As an undergraduate student at LSE (1974-77), I took a course-unit degree in Sociology, which involved studying three subjects each year – plus writing a 10,000-word dissertation on a theme of one’s choice in the 3rd year. One of the best things about how it worked from my exam-phobic perspective, was that students were examined each year, so by the time you got to the 3rd year, there was only one third of the degree to go.
The theme I chose to study was ‘The Role of Religion in North American Slave Resistance of the Antebellum Period’. Having been steeped for the first two years of my degree in Marxist ideology with its assumption that material circumstances determine people’s lives and choices, I was interested in examining the impact of ideas, in particular, religious ideas, on how the slaves responded to their enslavement.
I discovered that while the slave owners force-fed Christianity to their slaves in order to persuade them that they were the descendants of Ham, cursed for seeing the nakedness of his father, Noah, and so destined to servitude (Noach, Genesis 9:22-25), exhorted by Exodus-intoxicated slave preachers, the message that the slaves took from their worship services was that God was on their side and they would be free. And so, religious teaching nurtured spiritual strength and courage, fostering personal dignity and a sense of hope despite the undignified, humiliating circumstances of slavery. Thrillingly for me, this perspective was reinforced when the magnificent TV series, Roots, was launched in 1977, as I was completing my dissertation.
Towards the end of the month, we will celebrate Pesach, referred to by the early Rabbis as z’man cheiruteinu, ‘the season of our freedom’. Everything associated with the celebration of the festival is supposed to stimulate our identification with the experience of slavery and liberation, especially the symbols on the Seder plate we sample as we read the Haggadah: the green karpas, the bitter maror, the sweet charoset, the matzah which is both ‘the bread of affliction’ – ha lachma anya, as the Haggadah puts it in Aramaic – and the bread of freedom (Bo, Exodus 12:39).
We read in the parashat Va-eira, that when Moses returned to Egypt after his encounter with the elusive Eternal One at the burning bush in the wilderness, the slaves refused to listen to his message of impending liberation mi-kotzer ru’ach, literally, ‘from shortness of spirit’ (Exodus 6:9). Enslavement can deaden the spirit, especially if it goes on for generations. But eventually, the message of liberation got through to the slaves. The Exodus narrative suggests that this was because they were persuaded by the plagues visited on Egypt – especially, when after the third plague, they ceased to afflict Goshen, where the slaves lived and toiled (Va-eira, Exodus 8:18-19). But perhaps there was more to it. After all, when it came to the final plague, the death of the first-born, the slaves were not automatically protected. They had to actively demonstrate their desire to be free by daubing the door-posts and lintels of their dwellings with the blood of a lamb (Exodus 12: 7, 13). And so, it was only with the reviving of their spirits that the bread of affliction became the bread of freedom (12:39).
We cannot underestimate the role of the human spirit in enabling people to endure persecutory and oppressive circumstances and survive. Of course, the human spirit can be broken by degradation and trauma. And it can also be healed by hope. The Festival of Pesach, ‘the season of our freedom’, holds out a message of hope for all who are enslaved in the world today as it did for those Africans enslaved in the Americas. At the first night BHPS Seder, in addition to the traditional melodies, we will sing as we always do – albeit, with the congregation on ‘mute’ because the continuing coronavirus crisis means we will still be on Zoom – the words of what used to be called a ‘Negro Spiritual’; a song of the spirit that resonates with a defiant message to all Pharaohs in every time and in every place: “When Israel was in Egypt’s land – let My people go. / Oppressed so hard they could not stand – let my people go. / Go down Moses, way down in Egypt’s land, tell old Pharaoh, let My people go” (Haggadah B’Chol Dor Va-Dor, Liberal Judaism, 2010, p. 8b).
Chag Pesach Samei’ach!