The great Bible teacher Nechama Leibowitz z’l 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? The rabbis, 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? Her answer, based on the rabbinic sources, is that the experience of slavery created us as a people eternally imbued with the principles of compassion and empathy for “the other”. That in other words, because we ourselves were slaves in Egypt we would care for the oppressed, the stranger, the victim.
The movie Django Unchained is essentially Quentin Tarentino’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. (Compare this to the recent movie Lincoln which is deeply interested in the historical and political ramifications of slavery). Tarentino 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 are endowed with a compassion and sense of justice that propels them forward. Django Unchained is a bloody, violent movie (although if you pay close attention there is a lot of violence in Exodus as well) but ultimately, like the story of Israelite slavery, it is a story of the triumph of morality over evil.