What are Cain and Abel's reflection

The rabbi as an investigator

The Basel Judaist Alfred Bodenheimer has published his first detective novel, “Cain's Sacrifice”. Theological acumen is combined with detective acumen.

Roman Bucheli ⋅ Why does the Torah not begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet but with the second? Why does Cain kill his younger brother Abel, and why does God allow Job to be tried and punished by the devil? The Zurich Rabbi Gabriel Klein learned the art of taking a second look not only by reading the Bible, but also in dealing with his parishioners, and has refined it over the years. If every passage in the Bible requires repeated exposition, why shouldn't a simple New Year's card with good wishes also contain a hidden message? What does a second look reveal when someone writes that he is doing well and needn't worry about him? Aren't the greatest fears justified?

Rabbi Klein did not teach suspicion to read between the lines and listen to secondary notes. Rather, a paternal care that was soon justified, but also exaggerated. That makes him popular in the community, but it also gives him a lot of work. And trouble. Soon even more than just this: it gets him into great trouble. In the middle of the preparations for the upcoming Torah reading, his phone rings. However, as the display shows, the friend Nachum Berger, teacher of Hebrew and religion at the Jewish primary school, does not call. Rather, Karin Bänziger reports, introducing herself as the detective inspector of the city of Zurich and informing Rabbi Klein that Nachum Berger was found dead in his apartment. There is reason to fear that he did not die of natural causes.

Alfred Bodenheimer is Professor of Jewish Literature and Religious History at the University of Basel and has published his first crime novel, “Kain's Victim” (more are to follow). In the figure of Rabbi Gabriel Klein, who works at Zurich's Israelitischer Cultusgemeinde, he has drawn an effective character with a sure hand and precise instinct, who, with his all-too-human weaknesses and strengths, has what it takes to become a serial hero. At his side is his wife Rivka, who may not take on him with her theological acumen, but certainly with her knowledge of human nature. Rivka is the type of woman from whom someone like Klein cannot have any secrets even when he resolves to remain silent like a grave. Because she is at least as much a second look expert as he is, and so she reads his face like an open book. As a couple, you can't beat them.

Because the only female Hebrew translator in the service of the city police has just failed, the inspector asks Rabbi Klein - which flatters him - to help with the investigation. Klein is supposed to translate some of the e-mails written in Hebrew in Nachum Berger's computer into German. He got down to business with enthusiasm and, to his horror, found compromising news. This shows that Berger had a relationship with a woman from one of the Orthodox communities in Zurich. Her husband found out and is said to have threatened to kill Berger. What should the rabbi do? Deliver the man to the knife? He does it out of a hasty conscience of duty and has the worst remorse afterwards.

Bodenheimer cleverly entangles his righteous rabbi in a dilemma. The guilt feelings about the betrayal of the (of course supposed) perpetrator drive him to unauthorized investigations. As a biblical theologian, he also finds the (just as supposed) legitimation in the scriptures: He considers it his “holy or even damned duty and obligation” to find the killer of the religion teacher. Bodenheimer lets his rabbinical private investigator discover new details in detective work that direct suspicions once in this direction and then in that direction.

What about Job and what about Cain? Such questions are always on the mind of Rabbi Klein. Bodenheimer incidentally sprinkles the rabbi's little exegetical considerations into his plot. First of all, it should just jump into the eyes that there is one thing in common between the methods of biblical interpretation and detective investigations: the search for hidden motives. Meanwhile, the Bible also advances the plot: Rabbi Klein's reflections on Cain's fratricide lead him on the trail of the perpetrator. And in Job he encounters the reflection of himself: just as he wanted to be smarter than God, so he, Rabbi Klein, believed he could be smarter than the police. Bodenheimer dovetailed the two complexes - the interpretation of the Bible and the investigation of the murder - in a sophisticated and virtuoso manner. One would not have expected that the Bible and crime fiction would go together so easily. One could of course have guessed that there is a lot of crime in the Old Testament. Now we know.

Alfred Bodenheimer: Cain's sacrifice. Detective novel. Verlag Nagel & Kimche, Zurich 2014. 224 pp., Fr. 27.90.