Cain v. Abel: A Jew­ish Court­room Drama

  • Review
By – November 3, 2020

What drove Cain to mur­der his broth­er Abel? Jeal­ousy, ret­ri­bu­tion, greed, self-aggran­dize­ment? Cain’s cold act of frat­ri­cide has rever­ber­at­ed for more than two mil­len­nia, and while his guilt is not in doubt, Rab­bi Dan Orn­stein search­es with­in the bare­bones bib­li­cal text for some­thing that could bring us clos­er to under­stand­ing Cain’s motives and char­ac­ter, and the result is this book, a strik­ing­ly con­ceived court­room drama.

Fol­low­ing rig­or­ous tri­al pro­ce­dures, Rab­bi Orn­stein calls Cain Adam­son to tri­al as a means of explor­ing all that is absent from Gen. 4:1 – 16. His pros­e­cu­tor is Truth, who we learn (in the midrashic notes) was an angel opposed to the cre­ation of human beings because they will be all false­hood.” Cain’s defense attor­ney is Lov­ingkind­ness, anoth­er angel, who sup­port­ed the cre­ation of human beings because of their believed essen­tial good­ness. Fol­low­ing the depo­si­tion of God, the four-day tri­al com­mences, and it includes an array of wit­ness­es: numer­ous rab­bis, among them Rashi, whose tes­ti­monies Rab­bi Orn­stein draws direct­ly from Tal­mu­dic inter­pre­ta­tions and rab­binic com­men­taries. Truth and Lov­ingkind­ness call on the pri­ma­ry wit­ness­es, includ­ing the tac­i­turn Cain — who refus­es to tes­ti­fy, Eve, Adam, the Blood of Adam, and Sin itself. After each wit­ness, Rab­bi Orn­stein pro­vides his own com­men­taries. Cain v. Abel is tru­ly a Jew­ish dra­ma: com­men­taries on commentaries!

Cain v. Abel is a rich, com­pelling dra­ma and Rab­bi Ornstein’s desire to fos­ter a deep­er expe­ri­ence of this bib­li­cal sto­ry by active­ly engag­ing his read­ers is more than met. Towards this end, the book includes a num­ber of poten­tial activ­i­ties for the read­er, among them staged or infor­mal read­ings of a court­room tran­script, along with text ques­tions keyed to each chap­ter. But, for stu­dents and con­tem­pla­tive read­ers alike, his court­room pro­ceed­ings are a lit­er­ary tour de force and like­ly to be sat­is­fy­ing enough in themselves.

Mer­rill Lef­fler has pub­lished three col­lec­tions of poet­ry, most recent­ly Mark the Music. A physi­cist by train­ing, he worked in the NASA sound­ing rock­et pro­gram, taught Eng­lish at the U. S. Naval Acad­e­my, and was senior sci­ence writer at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land Sea Grant Pro­gram, focus­ing on Chesa­peake Bay research.

Discussion Questions