Friday, October 9, 2015

Murder in Parramatta: Cain, shame and responsibility – Bereshit

One image has been playing on my mind since the murder of Curtis Cheng: the 15 year old killer waving his gun in the air and shouting. I see a link to the young murderer in Oregon who reportedly wrote that mass killings can get a person “known by no one” into the limelight.1

I do not have access to evidence about these murders. Instead I will tap traditional teachings for some possible insights. Escaping shame is a major factor in the first recorded murder I am aware of, that of Abel by his brother Cain. The vain, honor seeking2 younger brother Abel and his older brother Cain wanted God to settle the question which of them was greater, the shepherd Abel or the farmer Cain. They each brought offerings, but Cain and his offering were ignored while God turned to Abel and his offering3, by sending a miraculous fire4 and by blessing Abel with success while Cain’s crops failed. 5 Cain “was despising himself in his own eyes”6 feeling shamed by God,7 his face “blackened like a coal”.8 Cain’s shame then turned into rage, his face burning like fire.9 

One remedy for deep shame involves recognizing that one has a choice10 about the future as well as opportunity to take responsibility for past failure and come to terms with it rather than blaming others.11 God asked Cain why he was so angry and ashamed.12 God drew Cain’s attention to his ability to choose a path that would make him better than Abel.13 Unfortunately Cain chose not to avail himself of this option, instead allowing his anger to lead him to murder. Is there some similarity to Cain’s craving for status due to his shame,  in a 15 year old murderer holding his arm up as high as he can, waving a gun and shouting a religious slogan?  

A year ago another person, also drawn to Islamist extremism, and perhaps also seeking personal redemption though shedding the blood of others, had been dismissed by some as crazy. He was a criminal who victimized the women in his life. Was he viewed as being outside of human society and not quite human?  In some of our traditions Cain is seen in this way: his ‘breed’ “had two heads and four eyes”.14 We are told that his father was not Adam but the snake that impregnated Eve15, or the evil angel Samael.16 While there are reasons to isolate murderers, and to communicate a high level of disgust with their behaviour, the child’s face of the Parramatta killer reminds us of the chilling truth that killers are people like the rest of us.

We are now hearing incessant demands by some for Australian Muslims to “own this crime”. One Muslim writer expressed frustration that Muslims seem to be expected to prevent events like this, despite the obvious fact that this is not something they can guarantee. Italian people are not expected to prevent all “Italian crime”!

In fact, there are local Muslim community workers, including two amazing Sheiks I know, who are undertaking educational work that will hopefully make violent incidents like the Parramatta murder less likely. Some of these workers believe that, given the kind of public conversation we are having, highlighting their work in the media might be seen as conceding some guilt about or association with the crime.

There is always room for improvement, but I wish the degree of acceptance of responsibility for preventive education among Australian Muslims was better known. At the same time, I believe that non-Muslims have responsibility to do our part in ensuring we develop inclusive communities that preserve the dignity of all, thereby reducing the likelihood of school students feeling so alienated that they can be brain-washed to commit murder. 

Religion is sometimes a contributing factor to hostility; but it can also contribute to solutions. In Genesis we see God feeling aggrieved about the state of the world, and his response is to wipe out civilization.17 He is said to be saddened by the “humans on the earth”18, which one commentary interprets as being too much mixed up with matters of the earth, focused on the material and the body rather than the spiritual.19 In the Torah, God eventually promises never to destroy the world again, because he accepts the reality of human frailty. The symbol of this commitment is the rainbow.

As parents of all faiths do their best to raise good children, so do our multi-dimensional communities - via social institutions providing education, health, welfare and policing and in more personal ways in our everyday activities. , In the wake of another tragic murder, I reaffirm my commitment to continue my own efforts to affirm the dignity of all, to try to ensure that shame, when it appears, can be more successfully harnessed for good, rather than become a driver for rage and violence. As flawed humans, people of all ages need to learn how to pursue excellence and success with patience and resilience, and how to promote justice with courage and compassion in a flawed world


2.    Abarbanel. The Hebrew name of Abel, Hevel, means air, which can be linked using modern slang to being ‘full of hot air’, the choice of shepherding sheep and “leading them” is seen as reflecting this pursuit of being important. In contrast to this view of Abarbanel, Ohr Hachayim (starting with the words Vateled et Kain) quotes the sages that Cain was of the aspect of evil and Abel was of the aspect of good. A synthesis of the two views might be found in the Ohr Hachayim’s assertion that Abel soul was also that of Moses, that means that Moses was a reincarnation of Abel and that in the wounds inflicted on Abel by Cain he removed the bad elements from Abel’s soul and the pure good was revealed. This is alluded to in the words in Genesis 4:1, “I have acquired a man, God” referring to Moses the man of God who only reached this level of being with God because of the suffering inflicted on him by Cain. This also links to story cited in Meiri about Moses having a flawed character that he overcame by his working on himself.
3.    Genesis 4:4-5
4.    Midrash Hagadol cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 312, 44, Rashi
5.    Pesikta Zuta cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 312, 45
6.    Midrash Hagadol cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 312, 44
7.    Seforno
8.    Minchat Yitzchak, cited and explained in Torah Shlaima, p. 312, footnote to 42
9.    Beresheet Rabba, 22
10.    Seforno on Genesis 4:6
11.    Abarbanel
12.    Genesis 4:6
13.    Abarbanel, this is based on his interpretation of the ambiguous word “Se-et” שאת in Genesis 4:7, which can be translated as forgiven, but also as uplifted as this word is used in Genesis 49:3
14.    Midrash cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 304, footnote 7
15.    Pirkey Drabi Eliezer, cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 304
16.    Pirush Yonatan citing the Midrash
17.    Genesis 6
18.    Genesis 6:5
19.    Radak

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