The Sin of Sodom

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

I did not choose to time pieces of our study of ‘Akeydat Yitzchak to the Three Weeks, making it purely good fortune we are up to R. Arama’s views of Sodom during shavu’a she-chal bo, the week in which Tish’a B’Av occurs.

Our View of Property

He starts with Avot 5; 10’s portrayal of the people of Sodom. The Mishnah is discussing how people view property, theirs and others. Between the extremes of claiming all property for oneself—evil—and welcoming others’ use of one’s propert while renouncing rights to theirs—the chasid, extraordinarily pious and kind—lies claiming one’s own property, leaving others’ to them, what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.

The Mishnah calls it beinonit, a middle attitude, then adds “some consider it the trait of Sodom.”

Before he explains why or how, he takes a surprising position on the last possibility in the Mishnah, sheli shelach ve-shelach sheli, what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine. The Mishnah labels it the view of an ‘am ha-aretz, ordinarily a phrase for an ignorant person. R. Arama instead thinks it the proper way for society to function, everyone sharing what they have through barter or purchase [the Mishnah does not refer to barter or purchase, the kind of insertion which my teacher, Prof. Haym Soloveitchik, would notice as a point of reflection, a moment where the writer’s assumptions might be intruding on his reading of the text].

‘Am ha-aretz to him therefore means the ordinary person, who keeps society and the economy healthy by participation. The idea affects how we understand the pious and evil view, but let’s stay with the beinonit, the middle road, the one some saw as the view of the people of Sodom.

Sodom Doesn’t Seem So Bad

The person who says what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours places him/herself equidistant from good and evil, says R. Arama. Such a person will fail to fulfill mitzvot, such as giving gifts to the poor, lending to those who need it, making voluntary sacrifices or gifts to the Temple [which assumes these are mitzvot, obligations], and any other obligation which involves spending money.

On the more positive side, the person’s concern with his/her money inculcates a similar respect for others’ property rights, distancing the person from any form of stealing, the root of most sins.

Those who say the people of Sodom adopted this perspective assume they were scrupulous about respecting others’ property, while equally unwilling to share their own [a very honest society, which made a principle of the lack of a social safety net]. Yechezkel 16; 49 frames their sin in those exact terms, blames them for their failure to support the poor.

R. Arama now must explain why, if such behavior qualifies as beinonit, a middle path, which philosophy lauds, how could it have been the path of Sodom, a society whose evil Hashem decide needed to be extirpated? (Adding to his problems, Horayot 13b tells us “some say” in the Mishnah generally refers to an opinion of R. Natan, an av beit din, a secondary head of the Sanhedrin, which takes away the option of dismissing or ignoring his views.)

R. Arama also questions how it could be a middle path, when Aristotle defined the middle road of spending money as giving to those worthy, at the right time, and accepting from others as appropriate as well. Aristotle knows some social interdependence is necessary for an economy, leaving R. Arama confused about how our Mishnah could miss the point.

Rethinking Chasidut

The rest of the Mishnah also confounds him, takes positions at odds with what he thinks obvious. The Mishnah seems to say the chasid, the person who goes beyond the letter of the law, avoids taking anything from others. The idea also fits Mishlei 15;27, sonei mattanot yichyeh, one who hates gifts will live, which R. Arama says he cannot accept in its plainest sense.

First, people who never accept gifts end up refusing to make them, the whole realm distasteful to them. Second [a point I find more convincing], to insist on complete self-sufficiency ends up leaving a person more impoverished (because there are limits to what we can provide for ourselves), and it cannot be a trait of generosity to put oneself in a position to be unable to help others anymore. The lesser generosity of such a person counterbalances the lack of stinginess to the point R. Arama cannot see the Mishnah defining the person as a chasid.

He is sure a chasid would accept from others in the way which maximizes the chasid’s ability to share with others. In this, the chasid reverses the attitude of the ‘am ha-aretz, who gives to others intent on receiving more back, who will fight for what s/he sees as his/hers should the balance between giving and receiving fall out of whack.

When the Mishnah expresses the chasid’s view, it means s/he ignores ideas of reciprocity [notice R. Arama is here seeing the chasid as a contrast both to the rasha, the evildoer, who thinks everything should be his/hers, as well as to the ‘am ha-aretz].

