Justice, Politics, Religion

The politics of Sodom

In yesterday’s NYT, Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winning economist and voice of conscience, stated very clearly the current divide in American politics.

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

Unfortunately, this is a very old debate, and its not only between Democrats and Republicans. This is the argument of the Sodomites who, according to the prophet Ezekiel, hoarded their resources and refused to allow outsiders in. The Rabbis saw Sodom as the epitome of small minded, harmful greed—greed that eventually leads to its own destruction.

Since the New Deal was passed, when America seemed to recognize its responsibility to its needy citizens as part of its political obligations, the forces of ownership and greed have been pushing back. The politics of Sodom have been gaining ground. Todays “radical” policies, as Krugman points out, are policies that Republicans proposed three decades ago. It is time then, it seems to me, for a primer on the politics of Sodom.

In Pirkei Avot  the rabbis said (5:10):

There are four [character] types:

One who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours”…this is the character of Sodom.

“What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine,” this is an ignorant person.

“What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours,” this is a righteous person

“What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine,” this is an evil person.

Why is the one who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” a Sodomite?  The Bible supplies the answer.  The prophet Ezekiel (16:49) describes Sodom as follows: “Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance!  She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not support the poor and the needy.”  Sodom was punished for hoarding rather than distributing her resources.  For the Sages, the apparently legal justification that ownership is the ultimate basis for the distribution of resources was insidious.  That is, according to the Rabbis, there is more to collective life than asserting that what is mine is mine.

This is highlighted in a midrash on Genesis 18:21 (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah  49:6). There God decides to investigate the happenings in Sodom.  “I will go down to see whether they have acted according to the outcry that has reached me.”  In this midrash, God discovers that the outcry did, indeed, justify the destruction of the city. Why? Because it was the cry of a young woman who refused to assume that “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” had moral value.  This woman had tried to share her food with another woman who was suffering from starvation.  But the powers that be in Sodom were horrified by this undermining of the principle of private ownership, and they burned the culprit.

There is a very instructive description of Sodom and Sodomites in another midrashic collection Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael:(Tractate Shirata: 2):

In the case of the people of Sodom, God punished them  by means of the very thing with which they prided themselves before God,… The people of Sodom said: “We do not need any man to come to [visit] us.  Behold, food is taken from us [by strangers] and silver and gold and precious stones are taken away from us.  We will let no strangers travel among us anymore.”

The Holy One of Blessing said to them: “Fools that you are!  You act so proudly with the good things which I lavished upon you, and you say, ‘We will let no strangers travel among us anymore.’  I will cause you to be forgotten from the world . . . So what is it that brought this [destruction] upon them?  “She did not support the poor and the needy.”

The Sodomites, according to this midrash, are those who voice a very familiar refrain.  The resources that are within our boundaries are ours by right.  Why whould we share them with others?  Let us seal our borders so that “no strangers will travel among us anymore.”  The Sodomites’ mistake was to see the blessing of abundant resources as an ultimate and exlusive right to those resources.   The Holy One points out their mistake: their exclusive right to the resources is no more absolute than the fact of those resources being in their territory in the first place — a fact determined only by God or by fate.

And if this message wasn’t clear enough, the midrash reinforces it:  So what is it that brought this [destruction] upon them?  “She did not support the poor and the needy.”

Sometimes labels are important. Sometimes it is important to clarify the etiology of a political debate. The current Republican leadership, the anti-health care brigades, are not conservatives, they are carrying on the legacy of Sodom.

17 thoughts on “The politics of Sodom

  1. I want to point out, perhaps to LB22, Justin, dlevy and whoever else is interested, that Aryeh Cohen has just called people who believe in less taxation, not more, Sodomites. As in, worthy of destruction by G-d. Is that really different from calling progressives a “cancer”? It’s verbal violence, it’s offense.
    Nevertheless, I am not hiring a private investigator to find out where Aryeh Cohen is employed, with the intent of forcing him from his job. I just wanted to point that out how normal people can carry a debate, because some of you, as well meaning as you are, may need a refresher.
    Aryeh Cohen, you’re equating taxation with tzedakah. How about you prove they are equivalent before damning millions of people to death by G-d’s hand. Is the only social safety net the one offered by government? Should it be the only one? Is it the most efficient one?
    Why are your self-termed sodomites, traditionally associated with lower taxation, giving a 30% higher percentage of their income, on average, in charitable contributions? Do the anti-taxers just selfish boors who do not want to help the poor, or do they merely think that government assistance is not the best way to achieve the goals of tzedakah?

