argues that since those closest to Banner – Betty Ross, or Rick Jones relate to Hulk the same as Banner, then we are to conclude that philosophically, Hulk and Banner share the same identity.

Despite preferring this line of reasoning, Kinghorn acknowledges its difficulties. First, your identity would be dependant on dynamic entities. If the way other people relate to you changes over time, would you yourself assume a new identity? Secondly, what if, following Rambam, you were to move to a new location and cut off all previous relationships. Would this really constitute a change in your identity? Finally, if one was born and raised on a desert island, in the absence of relationships would that mean that one has no identity at all?

To solve these problems, Kinghorn suggests a solution not often employed by modern philosophers, and that is to assume the existence of God such that we would define our identity in relation to him. Since God is universal, it would not matter if we were to move, nor would it matter if we would be raised without human interaction – God would be a constant presence in either case. Since God is static and not subject to the same whims as people, our relationship and therefore our identity would be dependent on our own actions and not some external force. Rather, applying Kinghorn’s logic, the most philosophically sustainable change in identity would be one in which we change our relationship with the infinite God.

The converse of this conclusion is especially relevant to teshuva; changing our relationship with God changes our fundamental identity. B. Kiddushin 49b writes that even having the thought of teshuva can turn someone from a wicked to a righteous person. According to Reish Lakish, teshuva done with love can even turn transgressions into merits (B. Yoma 86b). And as we demonstrated last year, Yishmael’s teshuva changed his relationship with God to the extent that his identity changed from being a murderer to a tzaddik.

Consider that there are formative moments of inspiration in our lives which we would consider life-changing. They could be moments of joy, tragedy, contentment, or revelation which are so intense that we feel a change within ourselves. Perhaps close friends may be able to identity that “something” changed, but might not fully appreciate what we experienced. The only being who can truly acknowledge the changes in our hearts would be the bohen levavot.

I would suggest that this reasoning reflects true essence of teshuva described by Rambam. Even the act of moving to another location is not existential, but rather it is a demonstration of an improved and closer relationship one wishes to have with God at the most personal level. Beyond any behavioral changes we might make or practices we adapt, the process of teshuva would necessitate active cognition such that teshuva is a conscious effort to renew our relationship with the Divine.

This is the teshuva which is powerful enough to change our every essence and being, into a more committed and spiritual person.

Or as Hulk’s creator Stan Lee might say, a genuine “True Believer.”

  1. I know that the type of radiation accident is different from the comic, tv show and movie. I’m also well aware of the Grey Hulk and contradicting storylines, including the one where the Hulk and Banner were actually separated into two different beings. The point is to address the question of identity using the Hulk as an example, not to offer any insights into the Hulk’s mythology itself.

    In other words, lay off the fanboy comments and just play along, ok? Thanks!
  2. Think of the Delphi Boat riddle where if you replace all of a ship’s components is it still the same ship?
  3. Kinghorn also notes that this definition would also solve the problem of shapeshifters in comics retaining their identity despite having a dynamic physical form.
  4. See note 1.