This post was originally delivered as a Rosh Hashana Morning sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago in September 2020. It was part of a series on Five Jewish Questions. Video is available here.
The Book of Genesis is full of origin stories. The diversity of human language, why we wear clothes, the rainbow, knowledge of good and evil. After Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, their sons invent raising food – Abel is a shepherd, Cain is a farmer. When Abel’s meat offering pleases the Hebrew god, Cain is jealous. Cain invites Abel to join in him the field, and then Cain kills his brother. The very next verse, god asks, “Where is Abel your brother?” And Cain answers a question with a question, even before Jewishness exists: “I do not know – am I my brother’s keeper?” Now, according to the story, there are only FOUR people TOTAL on the earth, and one is now dead. Not a lot of suspects – when you have two kids, no pets and one broken lamp, it is a short investigation. Cain still tries to deny responsibility, avoid blame and close his eyes to the consequences of his actions. Cain’s question “am I my brother’s keeper?” echoes from myth to real human experience. With 8 billion other people on the planet today, we might also ask “who counts as my brother?” Every culture has its founding myths: in 1789, when only landowning white men were full citizens with rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and the vote, they still wrote “we the people” in the Constitution.
This High Holidays, we explore important Jewish questions that speak to our shared humanity. Last night we saw that we have to do what we can as individuals. But for whom? We still ask, “am I my brother’s keeper?” We know that Genesis creation is a myth. In the real world, we evolved in and migrated from Africa. Early humans moved through the Middle East to Europe and Asia, and from there to the Americas. Over countless generations, we evolved to look different, to speak differently. The differences are very tempting – we feel good as the “in” group and look down on “them.” Any advantage our group enjoys, any suffering they endure, is not our problem. We are still our brother’s, or our sibling’s, keeper, but only our close sibling. One of the hopes of Humanism, be it Renaissance Humanism or Enlightenment Humanism or philosophical Humanism or our own Humanistic Judaism, has always been to see past the differences to a common humanity – human needs, human desires, human joy and pain, human aspiration and thriving.
Those human differences are mostly skin deep – every ethnic group can give blood to each other, and learn each other’s language, and fall in love or in hate with anyone. To quote Shakespeare’s famous Jew Shylock, all humans are:
Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer. If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?
In 2020 we add: if you cough on us, are we not at risk? Over the last 6 months, we have seen much generosity, a willingness to help others beyond the immediate orbit of concern, people who have volunteered in small ways to be their siblings’ keepers by keeping their distance and wearing their masks. But not everyone, and in the United States not enough of us. Most of my 2020 weddings have been rescheduled into 2021, hoping to be able to have a reasonably-sized and safe celebration then. I did have one wedding that refused to compromise – they said that their guests could wear a mask if they wanted to, but they wouldn’t require it. I said to them, “as counterintuitive as it may seem, that’s not how this works! For me to be safe, THEY need to wear masks.” And they fired me!
An old metaphor for the acceptable limits on personal freedom is “my freedom ends where my fist hits your nose.” In other words, I can do what I want for myself but I should not negatively impact you because that limits YOUR freedom. Well, what happens when my coronavirus hits your nose? There’s a reason we printed a Jewish ethical statement on our Kol Hadash masks – “love your neighbor,” because that’s what wearing them is all about – helping other people. And we do not just mean neighbors as the people who live next door. We also considered printing “Purim 365,” since we wear masks on Purim, but that might have been more depressing since our lockdown started right around Purim. Sunday School directors everywhere would up eating a LOT of hamentashen [Purim holiday pastries].
I know the mask debate is not always rational, I know that there is political spin and misinformation and stubbornness and machismo. It IS hard to accept that, without any negative intent or symptoms, my very breath can be dangerous. Do I REALLY have to take responsibility every time I hum or whisper or speak or sing? It might be easier to think, “it’s all ridiculous” and to resist how much has to change. When I saw the emotional distress of Christian churches this past April during Easter, I knew then that we had to start thinking through our High Holidays and prepare ourselves for the possibility of that loss. And here we are and there in the sanctuary you are not. Many churches DID follow the rules for Easter, they did NOT go to church, they stayed safe and they were their sibling’s keeper, but it was very hard. Who ever said that the right thing is the easy thing to do?
