I was watching Django Unchained on DVD, which does for African-Americans whatInglorious Basterds did for Jews, a fantasy history in which the weak overpower the entrenched. Because both are Quentin Tarrantino productions, there is a lot of blood and gore, excessive almost to the point of farce. The fulcrum of these two films is held by the brilliant actor Christoph Waltz, the evil genius we love to hate in the latter and the bounty hunter with a developing conscience in the former. Django, set 2 years before the Civil War, has some historical inaccuracies including a proto-KKK, an organization that began operation AFTER the Civil War. Still, it provided a most entertaining non-violent scene.
Preparing to capture the lead African-American character who has humiliated them, the hooded ‘Regulators’ discover how difficult it is to see with their white hoods on. The assembled complain about lack of visibility and discuss whether they will wear the sheets and adjust the eye-holes or discard them. The husband of the woman who painstakingly prepared the 30 pillow covers leaves in a huff at their ingratitude. It was a scene that could have easily come out of Blazing Saddles. They decide to stampede the duo’s camp with imperfect visibility and hold on to the drama of the hoods.
Just prior to this week’s portion, the Israelites choose to ‘blind’ themselves to God’s awesome and frightening presence at Sinai and ask Moses to be the interlocutor. I’m not the first to note the irony that although the Israelites have just been liberated from slavery, the first law given through Moses regards the keeping of an Israelite slave. One might think that slavery would be abolished after the Exodus but that is neither the Biblical conception nor purpose. The purpose of the Exodus in the Bible was to show God’s primacy and to fulfill the divine promise to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. American Southern slave owners loved to justify the peculiar institution with just such evidence.
And yet the thrust of the liberation story would override its technicalities. Israelites could not be slaves per se but rather indentured servants forced into this position by poverty with an option to be released after six years for men and a requirement of marriage and protection for women; if the woman was not wed into the owner family, she had to be released. Legislation for non-Israelite slaves was harsher, including a much greater emphasis on ownership and yet there is a startling law against returning escapees to their rightful owners. Had the American Supreme Court used the Bible as a guide it could never have ruled as it did in the Dredd Scott decision which took place just before the year Django Unchained was set. In fact as long as 2000 years ago these laws were being modified and made less onerous even in the slave-friendly Greek/Roman world.
Around 20 years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Josephus reinterprets the Torah as follows in his Antiquities: Let someone who has been sold to a fellow countryman be a slave for six years, but in the seventh year let him be set free. If he has children from a slave woman at the house of the one who bought him, however, and wishes to be a slave because of good will and affectionate love for his own things, let him be freed when the year of jubilee arrives -- this is the fiftieth year -- and let him take along both his children and his wife who is free.
Josephus adjust three aspects of our Torah portion: he omits the piercing of the ear for the Hebrew servant who wants to stay, he limits his servitude until the jubilee and demands that the wife and children join him in freedom. According to our Torah portion, after the ear piercing, the servant may not leave and, if he does, he does not get to take his wife and children with him unless they accompanied him into servitude in the first place.
About fifty years earlier, Philo of Alexandria went even further, extending the six year limit of the Hebrew slave to the gentile slave as well and doesn’t even mention the possibility of the Hebrew slave staying beyond longer. Here’s how he speaks of runaway slaves: If another man’s slave, it may be with two generations of slavery behind him, takes refuge with you to obtain protection in fear of his master’s threats or through consciousness of some misdeed, or because without having committed any offense, he has found his master generally cruel and merciless, do not disregard his plea. For it is a sacrilegious act to surrender a suppliant and the slave is a suppliant who has fled to your hearth as to a temple, where he has a right to obtain sanctuary, and protected from treachery may preferably come to an honest and open agreement, or if that is not possible, be sold as a last resort. For though in changing masters there is no certainty which way the scale will turn, the uncertain evil is not so grave as the acknowledged.
Similarly it’s often noted that Thomas Jefferson held slaves until he died and couldn’t write slavery out of the American narrative in his time, yet in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence he included those words quoted in Martin Luther King Junior’s I Have a Dream speech so many years later perhaps realizing that in some future time they would come to haunt the institution’s protectors: When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.
The proto-KKK scene from Django Unchained is a metaphor. The men choose to keep the hoods and not see. Let us use this shabbat to open our eyes and be aware of those things to which we enslave ourselves so that we can truly pursue the life, liberty and happiness to which we are entitled.