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Am I My Brother's Keeper? Elie, this is a question that perhaps is not understood too well by a good many people in our time. What does it mean to you?
It is a question that Cain asked of God, having killed Abel: "Am I my brother's keeper?" And the answer, of course, is, we are all our brothers keepers. Why? Either we see in each other brothers, or we live in a world of strangers. I believe that there are no strangers in God's creation. There are no strangers in a world that becomes smaller and smaller. Today I know right away when something happens, whatever happens, anywhere in the world. So there is no excuse for us not to be involved in these problems. A century ago, by the time the news of a war reached another place, the war was over. Now people die and the pictures of their dying are offered to you and to me while we are having dinner. Since I know, how can I not transform that knowledge into responsibility? So the key word is "responsibility." That means I must keep my brother.
Yet it seems that despite the fact that we live in an age of rapid, immediate communications, we know so little about what is happening to our brothers.
We are careless. Somehow life has been cheapened in our own eyes. The sanctity of life, the sacred dimen- sion of every minute of human existence, is gone. The main problem is that there are so many situations that demand our attention. There are so many tragedies that need our involvement. Where do you begin? We know too much. No, let me correct myself. We are informed about too many things. Whether information is transformed into knowledge is a different story, a differentquestion.
But we are in the world of communication. Nothing has caught the fantasy, the imagination, of the world these last years as communication has. So many radio stations, so many television stations, so many publications, so many talk shows. It's always more and more information that is being fed. And I'm glad that these things are happening, because I think people should be informed.
However, let us say that on a given day a tragedy has taken place. For a day we are all glued to the television. Three days later, we are still glued. A week later, another tragedy occurs and then the first tragedy is overshadowed by the next one. I remember when I saw the hungry children of Biafra for the first time. I didn't sleep. I tried everything I could to address the problem—to write articles and call up people and organize activities to send food to those children. But if you had shown those pictures for a whole month, by the second month people would not have been moved by them. What happened to the information there? It is still stored, but yet we don't act upon it, because we are summoned by the current event.
There seems to be almost an inevitability about what you are describing, because extending and perfecting the means of communications is certainly a major thrust of our times.
I would like to be able to say to my students that there are so many things in the world that solicit your attention and your involvement that you can choose any one. I really don't mind where that particular event is taking place. But I would like my students to be fully involved in some event. Today, for instance, they will say, "I go to zone A, and then I go to zone B." But as long as zone A has not been covered fully, as long as it is a human problem, I don't think we can abandon it. All the areas must be covered. I would not want to live in a world today in which a person or a community, because of color, because of religion, because of ethnic origin, or because of social conditions, would feel totally neglected or abandoned. There must be someone who speaks to and for that group, every group.
Is there any question but that we have seen the faces of those who suffer and yet we are not moved sufficiently?
I plead your case: In 1945, all the newspapers and magazines in the United States showed the pictures of the concentration camps. And yet for another five years, displaced persons remained in those camps. How many were allowed to come to America? They were told, "Those who want to go to Palestine, good. All the others, come and we shall give you what you really need most—human warmth"? Furthermore, look at what happened in South Africa. Apartheid was a blasphemy. We saw these white racists killing. I remember images that moved me to anger—images of funeral processions. Whites had killed blacks because they were black. And then the whites disrupted the funerals, killing more black people. That is the limit of endurance, the limit of any tolerance. We should have protested louder. And yet we didn't.
We talk about a world that is, perhaps, too much with us, so much so that there is no time to focus. How do you help your students deal with that?
I mentioned Cain and Abel. Why did Cain kill Abel? It is not because he was jealous. According to the text that we read and comment upon, it was because Cain spoke to Abel, his younger brother, and he told him of his pain, of his abandonment, of his solitude—that God didn't want to accept his offering. In the Bible it's said, "And Cain spoke to Abel." And we don't even know whether Abel listened. There was no dialogue. So the first act, really, among brothers, was a lack of communication.
