Three gems from Sunday at OHALAH
Rabbi Rachel Adler: What is Tradition, and How Do We Learn From It?

Rabbi Rachel Adler: What was the Sin of Sodom?

Though my early-to-bed still-on-East-Coast-time self struggled a bit with being bleary-eyed and sleepy, I managed to stay awake for our late-night text study, which began with an invocation of Rabbi Sami Barth who has been known to say "the best time to study is midnight!"

"What was the sin of Sodom?" - Late-night study with Rabbi Rachel Adler

Visiting scholar Rabbi Rachel Adler is Professor of Modern Jewish Thought, and Judaism and Gender, at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. In addition to her keynote address on Monday, she leads us tonight in a fascinating study: "There must be a moral environment for learning to occur, either in the city itself or in a resistance group. What if there is a moral vacuum? Learn why Sodom in Jewish tradition is the paradigmatic Unjust City."

Handouts include some Steinsaltz Talmud from Sanhedrin about the sins of Sodom; a smaller text which contains Biblical material and a reading from Avot; and an English text containing some of the particular ideas found in the sugya in Sanhedrin. (I'll include quotations in this post.)

We begin with an excerpt from Aryeh Cohen's 2012 Justice in the City, which uses Talmud to construct a Jewish ethics for what justice in the city would look like. "I wanted to give you the general idea first, instead of doing it slowly and by inference," said R' Adler, in case some of us drop out thanks to exhaustion! "Aryeh sets up a set of conclusions about what makes a just city based on his Talmudic research, and what I'm going to argue is that the Talmud has that paradigm in mind when it recreates Sodom as the archetypal unjust city." Here's the quote from Cohen:

Before proceeding to some particulars of the community of obligation, I will weave together the strands of the argument so far. A just city, a city that is defined as a community of obligation, is a polis in which the residents open themselves to the possibility of hearing the cries of the Stranger -- and being compelled by those cries to respond. This goes beyond directly responding to another person who crosses your path. The obligation is first, to set up our cities such that others' needs will be urgently pressing upon the body politic -- whether the vulnerability that demands our response be a result of poverty, ethnicity, lack of a home, or lack of citizenship. In other words, the city needs to be organized such that the cry of the Stranger can be heard. Homelessness must be decriminalized, economic segregation must be ameliorated.

"What did we hear from this? A just city is a community of obligation; what does that mean? For one thing, it means that you pay certain kinds of taxes," notes Rabbi Adler. "You pay for the general welfare. Also, it means that the members of the city, the people of the city, are responsible for the vulnerable among them." When you've relocated to the city, you're vulnerable for a time; there's a certain amount of time before you become obligated to contribute certain kinds of tzedakah. And when you've been there a little longer, than other obligations begin to devolve upon you.

Then we dive into what we actually see in Sodom. "What people often think is going to be the big showy sin of Sodom, if you hear it in an evangelical Christian context for example, turns out here not to be the central problem," R' Adler points out.

(We pause to read Genesis 18:17-23 in Hebrew.) "What is derekh Adonai?" asks R' Adler -- "the path of God" -- to which Avraham is committed? We agree: according to the text, it means doing justice / acting justly. We move into commentary from Robert Alter:

To do righteousness and justice. This is the first time that the fulfillment of the covenantal promise is explicitly made contingent on moral performance. The two crucial Hebrew nouns, tzedeq and mishpat, will continue to reverberate literally and in cognate forms through Abraham's please to God on behalf of the doomed cities, through the Sodom story itself, and through the story of Abraham and Abimelech that follows it.

outcry. The Hebrew noun, or the verb from which it is derived, tsa'aq or za'aq, is often associated in the prophets and psalms with the shrieks of torment of the oppressed.

"So already we have a sense that this isn't merely an issue of a singular kinky sex act," Rabbi Adler notes. Then we move into Ezekiel 16:41, which holds that the sin of Sodom was arrogance -- "She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not support the poor and the needy." The city is the mother and the surrounding towns are the daughters, explains Rabbi Adler. So according to Ezekiel, what is the sin of Sodom? Not supporting the needy. "It's a sin about how they constitute themselves as a city."

