This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Unkindness of Strangers*

According to the story told in the book of Genesis, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were condemned to destruction because the outcry against them was “so great and their sin so grievous.” Not even a bare quorum of ten righteous persons could be found to justify averting the catastrophe.

The Torah does not tell us what exactly were those grievous sins that warranted the cities’ devastation by brimstone and fire. In English parlance, as in most Christian-based traditions, the event generated the word “sodomy” to designate sexual offenses, inferred from the passage where the men of the city surrounded Lot’s house and threatened his angelic visitors: “Where are the men which came in to thee this night? Bring them out unto us, that we may know them!”

As appalling as that episode may be, it was not what defined Sodom’s immorality in most ancient Hebrew traditions. The prophets of Israel frequently invoked Sodom as a benchmark for their own people’s moral failings and as an object lesson for the ruin that Israel was inviting upon itself. Ezekiel gave the most explicit listing of those sins: “Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom: pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” That city, which had enjoyed the luxuries and indolence that come from material affluence, became insensitive to the plight of the disadvantaged. This was the evil that had justified Sodom’s annihilation—and according to the prophet, the complacent Judeans of his generation deserved no better. With an insight that sounds disturbingly contemporary, a rabbinic tradition observed how Sodom’s wealthy gentry resented having to share their wealth with shabby immigrant newcomers.

A passage in the Talmud relates several anecdotes about the injustices that prevailed in Sodom. Most of those stories sound like comical folk tales about a topsy-turvy legal system in which corrupt magistrates impose penalties on innocent victims, though in some cases a resourceful trickster (notably Abraham’s servant Eliezer) was able to turn the tables on the reprobates. In keeping with the biblical sources, several of the Talmud’s tales are about the mistreatment of guests, visitors, widows and orphans. The collection includes an adaptation of the well-known Greek legend about Procrustes, the fiendish bandit who forced guests to fit into his one-size-fits-none iron bed even if it required painful stretching or amputating their limbs.

The Sodomite mentality is depicted somewhat differently in the discourse of rabbinic law and ethics.

Various situations were discussed in which one party asks another for a favour that would benefit him without imposing any disadvantage on the other. For example, if somebody has taken up residence in a house whose owner had no intention of living in it himself or renting it out, can the owner claim payment from the squatter? Or: how should we deal with a case where Reuben intends to sell a field that borders on Simeon’s property, and Simeon requests that his offer be given priority because it would be especially convenient for him to be cultivating a single continuous property. For Reuben to refuse this kind of request—apparently out of spite or meanness—is stigmatized by the Talmud as “the standard of Sodom”; and the sages discuss whether a Jewish court can compel Reuben to accede to Simeon’s request. Everyone seems to agree that such coercion is legitimate in principle. The only quibbles that occupy the scholars are about how to measure the benefits or disadvantages to the respective litigants in particular cases.

The general tendency among subsequent authorities has been to recognize even small, temporary or hypothetical annoyances as overriding the consideration of “the standard of Sodom.”

Although the civil justice system in modern Israel draws most of its legal precedents from the British Common Law tradition, the 1980 “Foundations of Law Act” authorized the courts to give consideration to “the principles of freedom, justice, equity, and peace of Israel's heritage.” It is interesting to note that several judicial decisions have invoked the talmudic rule about using compulsion against the “standard of Sodom” in order to promote a kind of natural justice, even when this seemed opposed to the prevailing Common Law approach.

A more theoretical or psychological perspective on the phenomenon is found in the Mishnah tractate Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”). The Mishnah enumerates different human attitudes towards personal property, ranging from the extreme magnanimity of one who declares “what is mine is yours and what is yours is yours” to the rapacious “what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine.” After noting that the stance of “what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” is that of a normal person, the Mishnah records a dissenting opinion that in fact “this is the standard of Sodom”!

Not surprisingly, this disagreement generated quite a bit of discussion among Jewish thinkers and commentators. It might come as a surprise to many of us that most Jewish thinkers favoured the second view in the Mishnah, and had difficulty justifying the first opinion.