So what I would teach my students is communication. I believe in dialogue. I believe if people talk, and they talk sincerely, with the same respect that one owes to a close friend or to God, something will come out of that, something good. I would call it presence. I would like my students to be present whenever people need a human presence. I urge very little upon my students, but that is one thing I do. To people I love, I wish I could say, "I will suffer in your place." But I cannot. Nobody can. Nobody should. I can be present, though. And when you suffer, you need a presence.
When you say "communicate," you mean to accept communication, don't you?
To be able to give and to receive at the same time.
Does it seem to you that we're not listening to the world around us, that we're so much involved in our individual pursuits?
Absolutely. I think the noise around us has become deafening. People talk but nobody listens. People aren't afraid of that silence. Have you seen those youngsters and not-so-young people go around in the street with a Walkman on their ears? They don't want to hear anything. They want to hear only their own music. Which is the same music, by the way, that they heard yesterday. It's a kind of repetition which is deafening. People don't want to hear the world. The world is, I think, in need of being heard.
Elie, I find that as I get older and older still, I so often find that I want to shut things out, because I can't focus on what needs to be focused on if I'm listening to everything. That seems to me to be where we began, in a sense.
To me too, of course. So often I want to turn off everything and say, "Look, it's easier to talk about Romeo and Juliet than to talk about what's happening today anywhere in the world." Naturally. Because in that play, there is a text and there is a story. It's a story I can turn in any direction I want, really. You think that Romeo and Juliet is a story of love? It's a story of hate. So whatever subject I discuss, I can always turn it one way or another. It's familiar, graspable. I prefer to discuss Plato, naturally. But we must open our eyes, and—
I don't want to be a devil's advocate here. I understand the subjective need not to feel that I am my brother's keeper, the subjective need to shut out the pain—
Sure. You couldn't take it. There is a need to remember, and it may last only a day or a week at a time. We cannot remember all the time. That would be impossible; we would be numb. If I were to remember all the time, I wouldn't be able to function. A person who is sensitive, always responding, always listening, always ready to receive someone else's pain . . . how can one live? One must forget that we die; if not, we wouldn't live.
So what do we do? Can we both attend to our own needs and to the various needs of our family and friends and still extend the notion of "Am I my brother's keeper?" way beyond Abel to the far points of the world?
Perhaps we cannot, but we must try. Because we cannot, we must, even though Kant used to say, "We can, therefore we must." There is so much forgetfulness, so much indifference today, that we must fight it. We must fight for the sake of our own future. Is this the nature of human beings? Yes, it's part of our nature.
I know it all seems like too much—even in our own city, New York. There is so much hate and so much mistrust and distrust that you wonder what can reach these people who live together, who can live together, who after all must live together. Where do you begin? Now, I always feel very strongly about the person who needs me. I don't know who that person is, but if the person needs me, I somehow must think of that person more than about myself. Why? Because I see my own life in him or her. I remember there were times when I needed people, and they were not there. If there is a governing precept in my life, it is that: If somebody needs me, I must be there.
When I ask the question that we began with—"Am I my brother's keeper?"—I most often receive a blank stare. Obviously that stare comes from people for whom the concept is, if not anathema, at least terribly foreign. More so now, don't you think?
More so, because it involves us more deeply, because it goes further. If I say yes, then I have to do something about it. Then it really goes further than that: What does it mean? Who is my brother? It's a definition. Who is my brother? Is any person in the street my brother? Is a person in Somalia my brother? Is a person in Armenia my brother? Come on. If I say, "My brother," what do I mean? Have I seen them? Have I met them? So of course it could be a poetic expression, which means very little. But if you say that there are people in the world who need a brother, I will say, "Then I would like to be that brother." I don't always succeed, of course. I cannot. I am only an individual. I am alone, as you are alone. What can we do? We can be the brother to one person and then another person, to ten people, a hundred people in our whole life. Does it mean that we are brothers to everybody in the world? No, we cannot be. So even if we say that at least we can tell a story about a brother who is looking for a brother and finds one, I think that's quite enough.
