Here in the UK , the first legal Same-Sex commitment ceremonies are beginning to take place. Although the move has been widely accepted across the country, a few (rather sad) protesters dutifully stand outside the ceremonies with ‘No to Sodomy’ posters. Apart from wanting to ridicule their pathetic protest, I was intrigued by their use of the term Sodomy. They, like the vast majority of people assume the term to have a precise, fixed meaning, referring simply to male gay intercourse, or anal intercourse between a man and a woman.. Jewish tradition does not see it that way at all…
The concept of Sodomy as we now know it was created by Christians in the 13 th century. Up to that point, there were varying views on the nature of the sin of Sodom. While the narrative (Genesis 18-19) does contain a sexual element; the wish of the townspeople to rape Lot’s visitors/angels, it seems likely that they wish to use this as a way to punish, to violently attack the outsiders, rather than a means to gain sexual gratification (this approached is taken up by Steve Greenberg in Wrestling with God and Men). The Jewish interpretation uses various biblical texts to build a case that the sin of the sodomites was essentially economic and political. Firstly, in Genesis 13, the area of Sedom and Amora is described as an area of great natural resources ‘well watered everywhere’, ‘like the garden of the Lord’. Clearly this is a place where it would be in the inhabitants’ interests to keep out outsiders. Secondly, various prophetic texts, including Isiah 1 and Jeremiah 23:14 , criticise Sodom for ethical and social sins, with the strongest example being Ezekiel 16:49 ‘ Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom : She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy’.
On these foundations rabbinic Judaism built midrashic legends, describing the behaviour of the inhabitants of Sodom. One example comes from Talmud Sanhedrin 109a
The men of Sodom waxed haughty only on account of the good which the Holy One, blessed be He, had lavished upon them… They said: Since there cometh forth bread out of (our) earth, and it hath the dust of gold, why should we suffer wayfarers, who come to us only to deplete our wealth? Come, let us abolish the practice of traveling in our land. There were four judges in Sodom named Shakrai (Liar), Shakurai (Awful Liar), Zayyafi (Forger), and Mazle Dina (Perverter of Justice). Now if a man assaulted his neighbour’s wife and bruised her, they would say to the husband, Give her to him, that she may become pregnant for thee. If one cut off the ear of his neighbour’s ass, they would order, Give it to him until it grows again.
Two elements are at play here. Firstly, the parody of a criminal law system – a version of justice which defers to the strong and powerful over the powerless and needy. Secondly, a place which is very rich, and therefore wishes to close its borders, demanding that wealth be kept within. An example found in Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, an 8 th-9 th century midrashic text, elaborates further:
Rabbi Ze’era said: The men of Sodom were the wealthy men of prosperity, on account of the good and fruitful land whereon they dwelt… Rabbi Nathaniel said: The men of Sodom had no consideration for the honour of their Owner by not distributing food to the wayfarer and stranger, but they even fenced in all the trees on top above their fruit so that they should not be seized; not even by the bird of heaven… Rabbi Joshua… said: They appointed over themselves judges who were lying judges, and they oppressed every wayfarer and stranger who entered Sodom by their perverse judgment, and they sent them forth naked…
We see here the same themes again. The villagers attempt the seemingly impossible-turning the fruits of trees, of the land, into private property – not only do they refuse to give food to the poor, they stop a hungry person even picking themeself an apple. A midrash found in Genesis Rabba (42) is equally damning, it tells a story of the Sodomites refusing to give bread to a beggar, instead giving him coins with their names marked on them. When the man inevitably died of stavation the people were able to reclaim their coins.