Someone notes that it's interesting that Ezekiel is using feminine language to speak of the city and the sisters, instead of masculine language. In our culture the dominant interpretation tends to be that sodomy is the ostensible crime here, but the Prophetic text -- by describing the city as a woman rather than a man -- almost unconsciously moves us away from that interpretation.

"Why is it that a city is called a mother?" asks Rabbi Adler. Because it should nurture and support, suggests someone in the room. "What was its function vis-a-vis the towns around it?" People banding together for the greater good. The city was the economic nurturer, where the markets and storehouses were. Another sense in which the city is a mother is, cities often had walls, so when there were raiders sweeping through the area, people from the towns would come behind the city walls. "The city was a mother in terms of being a protector." But if this is so, suggests Rabbi Adler, then Sodom is an unnatural mother, because she doesn't nurture.

Next we move into a passage from Talmud, from Avot:

There are four kinds of men: those who say what is mine is mine and what's yours is yours, this is the average character, and some say this is a characteristic of Sodom; one who says what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine, such a person is an ignoramus; one who says what's mine is yours and what's yours is yours, such a one is a saint; and one who says what's yours is mine, is wicked.

Why, Rabbi Adler asks, is 'what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours' considered to be the quality or sin of Sodom? The room calls out: it's isolated, there's no connection, it's an insular mentality. Someone else makes the case that the sin of Sodom is a kind of not-caring, an indifference. Someone else argues that the people of Sodom, by this metric, might not all have been actively evil, but they weren't doing what they could to make things better, and that lack of action is what allows evil to triumph.

Then we move on to reading excerpts from Sanhedrin 109 a-b. This is where we spent the bulk of our time, and although the Talmudic texts can be dense, they're fascinating.

First we read a text which argues that the men of Sodom have no portion in the world to come, because, as it is written, the men of Sodom were "wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly." Different Talmudic voices argue: they were wicked with their bodies and sinners with their money (e.g. immoral with their bodies, and didn't give charity to those in need.) Or, wicked with their money, and sinners with their bodies. And so on. "There are no extra words [in Tanakh]," notes Rabbi Adler, so the sages went out of their way to find different explanations for why our texts tell us that the men of Sodom were both wicked and sinners.

Rabbi Adler makes the case that Lot is a kind of dark comic character, almost a parody. "The scene in which the angels are trying to get Lot to leave is a kind of comic scene, which is why you have that shalshelet in the trope on 'and he delayed.'" (The room spontaneously sings the word with its cantorial shalshelet, notes chaining up and down and up and down and up and down.) "Lot, who tries to throw his daughters to the mob, is, you might say, the only man in Tanakh who gets raped. I just note that," Rabbi Adler says tartly.

We explore a few more Talmudic notions of wickedness, e.g., the person who doesn't want to make a loan to a poor person because a shmita (sabbatical) year is coming and the debt will be canceled. This is "wickedness having to do with ways that you're stingy with your money." Then there are arguments that that the wickedness of Sodom was blasphemy, or that it was about unnecessary bloodshed. "And then the texts escalate," Rabbi Adler says, "in telling us what was so wrong with the people of Sodom." Here goes:

The second text argues that the sin had to do with unfair work rules. Someone who had one ox would tend all the oxen of the town for one day, but he who had no oxen had to tend them for two days. The story goes that an orphan in town was given the oxen to tend, and he killed them, and argued that he should be allowed to keep their hides. The story seems to say something about the injustice of the system. A trickster figure shows up to mock power and authority by killing all of the oxen and claiming that the law of the town entitles him to profit.

The third text speaks about three unjust practices in Sodom: that someone who comes in via ferry had to pay one zuz, but someone who comes in another way had to pay two; and if someone had rows of bricks laid out, each person would come and take one and argue "I have taken only one," and if someone were drying onions, ditto. "What are the things that are unjust here?" asks Rabbi Adler. First: if you don't enter the way the city prefers you to enter, you pay a penalty. The other is, if a workmen is putting out bricks or food, everybody goes by and just takes a little bit, as though it doesn't count that the things belong to someone else.

Rabbi Adler cites Kant's categorial imperative. "I can only affirm that an act is a moral act for me if I can affirm that everybody ought to do it." (And, corollary, if it's the case that if everyone did it, things would fall apart, then one shouldn't do it oneself.) And people call out examples: sampling grapes in the supermarket, taking a pen from the office where you work, walking on the grass when there's a paved path nearby.

