Spider-Man: Spirituality in spandex

By now you surely know that a popular, web-slinging superhero is about to swing back into your friendly neighborhood multiplex. Believe it or not, this scenario from “Spider-Man 3” illustrates powerful Jewish teachings.

In the third and latest installment of the Spider-Man movie franchise, everyone’s favorite arachnid hero is seduced by his shadowy side. As the Spider-Man motto puts it, “With great power comes great responsibility,” but this time around, Spider-Man and his good guy alter-ego Peter Parker discover that it also comes with great temptations to evil. Spider-Man is about to go off the derech.

In “Spider-Man 3,” Spider-Man finds himself battling not one but three villains from out of his past: the New Goblin, Sandman and Venom. What’s worse, he’s battling himself, too — Spidey’s famous costume is mysteriously replaced by a pitch black, shape-shifting alien symbiote that makes the wearer more aggressive and less inhibited. Intoxicated with ego, power and celebrity, not even Spider-Man can resist the forces of darkness.

According to the Talmud, people are born with two opposing impulses: the yetzer hatov, the impulse to do good, and the yetzer harah, the impulse to do evil. Jewish sages have noted that this yetzer harah is not completely evil, but more like a selfish impulse, which needs to be balanced with the yetzer hatov. Spider-Man’s strange new black suit and the feelings of unhealthy empowerment that come with it are clearly part of the yetzer harah.

Jewish comic-book pioneer Stan Lee conceived of the character of Spider-Man in 1962. Many believe that Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) gave his creation a somewhat Jewish worldview. Consider Peter Parker’s crushing feelings of guilt over his accidental role in the death of his beloved role model, Uncle Ben.

Jewish author Michael Chabon (who co-scripted “Spider-Man 2”) claims that Spider-Man is “crypto-Jewish”: “You know, living with Uncle Ben and Aunt May in Queens.” Meanwhile, the director of all the films in the series, Sam Raimi, quips, “the only difference is that [Peter’s guilt] is caused by his uncle, not his mother.”

Now, living in Queens does not make a person Jewish (no matter how many Jews live in Spidey’s Forest Hills neighborhood) but we can still draw some biblical reflections from the latest saga, with its strong father and son theme.

The great 13th-century Jewish scholar Nachmanides famously taught that “the actions of the fathers are a sign for the children.” Through the Bible we see that the deeds of the earliest characters in the narrative will be repeated by their children. Character traits and behavior patterns of the early patriarchs and matriarchs are a model for all of Jewish history. Learning from the past is the secret to making the right decisions about the future.

The Hebrew word teshuvah means “return.” Although often mistranslated as “repentance,” the word really means returning to the proper path of infinite potential. By letting go of our demons, we can embrace the greatest power of all, the power to forgive. Will Spider-Man display true heroism and banish his own demons in a spirit of forgiveness? We’ll all find out when he makes his own long-awaited return this weekend.

Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is the founder of the downtown Brooklyn Jewish Student Foundation and the author of “Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero.”