  2. For clarification, this is the actual passage from Pirkei Avot.
    [He who says] “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” – this is a median characteristic; and some say this is the characteristic of [the people of] Sodom. Avot 5:10
    Why a median characteristic? How can there be a disagreement among the sages whether a middah is “average” or like Sodom?! The issue is not that this person doesn’t give charity. He does, he gives the required amount. However, he gives because he has to, because he fears G-d and G-d instructed him to give charity, so he gives. It’s not that the person holds back charity, but that he is not generous with his money.
    There is a disagreement on this point. On the one hand, the person fulfills his obligation to give charity, no question about it. On the other hand, he is not generous. Some say that this behavior is like the people of Sodom, that it’s root is evil. But we are not talking about someone who gives nothing to the poor – everyone agrees that that behavior is evil. So, the situation is considerably less black and white than you make it, Aryeh Cohen.
    Here I have in my hands Rabbeinu Yonah’s commentary on the Pirkei Avot, page 299:

    “What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine” is an am ha’aretz.
    He is called am ha’aretz (i.e. an ignoramus) because he wants to perfect the world by taking from one and giving to another, in order to increase love among mankind. This may be good for society, but it does not say much about his wisdom. An am ha’aretz does not know that “one who hates gifts will live” is a praiseworthy middah, and that the best middah of all is to give and not receive. Therefore, he is always called an am ha’aretz, because he wants to make the world a better place but does not have the wisdom to actually do so.

    I hope that’s self-explanatory.

  3. Victor,
    I haven’t read this post super close yet. I am assuming that Dr. Rabbi Cohen is using this imagery as a symbol, a metaphor. I really do not believe that this stellar scholar is abandoning nuance and making the theological claim you’re reading into it. I think you’ve jumped the gun in assuming that he is calling for God to destroy people who believe in less taxation. I also want to point out that Dr. Rabbi Cohen is a professor at a small university with very little prestige, and he himself is a scholar and professor. He does not have a major television program on the most watched cable news network. He has a classroom, and a blog. Not all venues are created equal.

  4. Why does everything have to get so personal. See, that’s how people get all riled up and feel the need to punish others for “hate speech” – because they assume it’s personal. If you don’t like the argument, it must mean you hate the person, which is just silly. No one is attacking the credibility of Dr. Cohen. He is a wonderful person. He wrote a post. I put some arguments up which contradict his thesis. He used strong language. I used strong language. I hope you read his post, in depth, and my comments, in depth, and we can all have a discussion on their respective merits. That’s it.

  5. I wasn’t trying to make it personal, I’m just saying that he’s smarter than one who may make the argument that conservatives who believe in less taxation are exactly equitable to the story in Genesis 19 and that they should be destroyed.

  6. Victor is right to call out Aryeh for putting an ellipsis in place of the very important phrase “this is a median characteristic.”

  7. The current Republican leadership, the anti-health care brigades, are not conservatives, they are carrying on the legacy of Sodom.
    Come on, now. I think it’s fair to say he is equating people who don’t want to pay more in taxes to Sodomites, who were exterminated by divine intervention. I’m just as anxious to read his response to my arguments, questioning that logic, as you are. Let’s give the man some room to defend his remarks.