At its heart, the problem revealed by our mask debate is something deeper. It is a failure of empathy, a denial of personal responsibility, a negative answer to that question, “am I my sibling’s keeper?” The mask-rejecting would say, “no, I am not your keeper, watch out for yourself and leave me alone.” Cain intentionally kills his brother Abel, but the damage we might cause is unintentional. We would wear a mask for our immunocompromised family member, but do we empathize enough with strangers to inconvenience ourselves? Most people will return a grocery cart to the parking lot rack or let a stranger merge in traffic, and we have all seen those who will not. Those are low-stakes issues. What if strangers have their children taken from them at the border? What if strangers face structural inequalities created over centuries that we just want to “get over”? What if what “they” are telling us about our society, or about ourselves, is hard to hear and harder to accept?
Empathy is not just a question of what we do; it is also a matter of whom do we believe when they say something is wrong. We are not just our sibling’s keeper, we are also our sibling’s listener. Facing antisemitism today from many directions, Jews would be deeply and rightfully offended if the non-Jewish world told them to just chill out, be patient as society evolves, don’t worry about the ways antisemitism has been embedded in corners of our culture and society. In the late 1960s, another time of social unrest, President Lyndon Johnson convened a commission led by the Governor of Illinois and prominent African Americans to investigate the causes of these riots. Johnson expected communist agitators or criminal elements; he was shocked when the Kerner Commission blamed entrenched, systemic racism.
“What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
In 2018, Smithsonian Magazine summarized the report’s complaints in an article titled “The 1968 Kerner Commission Got It Right, But Nobody Listened.” Remember, these complaints are from 50 years ago:
Bad policing practices, a flawed justice system, unscrupulous consumer credit practices, poor or inadequate housing, high unemployment, voter suppression, and other culturally embedded forms of racial discrimination all converged to propel violent upheaval on the streets of African-American neighborhoods in American cities… As black unrest arose, inadequately trained police officers and National Guard troops entered affected neighborhoods, often worsening the violence.
Are we listening this time?
We cannot be our siblings’ keeper until we listen, truly listen to our sibling. One of the fascinating ambiguities about Cain and Abel is the moment before the murder: “Cain said to his brother Abel, and when they were in the field Cain rose up to Abel his brother and killed him.” But what does Cain say? Does Abel say anything back? We strain to hear, but the dialogue is lost, or it needs to be invented. In fact, Abel’s trauma does speak after the murder. The dialogue between God and Cain is actually three questions back and forth – “Where is your brother Abel?” “I do not know, am I my brother’s keeper?” “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the earth.” The voice of the blood cries out from the earth – in Hebrew it is a wordplay for Dam blood and Adamah earth, and of course their shared humanity from their father Ahdam. It is also a very powerful image.
Why do we hear the same complaints of injustice 50 years later? Did we not want to deal then with what it would have taken to truly address these issues? Or were our experiences so different that we did not listen and could not believe? For many of us, police are indeed public servants, helping with emergencies, protecting our property, managing traffic, keeping our streets and our synagogues safe. After George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis this spring, I and my children participated in a Black Lives Matter walk in Highland Park. I was bemused at one point during the march as we turned a corner to hear person next to me thanking the police who were blocked traffic for the march. There was no need to be antagonistic or confrontational with those officers, but maybe that person was not entirely clear on the purpose of the march. Most of us do not even see the police unless we need them, and we are confident they are coming to help us. And they do! I will be speaking more about the justice system on Yom Kippur when we explore Abraham’s challenge to god that the judge of all the earth should do justice. And so we who experience the police as helpers and officers of the law and public servants are shocked to learn that, for example, the Highland Park Police Department in the year 2000 accepted a reform consent decree because of consistent, egregious racial profiling and harassment designed to keep blacks and Hispanics, in the Senate testimony of officer Rodney Watt, “away from the central business district’s parks and beaches so that the community would not become nervous.” The slurs and bias he described in his testimony are sickening. Watt also pointed out that in the first 131 years of the city’s existence, they had never had an African-American police officer. This is not just huge cities, or the South, or a long time ago. Are we finally listening, do we hear the blood crying out from the ground and through the videos?
