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On violence and technology

In his 1972 book, la violence et le sacre (Violence and the Sacred) the French anthropologist Rene Girard explores violence and how it is represented and occurs throughout history, literature and myth. Citing examples from the Bible, including today’s story about Cain and Abel, and Greek tragedy, for example using the stories of Oedipus and Dionysius, and from the actions and pogroms of twentieth century states, his central argument is that violence belongs to everyone and is at the heart of the sacred.


Girard reads Cain and Abel and unveils the mechanisms of mimetic desire and scapegoating. It is an important story for him, belonging to the genre of founding narratives: stories telling of the beginning of the world, that is, the beginning of culture. A murder takes place – fratricide no less – as the culture commences. But unlike with Romulus and Remus in the founding myth of Rome and the Roman Empire, when there is neither judgment nor punishment for Romulus murdering Remus after he upset his brother by jumping over a boundary wall, here in Bereishit, in Genesis, there is no justification. Abel is innocent. And God punishes Cain with a fate worse than death – he marks him out to wander the world all his days, and never find his rest. This second violent act – for to be worse than fratricide must be considered quite a divine punishment – sets up the Hebrew Bible both in terms of justice and the human laws that we are given, and in terms of the divine violence necessary to uphold the social structures. Certainly we see that later in the Torah, as Eva has mentioned, Moses wouldn’t have managed to bear the Israelites and lead them through the wilderness without God’s helping hand. Rebels get swallowed into the earth (think of Korach and his band), dissidents die from plague or choking on the meat they begged for (in the episode with the quails), or being forced to drink the gold (that they had given to Aaron to be molded into the golden calf). Back in Genesis and the genre of founding narratives, we need look no further than next week’s Torah portion, Noah, to see how divine punishment can send the whole world under water, with just a few survivors (Noah and his family) left to tell the tale. The Bible tells us the others were wicked, but the addition of the animals to the story and the ark only serves to underline how many innocent victims – for who can blame rabbits or giraffes for all the sins of the world? – were washed away and drowned in the flood.


The Torah – from the beginning – is establishing the principle of justice in an unjust world. The story of Cain and Abel introduces a moral perspective in the Bible. When God asks Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”, he makes Cain responsible for another. Already that’s an increase in responsibility over the Garden of Eden, when God asks Adam just, “Where are you?” When Cain replies rhetorically, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is yes! Cain is being called to account for his responsibility for the other. It is the Torah’s way to present the events within a moral perspective. The Torah is not just full of stories for us to read and enjoy, rather we must learn from them.


In the text that Eva has read and described for us this morning, there is a warning about being jealous, and letting our emotions overtake us. God warns Cain that he must maintain control over his desire and his jealousy of his brother. This warning comes prior to the murder. And it fits the pattern of the book of Genesis when younger children are preferred to their older siblings. Abel is chosen in preference to Cain, but later Isaac will be selected instead of Ishmael, Jacob instead of Esau, Joseph above his brothers, and Ephraim instead of Manashe. No reason or explanation is given, so it is left to the commentators why this may have taken place. One idea is that it serves to shake up the hereditary principle. It needn’t always be Prince Charles who is destined to be king. It is a major disadvantage arising from the hereditary monarchy when the heir apparent may be physically or temperamentally unfit to rule. And this is true in the structures of the Bible: it may not be that the first-born is unsuitable to take on the mantle of the leadership of the Abrahamic family, but the Torah has a pattern of reversing the elected heir in order to enhance the possibility of good leadership in subsequent generations.


The murder of Abel is not the only one even in this chapter. It is easy to overlook later in Genesis 4 Lamech’s bragging of his own misdeeds. His “song of the sword”, a poem so brief that we pay it little attention, is perhaps the earliest example of an arms race. And as Cain and Abel can be seen in wider terms as a battle between nomads and settlers, between the one who could provide vegetables and the one with meat, so Lamech represents the triumph of the iron age and the victory of weapons over the bare hands of what went before. Thus both Lamech and Cain demonstrate the ugly side of technological progress, the jealousies and the abilities that are fashioned by the products of the latest age.


Early on in our studies Eva and I read the poem by Dan Pagis,

"Written in Pencil in the Sealed Freightcar

published in 1970. As brief as the song of the sword, let me quote it in full now:


here in this carload i am eve with abel my son if you see my other son cain son of man tell him that i


Such a short poem; it bears so much meaning yet its words be few. Again we see the ugly triumph of technology, the transports, the freight trains that took the Jews to the death camps. The twentieth century example of the violence that humans can inflict on each other, the brotherhood of man breaking down with the re-enactment of the initial biblical murder on an industrial scale. The six million, all killed by someone who could, should have been their brother’s keeper, in the human family should have taken their responsibility of care for another, but instead emulated Cain. And ever since the Holocaust we are left wondering why, and struggling to reassert the moral order that the Torah and the texts of other religions cling to and plead for, bleed for, in the face of the advances of technology and the worries of violence to our structures and habits that they bring.


Eva, I say all this in the knowledge of your father’s interest and expertise in the world of artificial intelligence and AI, understanding that he has also been grappling and getting to grips with trying to grasp what current and future technological improvements mean for our lives. He gave a very interesting UHC lunch and learn earlier this year, and of course it was quite startling to see just how many professions look likely to go out of the window with the rise of the machines. Keep listening to both your parents and heed their advice!


Eva, you have been a pleasure to teach this past year. Not only for your intelligent questions but also for your sense of humour and the way that you interact with the world around you. I am glad that you are not going to kill your brother purposefully, and not only because I share Nathan’s name and have a terrorising big sister of my own. Stay close to the Torah all your days, it’s an Etz Chayim, a tree of life to cling to in a changing world, and its words are a constant reminder of the ethics and morals which I believe will always be required to navigate the technologies that surround us. Now please, would you bring your family to the bimah for the prayer of bat mitzvah.






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