Exodus And Emancipation Biblical And African-American Slavery by Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Chelst
To readers and students of the Bible, the biblical narrative is an open book with multiple timeless messages. Through its narratives, laws, poetry, rhetoric, and prophetic visions, it touches on almost every aspect of morality and the human saga. One such drama in the Five Books of Moses, or Pentateuch, is the story of the Israelite nation's exodus from Egyptian bondage and its forty-year sojourn in the wilderness of Sinai.
This book is an integrated collection of essays that capture my reflections on the biblical description of the Exodus. It presents a new perspective on the saga of the Children of Israel by comparing and contrasting it with the African-American slave experience in the United States and the subsequent emancipation and fight for dignity and equality. The comparison is designed to enrich the reader's understanding of both experiences
I recognize that the comparison is between the proverbial apples and oranges, or better yet, a comparison of bricks of straw and mud compared with cash crops of cotton and sugar cane. The Hebrew Bible is sacred literature that was canonized over two thousand years ago. Associated with this text are long-standing oral traditions as well as hundreds of commentaries. All draw and build upon a common textual base to explore religious, moral, and philosophical issues.
In contrast, the African-American experience is not centered on one narrative. It is self-reported, summarized, and analyzed in a vast array of literature written over the past two centuries. These include slave narratives, published letters, eyewitness accounts, recorded interviews of former slaves, and numerous historical, sociological, economic and political analyses of this era in American history.
Despite these obvious differences in breadth and perspective, I have found that a study of African-American slavery and oppression yields important insights regarding the biblical narrative. In addition, this analysis highlights the events of the Reconstruction era that precluded African Americans from bringing closure to this part of their history.
I treat the Hebrew text as a self-contained unified entity and therefore do not explore issues associated with the historical accuracy of the Bible or authorship. The analysis of the text is supplemented by references to the Midrash, a collection of Jewish oral traditions recorded over 1500 years ago. The principal goal of the Midrash is to highlight religious, moral, or philosophical issues even though a superficial reading seems to suggest that the midrashic literature is filling in missing historical details. Lastly, I draw on primarily Jewish biblical commentaries, both traditional and modern, that explore the subtleties of narrative and language in the Hebrew text.
Although I attempt a comprehensive analysis of the biblical text with regard to the Exodus experience, the exploration of African-American experiences is far more selective for a number of reasons. First and foremost is that there was no single common experience. The nature of slavery in the continental United States varied with time, region (the North, the Border States, the Atlantic Coast, the deep South), and slaveholder's demographic status (city dweller, small farmer, or plantation owner).
In highlighting this history, my primary interest is the relevance to the biblical narrative. In so doing I present not a complete picture but rather a collage of the African-American experience of slavery and its aftermath. This collage offers a unique perspective on the biblical story told in the book of Exodus. In addition, special attention is given to the symbol of hope and national identity the Children of Israel of old offered African Americans of the nineteenth century. This development is analyzed and chronicled by Glaude in Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America.
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Chelst is chair of the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering of Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. He received rabbinic ordination in 1972 from Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in New York. While there, he studied under Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the world's leading Talmudic scholar and Jewish philosopher of that generation as well as Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein whose writing integrates Jewish sources and English literature. Dr. Chelst received his Ph.D. from MIT in 1975 in the field of operations research, applying mathematical concepts to police patrol deployment. He is a nationally recognized researcher in the application of mathematical models to the management of police, fire and EMS. His newest research area focuses on globalization and decision and risk analysis.
Rabbi Chelst has taught adult Bible classes for more than two decades. It was during these classes that he first began to see and develop parallels and contrasts between Israelite and African-American slavery. Initially, he drew on his knowledge of victimization studies in the field of criminal justice and classical texts of American slavery, such as Frederick Douglass' autobiography. Through the efforts of Dave Tanzman and Jules Cohan, he received a substantial grant to fund a black studies researcher, Kathryn Beard, who helped him explore and understand many of the social, political, historical, economic, and anthropological issues associated with the events and experiences of African-American slavery and emancipation. EXODUS AND EMANCIPATION represents the culmination of years of effort to integrate the two narratives.