While rabbinic Sodom is a paradigm of closed, unjust societies everywhere, it does not take a huge anount of imagination to identify it with the modern, capitalist West. Having gained their wealth and infrastructures in the 18 th and 19 th centurys, rich industrialised countries seek to close their borders, building walls, fences to protect what they have and keep others out. While capital is allowed to travel freely across the globe, humans, whether seeking work or fleeing persecution, are not.. Just as these texts paint Sodom as persecuting outsiders and immigrants, it also shows the inhabitants perpetrating injustice within. Contemporary politics has moved in similar directions – since the Thatcher/Reagan revolution, and continuing into the fluffier, but equally unjust Clinton/Blair era, governments have aggressively cut benefits, destroyed public sector provison (the services used by the poorest) and vastly increased inequality. The story of reclaimed coins is reminiscent of contemporary approaches to charity; so much aid funding is tied to the reciepent country buying the services of Western ‘development’ experts, or to conditions of ‘economic liberalisation’, opening up their economic to western investors. Like Sodom, Western governments only give ‘charity’ when its in their own inetersts to do so. As to the perversion of justice, judges who twist laws and defer to power, we need only mention the Supreme Court electing Bush in 2000, the rise in detention without trial, definiton of Guantanamo bay prisoners as ‘unlawful’ combatants rather than prisoners of war, the interpretation by Israel and America of the Palestinian Territories not being subject to the Geneva Conventions…
All of these can be seen as critiques of the extremes of capitalism, the excesses, the actions of a few ‘bad apples’. But one tradtional Jewish text goes further:
Mishnah Avot 5:10 1 There are four sorts of people. He who says what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours-average. (Some say this is the way of Sodom)
Surely not! Isn’t the assumption that my things are mine, and yours yours, reasonable, rational, and the foundation for most societies? How can it be the way of Sodom? Is the Mishha really siding with Bakunin, and declaring all property theft? One reading of this would simply be to say we must be charitable, we are obliged to give to those with less than ourselves. A more radical approach, however, might empahasise that what is ‘ours’ mostly comes to us by accident, whether by natural resources or being born into a wealthy family. The idea of what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours therefore fixes the arbitary divisons of wealth and resources, whatever the inequality embedded as a result.
We can go beyond economics in interpreting the Sodom legend. The creation of barriers, the attempt to exclude the outside can also be seen in cultural terms. Sometimes for emotional security, sometimes for social control, groups, or the leaders of group, mark boundaries defining where the self ends and the other begins. This approach has been critiqued by many groups, by Marxists, critiquing the way nationalism hides the common interests of the international working class, by feminists, opposing the way that the community of women is concealed and broken up, and by postmodernists who are suspicious of definitions and divisions and devote much effort to breaking down ‘binary polarities’. Daniel Boyarin, the well known Jewish studies professor, takes on such boundaries in his recent book Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity, in which he argues that there was no clear boundary between Judaism and Christianity until the 4 th Century. Instead, there was a spectrum of belief, a set of interracting groups with various beliefs and practices. To divide them into two opposing sides was an act of theological violence, mainly done by ‘heresiologists’who were able to define their own side by stating what was forbidden. In the introduction Boyarin writes ‘Borders themselves are not given but constructed by power to mask hybridity….Borders…are also places where people are strip searched, detained, imprisoned, and sometimes shot’. Two aspects of this are fascinating. Firstly, the juxtaposition of intellectual and physical borders, implying that one leads to the other, that if violence is done to ideas and religious practices, the enforcement of that seperation will almost certainly lead to physical violence. Secondly, those who lose out from the creation of borders, are the poor, the helpless, and most of all the immigrant. As in the Sodom story, the one seeking refuge is the one most likely to suffer at the hands of those that wish to shut their doors to the outside world.
Another contemporary ramification of Sodom are the practices of religious communities today. Conservative religious leaders, particularly the Christian right in the USA, have created a form of religiosity that is narrow, nationalistic and exclusionist. It focuses on fear of the outside, whether it be the perceived conspiracy of gays, feminists, blacks and liberals against ‘traditional’ American values, or or the Arab world, seen as the antithesis of America. This is also a form of religiosity that, ignoring any socialistic implication of the Gospels, loudly defends wealth and privilege, and opposes attempts to redistribute or help the poorest groups in society through a welfare state. Both in terms of closing borders to outsiders, and oppressing the poor this is a truly Sodomised version of Christianity.
Jews, too are guilty of similar practices, although in a different way. We have tried to close our borders, both intellectually and phsically. We have become increasingly ethnocentric and insular focusing all our efforts on what is euphemistically described as Jewish Continuity; getting Jews to marry in, and keep the community in existence. This is seen as the primary objective – the pursuit of justice seems to have dropped out of the picture. In parallel, we have tried to physically protect the borders of Judaism with the state of Israel, denying rights of immigration to almost all non Jews, and creating a rabbinically governed marriage system which (within Israel itself) Jews cannot marry non Jews. A Judaism which closes in ot itself, seeks to keep the outside world out and neglects Judaism’s universalist and ethical ideals is no Judaism at all; it is a sodomising of the Torah. The Rabbis of the Talmud forcefully critqued the Sodom of their time; we have to fight just as hard against Sodom in ours.