Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Could Cain And Abel Save America?
Just because our ancient stories are myths doesn’t mean that they aren’t true.
As a rabbi, I spend a lot of time reminding my students that you can take stories from books such as the Bible quite seriously without taking them literally. They might be fiction; their enduring human lessons aren’t.
An excellent example of this is the biblical story of Cain and Abel, which explains the origins of hatred, violence and murder. The tale is a mirror of anguish and action for us, reflecting back to us our ugliest and our most redemptive dimensions as individuals and communities. These two bloody sibling rivals of hoary antiquity likely never lived. Yet as object lessons for what awaits us in our families when hatred and jealous rage trump fraternal responsibility, Cain and Abel walk among us and are very real. Though this narrative comes from Jewish scripture, it belongs to all of us. It can be a critical basis for dialogue in the public sphere, as Americans seek to heal from decades of increased polarization and political hatred, and centuries of racist bigotry.
Briefly, this is the story. After God forces Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, Eve gives birth to Cain and then to Abel. Cain makes an offering to God, and Abel does the same. For no explicit reason, God pays attention to Abel and his offering, but not to Cain and his gift. This enrages and depresses Cain. God warns Cain to be mindful of how powerful his darkest impulses are, but that he (howbeit with great effort) is free to control them. Despite God’s warning, Cain confronts Abel in a field and murders him. God then confronts Cain, asking him where his brother is, to which Cain infamously retorts, “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?” The Bible doesn’t have God answer Cain’s rhetorical defense directly, for we the readers by that point should be screaming at him, “Yes, Cain, you most certainly are!” For his act of unprecedented barbarity, God condemns Cain to wandering and exile, which will force him to contemplate his actions for the rest of his life.
The story is what Bible scholars call an etiology, a mythic explanation about why the world operates the way it does. In our nuclear, extended, communal, national, and global families, we are inheritors of the proverbial “mark of Cain”, that capacity for violent brutality toward our actual siblings as well as our siblings in the most expansive sense, all other people. We might dress up that brutality and its underlying discontents with political slogans, ideologies, historical rationales, and rallying cries. Yet stripped of all pretense, our meanest behavior shows us our ugliest, most primitive impulses, what the Bible colorfully calls the demon crouching at the door of our consciousness. That demon can “pounce” on a person or a people, convincing them that Cain is really his brother Abel: that we the victimizers of the innocent and marginalized are the “real” victims who have no choice but to take action against “those people out there.”
And yet, all hope is not lost. In ways both direct and slant, our tale places in God’s and Cain’s mouths, both admonition and assurance. As difficult as it may be, we can rule over our demons; as easy as it may be to deny it, we are our brothers’ keepers. Confronting one another in that bleak killing field of home and history, we always have, in John Steinbeck’s immortal words, “the great choice” to fight and conquer our desire to annihilate each other.
Cain and Abel, as well as so many other mythic narratives and folktales, speak directly to our darkest fears and our highest aspirations. Their deceptive simplicity and rich symbolism reveal naked truths that simultaneously force and enable us to meet ourselves and each other in the text. What if we Americans built a new curriculum of dialogue for national healing that placed the first siblings’ tale, among many others, at the center of that conversation: one that strives to transcend toxic polarities and demonization by bringing Americans together around stories reflecting our common humanity? What if, instead of ignoring each other’s narratives of suffering and struggle, we learned to listen to one another in the larger setting of those terrifying but wise stories of human existence? No matter who we are, and no matter our religious or political beliefs, we might thereby learn to stand together, as siblings from the great, broken human family, in that killing field with Cain and Abel. Perhaps we would finally figure out how to ask endlessly the nagging question that could save us, if we chose to answer it:
Am I my brother’s keeper?
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)
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