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Covenant & Conversation

Bereishit (5769) – Violence in the name of G-d


Religiously inspired violence has returned to haunt the world. Hostage-taking and hostage-killing, suicide bombings and massacres like the slaughter of schoolchildren in Beslan have become the face of terror in our age. Much has been spoken about weapons of mass destruction. Yet Beslan was achieved by nothing more sophisticated than rifles and explosives. 9/11 was committed using box cutters and planes, not normally regarded as weapons at all. All along, we were looking in the wrong direction: at means instead of motives. The greatest weapon of mass destruction is the human heart.

The most eloquent words about our time are those at the end of today’s sedra. Having created a universe of order, G-d saw human beings, his most precious creation, reduce it to chaos. The Torah then says: “G-d regretted that He had made man on earth and He was grieved to His very core.” That is the ultimate refutation of those who claim that, in murdering the innocent, they are acting in the name of G-d.

The connection between religion and violence is set out at the beginning of the biblical story of mankind. The first two human children, Cain and Abel, bring an offering. Abel’s is accepted, Cain’s is not. The first recorded act of worship leads to the first murder, the first fratricide. Religion, the Torah implies, is anything but safe. At its best it lifts human beings to become “little lower than the angels.” At its worst it leads them to become the most destructive form of life on earth.

What is the connection between religion and violence? There have been three major theories in the past hundred years. The first was Freud’s. Freud believed that social pathology replicated the psychology of the individual, specifically the Oedipus complex. In ancient times, the children of the tribe, envious of the power of the tribal chief, murdered him. They were then haunted by guilt – what Freud called “the return of the repressed.” The ghost of the victim became, as it were, the voice of G-d.

Rene Girard argued that religion was born in the attempt to deflect violence away from the group by turning it on an outsider. Social groups, especially those not ruled by law, are riven by vendettas. X kills Y. A member of Y’s family kills X in revenge. X’s family returns the violence. The feud continues, and the only way of ending it is to deflect it onto someone outside the group. Righteous anger is purged and order restored. For Girard, the primal religious act is human sacrifice. Its object is the scapegoat.

Postmodernists go further. They argue that the very act of self-definition involves the creation of an “other.” For there to be an “us” there must be a “them,” the people not like us. Humanity is divided into friends and strangers, brothers and others. The people not like us become the screen onto which we project our fears. They are seen as threatening, hostile, demonic. Identity involves exclusion which leads to violence.

The Torah’s account is simpler and more profound. Reading the story of Cain and Abel, we ask ourselves: Why did G-d accept Abel’s offering but not Cain’s? Was not that very act the cause of violence in the first place?

However, the reason G-d rejected Cain’s offering becomes clear in the words stated immediately after: “Cain became very angry and depressed.” Imagine the following: you offer someone a gift. Politely, they refuse it. How do you respond? There are two possibilities. You can ask yourself, “What did I do wrong?” or you can be angry with the intended recipient. If you respond in the first way, you were genuinely trying to please the other person. If the second, it becomes retrospectively clear that your concern was not with the other but with yourself.

You were trying to assert your own dominance by putting the other in your debt: the so-called “gift relationship.” Even among primates, the alpha male exercises power by distributing food, giving gifts. When the refusal of a gift leads to anger, it shows that the initial act was not altruism but a form of egoism. I give, therefore I rule.

That is what sacrifices were in the pagan world: attempts to appease, placate or bribe the G-ds, thereby coercing or manipulating them into doing my will – sending rain, or victory in battle, or restoring past imperial glories. This is the exact opposite of what the Torah sees as true faith: humility in the face of

G-d, respect for the integrity of creation, and reverence for human life, the only thing that bears the image of G-d.

There is no way of telling the difference externally. There can be two offerings – Cain’s and Abel’s – that look alike. They are both acts of worship, both superficially the same, yet between them there is all the difference in the world. One is an act of self-effacement in the presence of the creator. The other is a Nietzschean will to power. How do you tell the difference? By the presence of anger when things don’t turn out as you wished.

The story of Cain and Abel is the most profound commentary I know on the connection between religion and violence. Violence is the attempt to impose your will by force. There are only two ways of living with the guilt this involves: either, like Nietzsche, by denying G-d, or, like Cain, by telling yourself that you are doing G-d’s will. Both end in tragedy. The only alternative – the Bible’s alternative – is to see human life as sacred. That remains humanity’s last and only hope.