Dan Ornstein leads Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, New York. He blogs at the Times of Israel and Jewish Values Online, and contributes essays at WAMC Northeast Public Radio. His latest book is Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (Jewish Publication Society, 2020).
This interview originally appeared on jps.org.
What made you cast the Cain and Abel story as a trial?
As I mention in the book, one day I was sitting in jury selection for a criminal trial at our local county courthouse. The presiding judge took great care in advising all of us about our grave responsibilities to seek the truth and act justly, should we be chosen for the jury. Being a juror should not be taken lightly by us, because the life and welfare of another human being would be in our hands. His words reminded me of a famous legal passage in our tradition about how the ancient Jewish courts would admonish witnesses in capital crimes cases about acting justly and honestly. It is the only legal passage I know of in our tradition that uses Cain and Abel as an example for exhorting witnesses. From there, it wasn’t too hard for me to imagine the story of Cain and Abel in a modern setting using the genre of courtroom drama, which is a very popular form of fiction.
What does the first family say about us?
Sadly, it says so much about us: The first family reflects the extremes of verbal, emotional, and at times even physical violence to which we go in our nuclear, extended, communal, and national families, and in our global family. Rivalries, petty and important, hurt feelings, poor parenting and communication, opportunities missed to be better and do better, families at every level of family destroyed by anger, misunderstanding and hatred: they are all part of the biblical first family’s story and they are all part of our stories. The first family is our mirror and our cautionary tale.
Thankfully, it also says so much else about us. In particular, God’s engimatic but telling conversations and confrontations with Cain are our other mirror. They remind us with such force and pathos that we should not – and we need not – give into our worst impulses to strike out at others, despite our deepest feelings of rage, envy, loss and victimization. God tells Cain, “You can rule over Sin,” meaning in this context that Cain has the free choice to struggle with his impulses and to master them, and so do we.
Yet Cain and Abel are not merely legendary brothers in a nuclear family. Cain’s rhetorical question to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, is not merely about Abel. It is a clarion moral call to each of us in every one of our families: “Are we each others’ keepers? Yes, we are.”