In an episode of the animated sitcom, Bojack Horseman, a movie mogul and her team rush to save their new film that features an orgy of gun violence, after a mass shooting occurs at a mall. As they bemoan the negative effects of the shooting on their project, they callously feign concern for the real-life casualties by repeatedly tossing off the phrase, “thoughts and prayers for the victims and their families.”
As a rabbi, I am no stranger to, nor an opponent of, thoughts of concern and prayers of healing for those afflicted by tragedy. At times, the only appropriate way to confront the destructive deeds of humankind and of nature over which we have no control is to reach out as one community with words and gestures of comfort to those who suffer. That is why communal religious rituals, vigils, and pronouncements can possess so much power and sincerity: they remind us that we are not alone in our suffering and that others will not abandon us, as we trudge through the flesh-eating molasses of grief.
However, as the body count from mass gun murders spikes, the point of the sitcom’s writers becomes sickeningly obvious: the gun violence metastasizing in schools and sacred worship spaces here and abroad has numbed all of us, our morally paralyzed leaders in particular; we have reached the point where the default position for our deepening collective wound is to apply a flimsy band-aid of platitudes. For me, this growing, disturbing culture of passivity in the face of all this hate crime and bloodshed is deeply personal. The American Jewish community has experienced a 105 per cent increase in anti-Semitic incidents since 2017, according to the most recent Anti-Defamation League survey. The recent synagogue shootings in Poway, California and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, are merely the most grotesque manifestations of the White supremacist monster that has flown out of the Pandora’s box of legal restraint and moral decency, aided by a calculating, cynical political leadership. The anti-Semitic violence is joined by spikes in hate crimes against mosques and African American churches here, as well as against mosques and churches around the world. To me, what clearly connects each of these atrocities, particularly in our many houses of worship, is a common, poisonous theme playing in the heads of the extremists: “I hate and fear you and your religion with such blind fury, I will not only murder you, but your God who created you as well.”
The practical requirements for wresting control from the gun toting haters are pretty obvious, if not easily attainable in a corrosively polarized culture such as ours. I want to suggest a unique requirement that I beg every teacher, leader, activist, clergyperson, and fellow citizen to make a regular part of their thinking, action, political and moral choices.
Let’s imagine the following: if God, the hidden Subject of the extremists’ vitriol, were to speak to the human race right now, God might say to us that the time for thoughts and prayers alone has long since passed. Imagine God asking us to open our Bibles and to turn to the great foundation story of Cain and Abel. Confronting Cain after he murdered his brother Abel, God didn’t berate or punish him. God asked him one simple, agonizing question: “Where is Abel your brother?” The Bible tells us that Cain cagily sought cover by responding with his infamous rhetorical question: “I don’t know…Am I my brother’s keeper?” God didn’t need to answer Cain’s question, because God – and we the readers – have always known the answer: “Yes, Cain, you are.”
Let’s take Cain’s rhetorical question and relentlessly apply it as our universal standard of human decency, when taking action to restore our society to peace and sanity. Any policy, politician, preacher, product, process, pedagogy or publicity that cannot pass, or that refuses to take, the brother’s keeper test must be vigorously denounced and rejected by us citizen consumers in the free marketplace of ideas and values. The brother’s keeper test is not some simplistic bromide or convenient cliché. It is, sadly, a time-worn litmus test of right and wrong. It strips away the delusion of intractable human differences. It demands that nothing which hinders our responsibility for each other should proceed without substantive correctives, checks and balances.
Finally, to recover our strength when we’re off the battlefield, let’s return periodically to what the poet Robinson Jeffers called the honey of peace that we find in our poems, thoughts and prayers:
May the memories of the victims be a blessing.
May their families be comforted by our presence in their lives.
May we never succumb to cynicism and despair.
May we never stop acting upon that haunting human question:
Am I my brother’s keeper?
Yes, we are.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)
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