01/09/2013 11:46 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2013

'Django Unchained' and the Rabbis

In synagogues the world over, Jews are commencing the yearly reading of the book of Exodus. The great Bible teacher Nechama Leibowitz, of blessed memory, points out that as the Book of Exodus begins, the ancient rabbis asked very different questions than we moderns do about slavery.

We are interested in the historical, economic and political meaning of Israelite slavery: Was it historically true? Who was the "Pharaoh" of the Exodus? When did the actual Exodus occur? Did the plagues actually happen as described? Was the splitting of the sea due to high tides?

The rabbis of old, Leibowitz points out correctly, were far more interested in the why: Why was it necessary for the Israelites to develop their peoplehood in the crucible of slavery? What was it about the experience of slavery that helped form us as a people? What did slavery bequeath to us? Her answer, based on the rabbinic sources, is that the experience of slavery created us as a people eternally and essentially imbued with the principles of compassion and empathy for "the other." That, in other words, because we ourselves were slaves in Egypt we would always care for the oppressed, the stranger, the victim.

She writes, "...the reason for the Egyptian exile, the persecution and suffering of bondage accompanying the birth of the Jewish people ... was that they themselves should experience the taste of slavery and humiliation" in order that they might see "the fundamental equality of all human beings as creatures of God" (see her "Studies in Shemot").

The movie "Django Unchained" is essentially Quentin Tarantino's exploration of exactly the same question. He is uninterested in the historical and economic issues of slavery. In fact, historically the movie makes little sense. There seems to be a complete lack of concern for authenticity of place and time and the geographically the movie is more than a little confusing. (The snowcapped mountains of the South? What?) The entire feel of the movie is decidedly much more 1880s Western America than the pre-Civil War South. Compare this to the recent movie Lincoln which is deeply interested in getting the historical and political details and ramifications of slavery exactly right.

Tarantino is far more interested in the moral issues raised by the experience of slavery in America. Those invested in the system of slavery are thoroughly (and perhaps forever) corrupt, while those victimized by slavery or enraged by its inherent injustice are endowed with a compassion and sense of overarching justice that propels them forward against impossible odds. The character of the bounty hunter Schultz, although not a slave himself, seems to embody the same spirit described by Nechama Leibowitz -- namely, a fervent belief in the essential equality of all human beings that drives him to not only refuse to participate in an evil system, but leads him to risk his life for his principles.

Django Unchained is a bloody, violent movie (although if you pay close attention there is a lot of violence in the Book of Exodus as well), but ultimately, like the story of Israelite slavery, it is a story of the triumph of morality over evil, and the goodness that can imbue and ultimately redeem the souls of those who are evil's victims.