  8. Victor, thank you for engaging my post so thoroughly. It gives me an opportunity to expand what I was saying. In talking about the politics of Sodom, I was referring to Krugman’s articulation: “The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft.” Krugman’s assertion is not based on nothing. The Club for Growth says basically that on their website. (This past Friday, NPR’s ‘Left, Right and Center’ Tony Blankley more or less said the same thing.)
    This is exactly what “midat sodom” is, the characteristic of Sodom. (Yes, it is true, there is a debate about how to characterize “what is mine is mine and what is your is yours.” That is why is cited it with an ellipsis.) There is no real debate about how to define it as the characteristic of Sodom. If you continue reading Rabben Yonah, he says: ” ‘and there are those who say it is midat s’dom [the characteristic of Sodom] and its root is very evil since in his nature he is very stingy, but if he does not support the poor at all, everybody aggres that he is completely evil and this is the characteristic of Sodom.” (He then writes what you quoted about “what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine.”)
    The important thing is that he is talking about about general support for the poor vs. ownership. Rabbenu Yonah says that he is a “kili” that is someone who is obsessed with his own property or money.
    In the commentary that is attributed to Rashi in the Vilna Shas is the following; “…the people of Sodom, nobody benefitted from them and they did not benefit from anybody else. About them it is written: ‘They open up a shaft from where men live, [In places] forgotten by wayfarers, Destitue of men, far removed.’ (Job 28:4) and it says: “Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not support the poor and the needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49)
    The Bartenura in his commentary to Avot says: “And this was midat s’dom, that they intended not to have any outsiders in their place [le-chalot haregel mibeyneyhem] and even though the land was open before them and they lacked for nothing.” The Bartenura also reading the mishnah through Ezekiel.
    I think that my reading, which is interpreting Avot 5:10 based on Ezekiel 16 and the midrash from Breishit rabba and the Mekhilta which I quoted above is a perfectly acceptable reading and accords with many of the commentators.
    Finally, your statistic about 30% higher taxable contributions amongst Conservatives which Nick Kristoff wrote about in the Times is interesting/troubling. (Though apparently religious liberals and religious conservatives give about the same.) However, this doesn’t change my basic point-it perhaps strengthens it. The reason there is a need for a social welfare system, a government run social welfare system is so that we do not need to rely on the individual generosity of this or that person in order to be sure that the needy, hungry and homeless get food shelter, clothing healthcare, education and so on. Refusing to do this by saying that the government has no right to tell me what to do with my money is, in my humbel opinion (and as I have argued, in the opinion of a large swath of the Jewish tradition) midat s’dom.

  9. a couple of interesting points: first of all the people who give the most to charity -regardless of conservative or liberal- are those in the lowest tax brackets.
    Second, I would think that Rabbi Cohen’s post- even more than taking people to task for not supporting giving to others, offers texts that really smack people who are anti-immigration, and who oppose allowing immigrants to receive support from the social safety nets that exist. IMO the texts are perfectly clear on that.
    Third, suggesting that God punishes certain behaviors isn’t quite the same as putting gunsights on targets- God is notorious for not doing as we think She ought.

  10. What FM is REALLY saying is: We can get away with incitement all we like, but once someone actually acts on our words we have nothing to do with it.

  11. B.BarNavi, I am assuming you’re speaking hypothetically since it’s common knowledge by know the shooter is insane.
    Of course that would mean I am giving you the benefit of the doubt. I doubt however that you deserve it.
    In the meantime, try googling the name “Omar, I Killed the Five Racists, Thornton”. The media’s relentless coverage of white racism obviously made him do it.

  12. Krugman’s label “modern welfare state” and his definition “a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net” does not do justice to the U.S. New Deal and European social democracies. Progressive taxation is important to fund services of benefit to all. It certainly has a role to play in curtailing excessive inequality but the major mechanism that these societies use (in the case of the U.S., used) to prevent extreme income inequality and poverty of the working poor is empowering workers through such means as large scale collective bargaining (in the U.S. before judicial and legislative evisceration of collective bargaining laws and Europe currently), works councils and elected representation on boards of directors (in Europe currently).

  13. “(in the U.S. before judicial and legislative evisceration of collective bargaining laws and Europe currently)”
    We must be living in a harry potter universe, where mass immigration is “that which must not be named”.

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