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What do Quentin Tarantino & Rabbi Akiva have in common? ~ humor, proportionality, and the absurd

01/10/2024 11:37:54 AM


Parashat Vaera 5784 / פָּרָשַׁת וָאֵרָא

✷ to be read on January 13⎮3 Shevat ✷

In Vaera (“I Appeared”), God promises that he will redeem the enslaved Israelites and guide them to the Promised Land. At God's command, Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh and demand the release of Israelites from bondage. Pharaoh agrees, but then God hardens his heart. Pharaoh rescinds the promise. God unleases plagues on the Egyptians: water turning to blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, death of livestock, boils, and hail. The portion ends with Pharaoh changing his mind once again.
For her drash, Rabbi Deena Cowans turns to Rabbi Akiva's comical wisdom. In the Midrash, Rabbi Akiva notes that the literal text of the Bible does not specify a plague of frogs, but rather a frog in the singular. He writes that one single, giant frog plopped its squishy body down upon Egypt until Moses told it to hop along.

Why such silliness on the part of Rabbi Akiva? Rabbi Deena unpacks, in this silliness, a  layered wisdom concerning the value of humor, proportionality, and the witlessness of racialized oppression. Of course, the extreme spectacle of the plagues is already absurd. In purposefully rendering them even more so in the humorous trope of a giant frog sitting on Egypt, Rabbi Akiva highlights for us what we ought already know: slavery is an absurdity. It is absurd to oppress an entire people out of fear of their strength and the spectre of their possible vengeance. God responds to this absurdity with the proportionally absurd consequence of the plagues.

For you film-lovers out there: Rabbi Akiva's comical wisdom put me in mind of what I see as (perhaps) the singular intellectual-ethical virtue of Quentin Tarantino's 2012 film "Django Unchained." "Django Unchained" is, of course, an indulgently absurd treatment of the serious and painful matter of racialized slavery in America. Like the plagues, Tarantino's response to slavery is an extreme spectacle and one that approaches racialized slavery not (or not just) as a terrifying and incomprehensible evil, but as a profound instance of stupidity. Tarantino dresses down racist beliefs, exposing their absurdity. In so doing, he deprives them of the metaphysical dignity that comes with the category of "evil." He takes away a piece of their power, affording us - in this instance - the capacity to laugh in their face rather than shudder in horror. 

May we always seek measure in our responses to the world's injustice; may we know when humor is a fitting response and when not; may we retain the wisdom that racialized oppression is stupidity as is the fear in which it is rooted.

LL Giordano

Wed, June 19 2024 13 Sivan 5784