Yes, but aren't we experiencing a new kind of isolationism today? "Please, I can't solve these problems. Don't burden me with them. I'm not my brother's keeper!"
Today brothers become strangers. How do you expect strangers to become brothers? People who live in the same country today are strangers to one another. Take what's happened in Eastern Europe when the reactionary, exclusionary forces rule. They are neighbors, close to one another, but they see in each other a threat, a source of suspicion, a conqueror, not a brother. I think it's an historical phenomenon, which is worrisome.
Elie, what's the scriptural response to the question "Am I my brother's keeper?"
It is actually written as a dialogue, a scenario. Cain kills Abel. And God says to him, "Hi, good morning, how are you?" "All right," says Cain. Then God says, "By the way, where is your brother?" "I don't know," is the answer. "What do you mean, you don't know?" asks God. The answer: "I don't know. Am I my brother's keeper?" And then God says, "Come on, you know. I hear the voice of your brother's blood coming from the bowels of the earth. And you want to cheat me." The whole thing is a little bit silly. Does it mean that God didn't know where Abel was? God is playing a game. It's simply a story which I like to interpret as meaning that it is possible, unfortunately, throughout history, for two brothers to be brothers and yet to become the victim andor the assassin of the other. However, I go one step further and I try to teach my students that we learn another lesson: Whoever kills, kills his brother.
Kills his brother or kills some part of himself?
It's possible, as I interpret it, that Cain and Abel were only one person. Cain killed Abel in Cain.
The Darwinian response to "Am I my brother's keeper?" is: "Of course not. If you pretend to be, you are interfering with natural selection." How do we build again upon the more ancient notion that indeed we are our brothers' keepers in many, many, ways?
But remember again, Cain was not his brother's keeper. He killed him.
But the question asked by God—
The question is good.
I know that's your specialty—questions.
I love questions, true. Because there is "quest" in "question." I love that. But today, I would like to put a face on words. When I see words, I see a face. When you speak about, let's say, "my brother's keeper," I see faces of people I knew or know, or people I've just seen this morning. Crossing the street, there is an old man with his hand outstretched. Now, am I his keeper?
I must tell you that when I see that, I always feel strange. Because on the one hand, reason tells me that if I give him a dollar, he will go and buy alcohol. But then I say to myself, So what? Who am I to decide what he will do with the money that I give him? I cannot see an outstretched hand and not put something there. It's impossible. I know sometimes it's a weakness. I want to feel better, not to feel bad about it. But in fact I cannot.
You talked about communications before. If we don't "listen" by providing, presumably our brother will rise up and strike us down.
Or we would strike him down. Who are we? Children of Cain or children of Abel?
What's your answer?
You know, in my tradition, there is a marvelous way out. We are neither the children of Cain nor the children of Abel. There was a third son that Adam and Eve had afterward called Seth. And we are children of Seth. Which means you can be both.
Is that a cop-out?
No, not really. I think we are always oscillating between the temptation for evil and an attraction to goodness. It's enough for me to close my eyes and remember what men are capable of doing to become terribly, profoundly, totally pessimistic, because they haven't changed. But then again, I open my eyes and close them again and say, "It would be absurd not to absorb some images and turn them into good consciousness." And it's up to us to choose. We are free to choose.
Don't you think that in our country at this time we're less concerned with, have less compassion for, those who suffer?
Absolutely. But it's really about what you are doing all your life. Can we really help more than the people around us? I go around the world, I travel, and whenever I hear about someone suffering, I try to go there and bear witness. That's my role, at least to bear witness. To say, "I've seen, I was there." Sometimes it inspires others to do what I am doing. More often than not, it doesn't.
If the moral imperative that you pose is one that seemingly is rejected in our time, why do you maintain this posture: "We must be caring, rather than careless"?
Because I don't have a position of power. Maybe that's the reason. You and I can afford to speak on moral issues. We don't have to make a decision on them. I am sure that if you had someone facing you here who had power, a senator or a member of the Cabinet, he or she would say, "We cannot do this or that." Why? "Because so much money would be needed. We don't have the money. Housing would be required. We don't have the housing." So I can afford, really, only to pose questions, and I know that.
