An Inglorious Basterd: Moses, Tarantino, and Jewish Revenge Epics

March 28, 2013 at 11:32 am, by

I am a Tarantino fan. I love his combination of gratuitous violence with cheeky pop-culture commentary. His work is always complicated and full of layers. Most of all, I love his alternating history WWII epic Inglorious Basterds. I could say that I love it because of its brilliant female heroine, and I do. I could say that I love it because of its takedown of “Nice Guy” tropes in romantic comedies with the deeply queasy scenes between Shoshana and Frederick Zoller, and I do. I could say I love it because it is just damn funny. But most of all, I love it because Hitler gets exactly what he deserves. There is something tremendously viscerally satisfying about watching Hitler getting machine gunned in the face.

I’m in rabbinical school, and I’ve been spending a lot of time this year with Exodus, and the Passover narrative. One thing that has really struck me is how awful the God of the Bible is to the Egyptians. From hardening Pharaoh’s heart to provide an excuse for ever more horrible plagues, to wiping out the entire Egyptian military, the Exodus story is no less gratuitous than my favorite Tarantino flick in its repeated humiliation of Pharaoh and the Egyptian people.

Our people has many stories; the creation of the world, the giving of the Ten Commandments, the conquering of Eretz Yisrael. And yet our central myth, the one story that more Jews know than any other, is essentially vengeance porn. We triumph and come to freedom, but at the expense of tremendous suffering of another group of people. And the text often relishes that suffering. My question is, why is this our central story?

We must remember that in the days when this story was written, Pharaoh was seen as a god. And Israel was a small nation constantly mistreated at the hands of Egypt’s vast empire. They were required to pay tribute, and never knew when Egypt might disregard their promises and invade Israel on their way to the Assyrian or Babylonian empire in the north. Based on best evidence, this is the protest story of a country terrified of losing its national sovereignty, and using literature to triumph over one of its great enemies. In other words, Egypt may have the greater political power, but our God is superior to your god!

And yet, the version of the story we tell today does not dwell on the bloodthirsty aspects, and seems deeply uncomfortable with them. From rabbinic times on, we have injected sympathy for Egyptian deaths into the narrative. In the most famous example (from Masechet Megillah) God comments to the angels “My creatures are drowning in the sea and you want to sing songs?”

Instead, we focus on the power of Exodus to incite compassion. When we tell the story, we focus not on God’s power in defeating power, but in God’s power of liberating a people who had been slaves for hundreds of years. This is the story that speaks to us today, and it is a story that we are compelled to remember, so that we can turn in our own time and give a helping hand to those who are coming out of their own metaphorical Egypts. If there is any reason that we as Jews are so disproportionately likely to participate in social justice causes, I think it is because we have been able to find compassion and liberation in our founding myth.

So to, someday, with the Holocaust. It is a deep and recent trauma, and my generation is still coping with its aftershocks. Which means that it is my generation that must take our story and transform it from a story of victimization into a story that will give us power. At times, I worry that we as a people use the tragedy of the Holocaust as a justification for our worst cultural tendencies, from cultural chauvenism to Israeli militarism (which is, to my mind, distinct from Israeli self-defense). This is one way that we can use this narrative.

But the Holocaust is also a wake-up call to the danger of living in a world without allies. The Jews had suffered from centuries of anti-Semitism, and so had tremendous difficulty finding any country that would identify with and interfere in their plight. There was little more that we could have done at the time; there was no “Bear Jew” to attack Nazi battalions with a baseball bat, and Hitler was not assassinated. However, today we as a people are in a position of power to create a different outcome for people in similar situations. We can stand in testament to the horrors that we suffered, and we can stand in solidarity and friendship to those suffering today from governments that despise them. Our call of “never again” can rise alongside of “avadim hayinu” as calls to justice for oppressed people all over the globe.

We Jews have suffered more than our share of catastrophes. And we are a storytelling people; we use words to deal with our trauma. Because of this, we are a people that does not forget easily, and our collective future is deeply informed by our collective past. But we have the tools that we need to frame those traumas; we need not be victims of our circumstances. We have turned a revenge story of national theological oppression into a powerful cry for economic and social justice that speaks to people in every age, across national, religious, and racial divides. This year, as we descend back into Egypt and march back out again, may we bring our other stories with us, and may they have equal power to promote a more just and equitable world.

Marley is a first year rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She spends most of her time thinking about pedagogy, feminism, queer theory, and how all of these things relate to Bible and Midrash. She blogs at youshallpursue.wordpress.com

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