by William Friedman

“This was the sin of your sister Sodom . . .”
If you’re familiar with the way the Biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is used in America nowadays, you’d probably complete this sentence by saying “homosexuality.” But the story, which we read this week in Parashat Vayera(Genesis 18:16-19:38), never clearly spells this out. Last week, when we read about Lot’s decision to live in Sedom (Hebrew for Sodom), the story was foreshadowed: “The people of Sedom did evil things and sinned greatly against the LORD” (Gen. 13:13). And this week we read: “The scream of Sedom and Amorah [Hebrew for Gomorrah] was great, and their sin extremely severe” (Gen. 18:20). But the Torah is pretty sparing with the details of their evil and the severity about their sins.
There is, of course, the famous story of the Sodomites’ attempt to gang-rape two Divine messengers who showed up in their city. But even here the sin isn’t clear. Was it their desire to have forcible sex with the visitors? If so, did the supposed gender of the visitors exacerbate the crime? Or was this episode ‘merely’ a particularly heinous example of something more fundamentally corrupt?
Consider the Sodomites’ reaction to Lot’s ill-considered offer of his virgin daughters: “They said: ‘This one [i.e., Lot] came as a temporary visitor [ba la-gur], and now he’s going to judge us?! We’ll do worse to you than to them!'” (Gen. 19:9) As we now know, power is at the core of sexual assault. And indeed, at the moment that someone tried to deny their desires – i.e., to limit their power – the Sodomites become enraged. They’re all id – they want what they want when they want it, with absolutely no empathy for the needs of others. No wonder that one position in Mishnah Avot 5:10 thinks that the attitude of “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” is a Sodomite trait.
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that when the Bible invokes the image of Sodom, it rarely does so to condemn sexual immorality. (That dubious honor goes to the Cananites and the Egyptians.) Isaiah, for example, compares the Israelites to Sodomites when he condemns them for failing to do justice, particularly for orphans and widows, and comporting themselves arrogantly. So it’s also not surprising that when the Talmud tries to figure out what when wrong in Sedom, it almost never comments on their sexual practices. Instead, it speaks of their corrupt judicial practices (including making the victim pay his own court fees) and their vicious inhospitality to strangers and the poor. And here’s the final story told by the Talmud (Bavli Sanhedrin 109b — line 57 in this link):
A certain young woman [ravita][1] used to distribute bread to the poor from a pitcher [so the Sodomites wouldn’t know about it].
It [nevertheless] became known [to the Sodomites].[2]
They poured honey over her, and stuck her on the ledge of the [city] wall, where bees came and consumed her.
And that is the precise meaning of the verse: “And the LORD said: ‘The scream of Sedom and Amorah is great [rav]'” (Gen. 18:20). Rav Yehudah said: “‘Great’ [rav] implies the case of the young woman [ravita].”  Two versions further add: “And that is [also] the precise meaning of the next verse: ‘I will descend and check out the scream that came to me’ – the scream of this young woman” (Gen. 18:21).
That takes us to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where a law has been passed, and is being enforced, that prohibits feeding the homeless in public spaces near residential areas and requires putting up portable toilets in order to feed people in public. In other words, government-enacted, police-enforced sodomy has come to our shores. We may want to turn a blind eye, or imagine that this is limited to one misguided county in one misbegotten state. (It’s not.) But the passage of this law is really just the logical conclusion of “Sodom” spikes and redesigning urban areas (such as bus stops and park benches) to prevent the homeless from having a place to sleep.
I’ll never forget the time that, on a Purim morning before davening, I sat in a Starbucks on the Upper West Side of Manhattan filling ziplocks for mishloah manot [gifts of food to friends]. Two police officers came in and ejected a homeless man from the bathroom; when, on his way out, I handed the man several bags of mishloah manot (remembering that gifts to the poor [matanot la-evyonim] are the central mitzvah of Purim, taking precedence over all others but the reading of the megillah), I thought the police officers might rip my head off. Now, I’m not in favor of allowing the homeless to take over private bathrooms (let’s give them homes instead!), but the fundamental lack of empathy from the police officers, and their antipathy for and barely-contained rage at my meager attempt to give a little food to someone in need, tells me that something is really off in our culture.
Oh, by the way, the quote I opened with is the beginning of Ezekiel 16:49. It reads in full: “This was the sin of your sister Sedom: she and her surrounding areas were well-fed and had peace and quiet. But she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and downtrodden.” Even if there was an Abraham around nowadays, I doubt his advocacy would be any more successful now than it was then.

William Friedman is a doctoral student in Jewish Studies at Harvard University and is the founding director and a rosh yeshivah of Nishma: A Summer of Torah Study in the JTS Beit Midrash.


[1]     Another version of this story has the young woman taking pity on a particular poor person, enhancing the pathos of the story and, more importantly, emphasizing the one-on-one relationality and empathy often needed to get people to care about the poor and to risk their lives for them.
[2]     That same version enhances the cruelty of the Sodomites by having them say: “What is going on that this poor man is remaining alive longer than the usual amount of time?” They then actively investigate and discover the “perpetrator.”