The fourth excerpt from Sanhedrin is about the four fictitious judges in Sodom (whose names meant Liar, Awful Liar, Forger, and Perverter of Justice.) "If a man insulted his neighbor's wife and bruised her, they would say to the husband, 'give him to her, that she may become pregnant for thee.'" (And so on.) "If someone wounded his neighbor, they would say to the victim, 'give him a fee for bleeding thee.'" What is all of this? Perversion of justice ad absurdum. "This is injustice which is so blatant that it would be funny if it weren't so awful."

The next text tells a tale of Eliezer, Abraham's servant, being attacked; the judge said "give him a fee for bleeding thee," so Eliezer took a stone and attacked the judge, and then argued, the money you now owe me (because I attacked you), give it to the guy who attacked me. Eliezer here is playing the trickster role, notes Rabbi Adler; "he's figured out how to pay the fine in the same manner that the judge has assessed it."

And Rabbi Adler describes the sixth text from Sanhedrin as the straw which breaks the camel's back: a girl gives bread to a poor man, hiding it in a pitcher, and when the men of Sodom find out, they daub her with honey and put her on the wall and the bees come and consume her. This one required us to look at the Aramaic; there's a pun between the idea that the sin is rabbah, is great; and that the sin is rivah, which in Aramaic means a maiden. (If this isn't making sense, I apologize; it's late at night for me, past midnight back home!)

"Sodom is a place that doesn't like people who are different from them, doesn't like strangers," says Rabbi Adler, "and Aryeh Cohen is going to use the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas to talk about this unwillingness to look into the face of the Other who is not just like me but is in fact Other, and I may never in fact get into that Other's brain, but that doesn't matter. That Other is my responsibility, and unless I can work toward being responsible, I'm not going to be able to be fully human."

Rabbi Adler continues:

Homosexual rape is a particularly outrageous act for the Biblical writers...but it doesn't really occupy the rabbis in Sanhedrin much at all. What they have as their last straw is enacted on the body of a woman. There's a whole kind of literary trope that has to do with violence being enacted on women indicating something about the state of the body politic.

For another example of that trope, Rabbi Adler cites Judges 19, which draws on this story in Genesis 19 in some quite horrific ways. (Trigger warning: rape survivors may wish to choose not to click on that link.)

A member of the community observes that the act of two male adults choosing to make love with one another has nothing to do with the violence of the attacks depicted in the story of Sodom, which are really about power over the powerless. In a sense, the Talmudic story about the girl who feeds the hungry, gets caught by the town, and is daubed with honey and consumed by bees is really a story about the whole city being "consumed" by its own wickedness. The city is so wicked and so uncaring that it consumes itself, by becoming a place which God chooses to destroy.

Someone else notes: the Avot passage argues that someone who says "what's mine is mine, what's yours is yours" is essentially claiming that relationship is contingent and that responsibility is contingent -- "I'll 'thou' you if you'll 'thou' me" -- a kind of quid pro quo. Whereas for Levinas, Rabbi Adler adds, we each have more responsibility to the Other than we could possibly fulfill. "There's more that needs to be done, but you just can't do it! He says that we all have to do as much as we can, and live with the mauvaise conscience for what we can't do."

Rabbi Adler continues:

What's so distorted in this sugya is law itself. And for the rabbis, that's  a serious thing! Because when you distort law itself so that it's laughable, and people can only deal with it by trying to work the system, or by mocking it, you've distorted the foundation of civilization.

In closing, Rabbi Adler cites a constitutional scholar, Robert Cover, who said that law is a bridge between where we are now and altarity, a kind of different legal universe that we could envision.

For Robert Cover, law isn't just what's on the books; law is a gnomic world that you inhabit, a universe of meaning that you inhabit. It's complete and it's undergirded by all kinds of stories. And it works out values in the way that we live out the implications of that moral universe. What we see in this sugya is that it's a distortion of the moral universe. There isn't any moral universe; it's a moral vacuum.

And that, it appears, is the sin of Sodom. And that's the end of my Sunday.