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Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Springsteen Raised a Cain

Bruce Springsteen stands out almost without equals among the musicians who touch my soul. I rarely regret his outsized melodies, gritty voice, and emotionally explosive poetry that explore working class struggles and the general human condition with such passion and compassion.  I am especially drawn to Springsteen's use of biblical and religious imagery in songs such as Adam Raised A Cain, from his album Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

After recalling his baptism as a baby at his father's hands, Springsteen describes an encounter with his father upon returning home as a young man:

We were prisoners of love, a love in chains;

He was standing in the door, I was standing in the rain,

With the same hot blood burning in our veins.

Adam raised a Cain.

The song then bombards the listener with images of this tortured love between a father who is weighed down with angry resentment at his life, and his son who realizes that he cannot entirely escape this man in whose image he is created.  Springsteen tantalizes us with the refrain, "Adam raised a Cain," a double entendre that alludes to how he understands the biblical Cain and Abel story, as well as to the  impulse "to raise Cain" - that is, wreak havoc - that we may inherit from our parents.  Near the song's end, he sings:

In the Bible Cain slew Abel

And east of Eden he was cast;

You're born into this life paying

For the sins of somebody else's past.

Springsteen's reading of Cain reflects his dark view of his own life and every life:  not even Christian baptism can remove the stain of all those original sins inherited from our own parents who are echoes of the first sinning parents, Adam and Eve.  We think we are free to become ourselves, but in truth we are oppressed by our family histories from the moment we leave the womb. 

This is a powerful interpretation of the biblical narrative but it is incomplete.  In the Bible, Adam and Eve's sinful behavior condemns their sons to a life in exile beyond Eden's paradise. However, the parents are nowhere to be found when "God the Parent" accepts Abel's gifts and rejects those of Cain.  Seeing Cain's sadness, dejection and growing sibling hatred, God warns him:

Surely, if you do right

There is uplift.

But if you do not do right

Sin crouches at the door;

It urge is toward you,

Yet you can  be its master.

God reminds Cain that he has a choice not to behave badly despite his parent's lawless actions, his anger at Abel and his anguish at God's rejection of him.  Of course, Cain chooses to murder his brother, creating the paradigm for future human hatred and violence in which all homicide becomes a form of fratricide. 

I don't want to over-interpret Springsteen's use of the Cain and Abel story, which  he employs as a potent metaphor for the family dynamics that do shape us.  At times these bequests enrich us immeasurably, at other times they twist pieces of our souls out of shape in horribly damaging ways.  We resonate with his lyrics because we can empathize with his insights.  However, the biblical narrative reminds us that we are more than victims of "the sins of somebody else's past." We are free moral agents with the capacity and the obligation to confront our darkest emotions, desires, and pain.  However difficult it is to do, we can master those impulses and in turn treat each other with decency and justice. Significantly, Cain does not blame his behavior on his family circumstances. He does something worse by uttering his infamously apathetic rhetorical question in response to God's query about Abel's whereabouts:  "How should I know?  Am I my brother's keeper?"

Hidden in that question is the answer addressed to all of us: indeed, we are.

Dan Ornstein is Rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.

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