The word has a certain poetry to it, power and dark intention.
We’ve lost faith in murder.
Oh, we still value violence. When Hamas launches rockets or a new terror stirs in Iraq and Syria, we respond. Sometimes we preempt. If it’s kill or be killed, we know where we stand. We still (on the whole) think that those who live by the sword must die by the sword.
The sword isn’t the problem. It’s the swordsman that eludes us.
Death is not murder. Neither is manslaughter. To kill in self-defense is not murder. Murder, (n): killing that’s against the law, or in other words, killing that deserves punishment.
And we don’t believe in murder.
* * *
Consider Cain and Abel, a story at the beginning of the source text of Western Civilization, the text some say we must abandon to be enlightened.
Cain and Abel, brothers who sacrifice for the creator, Abel with his flock, Cain with his crop. G-d prefers Abel’s offering. Cain gets jealous. G-d encourages Cain: “You didn’t do well this time, but you can improve.” He warns Cain: “Watch out! Your desires crouch and wait to drag you down.” Cain kills Abel. G-d punishes Cain.
G-d punishes Cain?!
What did Cain ever do to deserve punishment?
* * *
Imagine it just made headlines, 2014. What does it sound like? We don’t know how old Cain and Abel were at the time. They’re brothers. Maybe it happened at school. In America, we’re familiar with this kind of thing.
A sorrowful anchor describes the carnage at the murder scene. A reporter interviews sullen grey-faced witnesses. Back to the studio. What caused this tragedy, who’s to blame, and how might we fix it? Bring on the talking heads.
Head One: “It’s a problem of the brain chemicals, you see. If Cain were on the right meds, he wouldn’t have anger problems, and Abel would’ve lived to sire children.”
Head Two: “Property is the issue – if there had been no disparity in the brothers’ possessions, there would be no cause for jealousy and no cause for death.”
Head Three: “Wake up, sheep! It’s religion at the heart of man’s woes. This was the first religious conflict in history. Cain killed over G-d. Remove the poisonous influence of religion, and peace shall return!”
Head Four: “This tragedy lies at the feet of agriculture. If only Cain were a shepherd like his brother, or a hunter-gatherer…”
Head Five: “If there had been no rock with which to bash in the victim’s head, this terrible act would never have happened. Our hearts go out to Adam and Eve, and they will appear on our show tomorrow to discuss a ban on rocks in the vicinity of humans.”
Head Six: “You’re all geographically illiterate. Look at a map, people. This took place in the Middle East. Cain was expressing his righteous anger over the injustice of western imperial colonialism. And Israel. It’s always Israel.”
Head Seven: “You know, I agree with my colleagues, but they lack depth. None of the above reasons would bring him to slay his brother. It’s family life that’s to blame. It is the struggle for parental affection that taught Cain jealousy. View G-d as a proxy mother and you see the source of the anger.”
To the experts, Cain’s decision was a predetermined step in a causal chain that regresses to the birth of the universe. If they believe in Cain’s free will, they don’t see how it’s different than any other step in the process that slays Abel: (1) there is a difference in their property, (2) brain chemicals mix, (3) Cain makes a choice, (4) he picks up the murder weapon – deal with any one of them, and you’ll fix the problem. There is nothing deserving punishment here. There is simply a sequence of events, of causes and their effects. One domino hits a second hits a third and then there is not enough oxygen in Abel’s brain and the reporters come swooping in, no doubt in the throes of their own causal sequences involving the ambulance chasing gene and the economic currents that force enterprising young people into journalism school.
There is death on the news. There is no murder.
* * *
There is, of course, another opinion, not Head Eight but rather Head Zero, representing the majority view of humanity for the past two millennia, though perhaps not for the past two decades.
Head Zero: “Cain murdered Abel as an act of will. G-d told him he could either improve, or be lost to blood lust. He chose the latter, even though he had the ability to overcome it. And G-d punished him.”
Head Zero actually reads what’s written in the text – “Is it not so that if you improve, it will be forgiven you? If you do not improve, however, at the entrance, sin is lying, and to you is its longing, but you can rule over it.” Simple as that. No mention of Cain’s circumstances, of weapons or family.
Why doesn’t this version make the news?
Perhaps it isn’t newsworthy, since Head Zero doesn’t give us any advice on how to solve the problem. She doesn’t explain how to rearrange society. She appears to throw up her hands and say, “Humans are evil. That’s just the way we are, and nothing can solve it.”
But that’s only a surface understanding. Though all Western religions agree with Head Zero, they do not advocate nothing. Rather, their solution is internal, and must take place within the individual.
The strangest thing: by saying humans are evil, Zero is the most uplifting of all the heads. The modern theories rob the individual of his agency by aiming at externalities. They tell him he is at the whim of powers beyond his control. Just like Cain’s bad upbringing and his low self-esteem, there is an entire matrix of causes, an extensive sociopsychobiohistorical calculus that explains why you just cut someone off on the highway, and that (we might as well say) makes it impossible for you not to cut someone off. It is not your fault. If we want to fix road rage, we must go back to first causes, etc. You are perfect, just the way you are. Until society ruins you.
Head Zero (aka Torah, aka common sense a hundred years ago) says it is your fault. Next time, exert some intellect and some will, and don’t cut him off.
Head Zero terrifies us.
She suggests that the key is education, of ourselves and of our children. Not in math or science, but in right and wrong. We need not await Utopian changes or a doctor’s prescription; we need not protest or raise awareness. We can fix it now, by fixing ourselves. The lessons of self-control and forgoing immediate gratification will solve more than a thousand political protests.
This is challenging, since we’ve been inundated with anti-Zero propaganda from childhood (why this is so is a discussion fraught with many talking heads themselves advocating external solutions to this problem). We don’t want to fix ourselves. We want the world to change. We want to have a fairer lot, a better chance, an easier job. Down with the CEOs, the white man, the black man, Coke, Apple, Microsoft, my next door neighbor, and the government. Let them change.
But the world is a closed system, and exporting responsibility has consequences, namely, the trademark of 21st-century consciousness: merciless, unyielding, abject, nihilism. By shifting obligations from ourselves onto others, we lose our sense of purpose. We feel powerless and irrelevant. We are reduced to screaming about what’s wrong, instead of quietly making ourselves right.
There are only two types of people who aren’t blown away by the meaninglessness of living in 2014:
(A) Those who don’t shift responsibility. (The elderly/old souls. See: your grandparents)
(B) Those who spend a little time every day convinced they’re fixing the external causes of their problems, i.e. everyone else. (See: Social Justice Warriors, Militant Freegans, Nazis, Communists, the guy at Shul who’s way too into politics, etc.)
Type (A) is less annoying,
* * *
Cain is not a victim of circumstance. He is a human being who makes decisions. And because he is human, he fails. And because he fails, he is human. For if he fails, that means he could have succeeded. We have the ability to not murder, not just the ability to not kill. We can fail, or we can succeed.
It is in our hands.
And that is a heartening thing.
 Head Five is a bit of an ignoramus, since the Midrash says Cain killed Abel by slitting his throat, and the Zohar says Cain bit Abel like a snake. But he’s a talking head on the news; what did you expect?
Image from Flickr.
Originally posted on Hevria.