Yes, but I'm convinced that you raise questions because you know what the right moral answers are.
And you believe that by raising those questions, we will come to those answers.
I would like to think that. But even if I knew that I would not succeed, I would still raise those questions.
Otherwise, why am I here? I have the feeling, honestly, that my life is an offering. I could have died every min- ute between '44 and '45. So once I have received this gift, I must justify it. And the only way to justify life is by affirming the right to life of anyone who needs such affirmation.
Aren't you affirming, too, a conviction that something will be done in response to your question?
Here and there one person might listen and do something. Another person might listen and not do something. But I prefer to think that here and there there are small miracles. And there are: a good student, a good reader, a friend. I think we spoke about it years ago: Once upon a time, I was convinced I could change the whole world. Now I'm satisfied with small measures of grace. If we could open the door of one jail and free one innocent person . . . if I could save one child from starvation, believe me, to me it would be worth as much as, if not more than, all the work that I am doing and all the recognition that I may get for it.
You've spoken about those who put people in the death camps and brought about their deaths directly. You also speak about others who stood around indifferently. Do you feel that that is increasingly a theme in our own times?
Oh, more and more. I have the feeling that everything I do is a variation on the same theme. I'm simply trying to pull the alarm and say, Don't be indifferent. Simply because I feel that indifference now is equal to evil. Evil, we know more or less what it is. But indifference to disease, indifference to famine, indifference to dictators, somehow it's here and we accept it. And I have always felt that the opposite of culture is not ignorance; it is indifference. And the opposite of faith is not atheism; again, it's indifference. And the opposite of morality is not immorality; it's again indifference. And we don't realize how indifferent we are simply because we cannot not be a little bit indifferent. We cannot think all the time of all the people who die. If, while I sit with you, I could see the children who are dying now while we talk, we wouldn't be able to talk, you and I. We would have to take a plane, go there and do something. We wouldn't be able to continue to try to be logical and rational.
You've said that if we ignore suffering, we become accomplices, as so many did during the Holocaust. Where is it written that we are not moral accomplices?
But we are.
But what can you expect of us?
Learning. After all, I don't compare situations. I don't compare any period to the period of the Second World War. But we have learned something. I have the feeling that sometimes it takes a generation for an event to awaken our awareness. But if now, so many years after that event, we are still behaving as though it did not occur, then what is the purpose of our work as teachers, as writers, as men and women who are concerned with one another's lives?
We have a tradition in this country of extending ourselves through our wealth, our material well-being. That tradition was set aside somewhat for some time. Do you think we will recapture it more fully?
I hope so. I hope that there will be enough students and teachers and writers and poets and communicators to bring back certain values. If a father cannot feed his children, then his human rights are violated. We are such a wealthy society. I think of the United States and am overtaken by gratitude. This nation has gone to war twice in its history to fight for other people's freedoms. Then, after the wars, consider the economic help, the billions of dollars that we have given to those poor countries ravaged, destroyed by the enemy. And even now, what would the free world do without us? We have always been ready to help.
So why not? It would show that we still have compassion. Now, those are nice words, I know. But what else do we have? We have words, and sometimes we try to act upon them.
If I were to invoke the past for the present, the present would be enriched. If you were to ask me what is the most important message, for instance, that I would like to communicate, it would be that we are all princes. And that comes from the Bible.
The concept of the dignity of the individual?
Sovereignty. We are all sovereign.
How do you apply it to the issues that we face?
Well, when I see a refugee coming to the border, to me that person is a king in exile. If I see a black person being persecuted, I feel it is a prince being oppressed. And that only makes my outrage deeper.
What could the response be to the voice you raise?
Oh, I know the response. They would say, "Well, he is dreaming." So why not? Physicians will tell you that without dreams, the body couldn't survive. Not only the mind but the body needs dreams. And if this is true of the body, how much more so of the spirit, or the soul?
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