Typical of such writers was the thirteenth-century halakhist and moralist Rabbi Jonah of Gerona. While he can readily accept that a person’s reluctance to be on the receiving end of generosity is consistent with the counsel in the Book of Proverbs that “he that hateth gifts shall live,” he finds it inconceivable that the sages would rank a Jew who refuses to give charity as anything less than wicked, especially in light of Ezekiel’s explicit condemnation of such persons.

Rabbi Jonah therefore proposed that the Mishnah was not speaking about persons who refrain entirely from any charitable giving (these misers are unquestionably to be stigmatized for their Sodom-like baseness), but rather about those who have to force themselves to be generous against their natural inclinations. The underlying question is whether we judge such people negatively, on the basis of their uncaring feelings (which will lead to widespread social evils if they are not duly criticized)—or respectfully, in deference to their dutiful, albeit reluctant, actions.

Rabbi Simeon Duran of Algiers argued that the Mishnah was not speaking about charitable giving at all, but about relations among social equals. A misanthropic insistence on complete self-sufficiency might be an acceptable ideal (as exemplified by some righteous figures in the Bible) provided that one does perform some acts of benevolence. However, the author of the Mishnah’s second opinion was worried that such behaviour might develop into the severely anti-social attitudes associated with the citizens of Sodom.

The “to each his own” attitude is indeed the norm of classical laissez-faire political thought, according to which a person’s right to honestly earned possessions is sacred and the Powers-That-Be should have little or no business redistributing such assets. If I choose to be generous with my wealth, that is my own decision, but it cannot be subject to judicial coercion. In our culturally diverse world, most of us are understandably wary of governments forcing their morals or beliefs down our throats.

On the other hand, our world appears to have swerved to the opposite extreme. We have come to believe that any act that is not actually punishable by law is socially acceptable; and there is no longer any level of personal disgrace that would necessitate a politician’s resignation or dismissal.

Such ethical dilemmas, like the human situation itself, are inherently complex and subject to varying circumstances. They certainly do not lend themselves to homogeneous solutions—and they should not be forced into inflexible Procrustean beds.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Preachers, Teachers and Selected Short Features
Preachers, Teachers and Selected Short Features

published by

Alberta Judaic Library
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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, October 19, 2018, p. 9.
  • For further reading:
    • Baer, Yitzhak. A History of the Jews in Christian Spain. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1992.
    • Elon, Menachem. Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles. 3 vols. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994.
    • Englard, Izhak. “The Problem of Jewish Law in a Jewish State.” Israel Law Review 3, no. 2 (1968): 254–78.
    • Epstein-Halevi, Elimelech. Sha‘arei Ha-’Aggadah. Tel-Aviv: Dvir, 1982. [Hebrew]
    • Ginzberg, Louis. Legends of the Jews. Translated by Henrietta Szold. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 2003.
    • Lichtenstein, Aharon. “‘Kofin Al Middat Sedom’: Compulsory Altruism?” Edited by Reuven Ziegler. Translated by David Strauss. Alei Etzion: A Torah Periodical of Yeshivat Har Etzion 16, [Special Issue in Honor of Harav Aharon Lichtenstein] (2009): 31–70.
    • Segal, Eliezer. “A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to Sodom.” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period 46, no. 1 (2015): 103–29.
    • Shilo, Shmuel. “Kofin Al Midat S’dom: Jewish Law’s Concept of Abuse of Rights.” Israel Law Review 15, no. 1 (1980): 49–78.
    • Ta-Shma, Israel M. “Rabbi Jonah Gerondi: Spirituality and Leadership.” In Creativity and Tradition: Studies in Medieval Rabbinic Scholarship, Literature and Thought, 213–27. Cambridge MA: Distributed by Harvard University Press for Harvard University Center for Jewish Studies, 2007.
    • Zevin, Shelomoh Josef. “Zeh Neheneh veZeh Lo Ḥaser.” Edited by Shelomoh Josef Zevin. Talmudic Encyclopedia. Jerusalem: Talmudic Encyclopedia Institute, 1978. [Hebrew]