The Middle Isn’t Numerical

One more side point before we turn back to Sodom: R. Arama pauses to make clear the middle is not a matter of numbers. Just because some people eat to huge excess—ten loaves, his example—and others almost nothing does not make five loaves the proper middle. Or, for his other example, the gap between those who want to own the entire world and those who want nothing does not mean the middle path is to want half the world.

The idea of a wrong numerical middle path opens the possibility the Mishnah meant to disparage “what’s mine is mine and yours yours” even in calling it beinonit. A version of the Mishnah (found in the work of a Rabbenu Shemuel, R. Arama says; I am not sure who he means) omits the word zo, this is. The Mishnah meant to say it’s a middle trait like looking for “only” $50 billion, half of the most anyone has, not the middle path which takes us to perfection.

Punishment Came Surprisingly Fast and Harsh

The attitude also does not promote good social functioning, making it a path of Sodom, the paradigmatic failed society. Still, R. Arama wonders why their punishment came swiftly and severely, when the Jews did worse at many points, committed brazen and hidden theft of various sorts, and it was centuries before punishment on the scale of Sodom was visited upon them.

More troubling to R. Arama, when Yechezkel does mention Sodom, he focuses on their failure to perform kindnesses. Too, Shofetim 19 portrays the people of Giv’a in very similar ways, yet they never bore the same brunt of Divine wrath. The opposite, in fact, the rest of the nation suffered when they come to exact vengeance for a concubine’s gang rape and death.

I am skipping most of the ways R. Arama argues Giv’a was the same as or worse than Sodom (to counter Ramban, who distinguished between them). Two points he makes are worth reviewing, because they come up in many other places as well. He says the people of Giv’a’s sin should be worse, in that they ignored the lesson of the story of Sodom (where the people of Sodom had no cautionary tale). Their repeating what they knew to be odious to Hashem adds an element not yet true of Sodom.

Ramban also claimed the rest of the nation had no right to wage war against Giv’a, where R. Arama is sure of a national responsibility to react to evil in its midst, of the right and role of the Sanhedrin to judge other courts, and other courts’ handling of their districts. More, if the war was essentially wrong, the tribe of Binyamin correctly stood by their brethren’s side, and Hashem should have helped them win.

R. Arama emphasizes the importance of dealing with such issues, ki yesharim darchei Hashem (Hoshe’a 14;10), the ways of the Lord are right (or straight), as Avraham made clear when he thrice complained about the possibility of Hashem destroying the righteous with the wicked. In other words, R. Arama thinks we are religiously obligated to find explanations for actions of Hashem’s we find possibly unjust.

Temptation or Intellectual Perversion, Occasional or Systemic

His basic answer lies in a distinction Aristotle drew between a sinner and a wicked person. The sinner (chotei) yields to temptation, with no impact on his intellect [or view of the world, I think R. Arama means]. A wicked person has been infected by the evil in question, it has taken over some part of him/her.

The wicked do not regret their actions after the fact, because they have lost sight of the wrong in the deed, their intellects having also been warped (my good friend, R. Binyamin Blau recently made the point to his congregation, phrasing it as being about normalizing conduct we until now called wrong. We affect ourselves in a worse way than the act itself, he and R. Arama agree). The sinner feels bad, a mark s/he still knows right from wrong.

A sinner would not plan to sin, either, protected as s/he remains by moral standards (which R. Arama subsumes in the intellect). The person who has succumbed more fully to the lure of evil becomes wicked in intellect and ethics, with nothing to stop him/her—or a whole society—from planning such evils, incorporating them into the laws of their society.

Which is where Sodom set itself apart, its codification of evil ideas. Nations or cities like Giv’a had proper legal systems, with blips where perhaps even the majority acted perversely and shockingly. As a society, however, they still knew the acts were perverse and shocking, still knew the good ideals to which they should adhere.

Sodom made their evil into the rules of their society, which their institutions of justice enforced, the marker of the shift from sin to wickedness [a shift, sadly, many later societies have made as well.]

Next time, we’ll see how this played out for Sodom, with the overtones he saw for his time and we can see for ours.

About Gidon Rothstein

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