Absolutely, there has been progress in these last 50 years. The same Smithsonian Magazine article notes,
In 1969, about one-third of blacks lived below the poverty line. By 2016, that number had dropped to 22 percent, as a significant number of African-Americans moved into the middle class with a boost from 1960s legislation. But the percentage of blacks living in poverty is still more than twice as high as the percentage of whites.
The events of this spring and summer have given some hope even to the most pessimistic. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates confessed that he actually found himself cautiously optimistic – in the late 1960s, his father remembered, black people were marching mostly alone on these issues. This time, they are not alone and it is not just major cities with substantial minority populations. Maybe it is the accumulation of video evidence or social media or greater willingness to question authority or an openness to admitting that, to tweak Shakespeare again, something is rotten in the state of these United States. New questions are being asked and new possibilities are being discussed. More people than ever count as our brothers, our sisters, our siblings, our charges to be kept.
Verbally accepting responsibility to be our sibling’s keeper is a necessary first step, but it is not the end. Even today, we want the German people, including those born long after 1945, to accept responsibility for what was done in their national name during the Holocaust. Many of them and their government have indeed done so – and some Jews still refuse to buy German cars! Shortly after modern Israel was born in 1948, the West German government proposed financial reparations to Israel on behalf of the Jewish people. Accepting these reparations was a major controversy that almost led to civil war – the Israeli parliament building was attacked by a Jewish mob! In the end, reparations helped the fledging state survive.
There are many steps to teshuva the Hebrew word for repentance that comes from the root for “to return”: We recognize the pain we caused. We accept responsibility. We stop the wrongdoing and then we make it as right as we can. These steps of recognition, responsibility, and repair can heal our personal relationships, and that is one of the goals of our Jewish New Year. What stage are we at in America on race teshuva? Most of us acknowledge the pain of the past, except a few holdouts with Confederate flags. Some are willing to accept responsibility for the distant AND the more recent past; they acknowledge the shortcomings of our founding fathers and the impacts of segregationist housing, education and employment that did not end that long ago. Remember those angry white teens yelling at black teens integrating Little Rock Central HS? Those teenagers were born in the 1940s, today they are in their 70s. That is NOT even a lifetime ago.
There is no consensus on what it would take to make it right. Being our sibling’s keeper is not a one-time event, or a box to be checked, or a statement to be issued. It is an ongoing responsibility that does not end at age 18, as parents of young adults know – our “keeping” changes, but it never vanishes. Being our sibling’s keeper does not mean deciding everything for them, infantilizing them, making them dependent on our keeping. But we cannot ignore what has become too painfully obvious. We must overcome that empathy gap and reinforce that responsibility, for past AND present, to move forward.
What happens to Cain after his crime is known? He is condemned: “You shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.” Cain bewails his future as someone marked for death, so god marks him instead to keep him alive. Today, however, the “mark of Cain” is understood as a stigma, an original sin, a crime we carry with us forever. A history of accepting slavery is indeed the mark of Cain – it marks the Torah and Jewish tradition, and it marks the US Constitution and the American tradition. This does NOT mean that there is nothing good in either – the mark of Cain is not the end of the story of Judaism or America. If anything, it is the beginning – if we accept the skeletons in our own closet, if we own our own failures, we can begin to live out the true values of ringing statements of life and liberty and equality and justice. Listen to our siblings’ blood calling from the ground, and their voices calling to us now. Abel dies every time we tell the same creation myth again in the same way. Let us use our own power to create and re-create the world in the image we choose, and let us change the narrative for the better, for the wiser, for the kinder.
Abel the victim and Cain the murderer were both bnai Adam, “sons of Adam.” The phrase bnai Adam also means “human beings”. The Torah and our Kol Hadash masks say “love your neighbor as yourself”. Jewish commentary adds – love your neighbor, because they are like yourself. They, too, are bnai Adam, part of the human family.