I last saw Bruce Springsteen perform at the old Giants Stadium in New Jersey, several months before it was demolished in 2010. Over five nights, he committed himself and his tireless band to playing entire albums from his body of work, in tribute to that place which symbolized the greatness of his native state and in which he played his first big concerts. That night I got to listen to him play all of Born To Run, and he did not disappoint me. I rarely regret his outsized sound, gritty voice, and emotionally explosive poetry that explore working class struggles and the general human condition with such passion and compassion.
I am especially drawn to Springsteen’s use of biblical and religious imagery in his lyrics. Recently, I taught a class on the story of Cain and Abel, in which we examined his song, “Adam Raised A Cain” (Darkness On The Edge of Town, 1978) as a type of modern midrash, a creative interpretation of the Torah’s narrative. This violent song’s staying power is its ability to address with brutal honesty our relationships with our families. After recalling his baptism as a baby at his father’s hands, Springsteen describes for us an encounter with his father upon returning home as a young man:
We were prisoners of love, a love in chains;
He was standing in the door, I was standing in the rain,
With the same hot blood burning in our veins.
Adam raised a Cain.
The song then bombards the listener with images of this tortured love between a father who is weighed down with angry resentment at his life, and his son who realizes that he cannot entirely escape this man in whose image he is created. Springsteen tantalizes us with the refrain, “Adam raised a Cain,” a double entendre that alludes to his view of the biblical story’s meaning as well as to the impulse “to raise cain” – that is, wreak havoc – that we may inherit from our parents. Near the song’s end, he sings:
In the Bible Cain slew Abel
And east of Eden he was cast;
You’re born into this life paying
For the sins of somebody else’s past.
Springsteen’s reading of Cain reflects his dark view of his own life and every life: not even Christian baptism can remove the stain of all those “original sins” inherited from our own parents who are echoes of the first sinning parents, Adam and Eve. We think we are free to become ourselves, but in truth we are oppressed by our family histories from the moment we leave the womb.
This is a powerful interpretation of the biblical narrative but it seems incomplete, and frankly, un-Jewish. In the Torah’s telling, Adam and Eve’s sinful behavior condemns their sons to a life in exile beyond Eden’s paradise. However, the parents are nowhere to be found when “God the Parent” accepts Abel’s gifts and rejects those of Cain. Seeing Cain’s sadness, dejection and growing sibling hatred, God warns him:
Surely, if you do right
There is uplift.
But if you do not do right
Sin crouches at the door;
It urge is toward you,
Yet you can be its master.
As later Jewish commentators explain, God refuses to give Cain an opening to excuse himself for his anticipated behavior. He can choose not to behave badly despite his parent’s lawless actions, his anger at Abel and his anguish at God’s rejection of him. Of course, Cain chooses to murder his brother, creating the paradigm for future human hatred and violence in which all homicide becomes a form of fratricide.
I don’t want to over-interpret Springsteen’s use of the Cain and Abel story, which he employs as a potent metaphor for the family dynamics that do shape us. At times these bequests enrich us immeasurably, at other times they twist pieces of our souls in horribly damaging ways. We resonate with his lyrics because we can empathize with his insights. However, we are more than victims of “the sins of somebody else’s past.” We are free moral agents with the capacity and the duty to confront our ugliest emotions, our darkest desires, and our deepest pain. However difficult it is to do, we can master those impulses and in turn treat each other with decency and justice. Significantly, Cain does not blame his behavior on his family, heredity, or circumstances. He does something worse by uttering his infamously apathetic rhetorical question in response to God’s query about Abel’s whereabouts: “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Hidden in that question is the answer addressed to all of us: indeed, we are.