In the beginning, there was a heresy. Early in the book of Genesis, God approached Cain, the first-born son of the first humans, and asked him "Where is your brother Abel?" Abel, of course, was dead. Cain had murdered him in the world’s first act of mortal violence. But the murder, though horrific, was not the heresy. The heresy was Cain’s response: "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?"
Cain’s disingenuous and disturbing question reflects an idea that our natural state is independent from and free of obligation toward others; that we are responsible to others only when we choose to accept such responsibility, and even then, only as much as is dictated by our own self-interest or need. On numerous levels, this perspective is a dangerous and destructive heresy, and one not unique to the biblical Cain. It is widely held today in some circles, and it is what many will have in mind when they celebrate American Independence Day on July 4th. So this Independence Day seems an appropriate moment to publicly expose and refute it.
To many Americans, independence has come to mean unlimited individual rights and no obligations toward others. Independence Day, to them, is a day to celebrate our liberation from having to be our fellow’s keeper, our independence from others.
This view of independence is un-American. It is not what the American founders, at nearly every stage in the nation’s inception, envisioned. The Declaration of Independence asserted only the right to make a political break with Great Britain. It never advocated Americans breaking free of their obligations to each other. On the contrary, it maintained the collective responsibility of the people within the American body politic. And the U.S. Constitution is based on the concept that “We, the People” are bound together, that we are responsible to protect and defend each other, and that we are obligated to promote each other’s well being.
The view that we are free and independent entities that may, but are not obligated to, assume responsibility for each other, is also unnatural. Quantum physics teaches us that none of us are static, self-contained, entities. We are dynamic processes, always relating with and responding to everything on all levels of existence. We are all interconnected, woven together into the fabric of being. Indeed, from a certain perspective, we are all simply manifestations of a unity that pervades all reality. I am my brother’s keeper, then, because I am my brother and my brother is me.
Biological science also reflects our mutual obligations to each other. Everything in the biosphere impacts everything else. My actions have consequences beyond my sphere of control, and similarly, the actions of others impact me. Think of your body as a microcosm of the world: your heart cannot properly function unless it cooperates with your other organs. Similarly, we cannot properly function without cooperating with the rest of creation. We need each other to ensure each other’s mutual well being. As Jack Shepherd of the ABC television series “Lost” said, “If we can't live together, we're going to die alone.”
Most importantly, to me, the Cain Heresy is profoundly un-Jewish. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin argues that the whole Torah is written as an affirmative response to Cain’s question. We are, in the view of God and God’s Torah, our fellow’s keeper.
Seen this way, Abraham merits becoming the father of the Jewish people because he insisted on being responsible for others. When his nephew, Lot, was kidnapped, Abraham set out to rescue him, even though doing so meant becoming embroiled in a bloody regional conflict and risking his life. Abraham, at ninety-nine years old, recovering from a circumcision he had performed on himself just days earlier, toiled in the desert heat in order to welcome wandering strangers into his home. And, when God revealed the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham defended the cities’ wicked residents, imploring God to spare their lives.
Even the Exodus narrative, which many point to as a proof-text for the primacy of human freedom, is also, importantly, a story about our obligation to care for each other. According to my teacher Rabbi Aryeh Cohen the Exodus story calls on us to act like God and not like Pharaoh. God heard the cries of the oppressed Israelites and sought to end their suffering. Pharaoh, on the other hand, ignored the Israelites when they cried out to him. To be like the God of the Exodus is to be our fellows’ keepers.
Seen this way, one can see why God chose Moses to lead the Israelites. The first story of Moses as an adult has him acting as his brother’s keeper, stopping an Egyptian taskmaster from beating an Israelite slave. And, according to a midrash, God selected Moses only upon seeing him compassionately chasing after a wayward sheep.
Finally, the Exodus story insists that freedom is incomplete without Torah, a covenant that (to name but a few of the hundreds of biblical laws that obligate us to each other) demands we care for the injured, attend to those in peril, and not remain indifferent to others' suffering. As Abel discovered, unless we all see ourselves as our fellows’ keepers, none of us can be truly free.
The Cain Heresy is alive and well in our culture, threatening to totally devour the freedom it claims to defend. This July 4th, as we enjoy our barbecue and fireworks, let us remember to celebrate not only our independence, but our interdependence as well.
Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and a Clal - Rabbis Without Borders fellow.