The Sins We Condone, The Sins to Which We Turn a Blind Eye

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Last time, R. Arama wondered why Sodom was punished harshly and quickly, when the Jews in general, and the people of Giv’a particularly, were treated more gently. In this week of comfort from our recently relived destruction, I hope his answers show us ways to put our communities on more solid footing.

Sodom’s Path From Temptation to Evil

R. Arama thinks Sodom started with what might seem a relatively innocuous step, wanting to protect their money. They chose the strategy of sheli sheli ve-shelach shelach, I keep mine, you keep yours. From adhering to it as a general ethic, they eventually made it a linchpin of their legal system, made a capital crime of benefitting others. Nor could a Sodomite offer help at no cost to him/herself; in R. Arama’s view, the people of Sodom wanted to be sure all outsiders knew to stay away from Sodom, to know they would never find assistance there.

He infers Sodom’s having outlawed costless help from Baba Batra 12b, which says kofin ‘al middat Sedom, courts force Jews to avoid the traits of Sodom. The topic there was zeh neheneh ve-zeh lo chaser, this one benefits and this one loses nothing, goods people can provide for others at no cost to themselves.

The deceptively dangerous attitude easily leads to the next step, thinking one has the right to others’ property (I think he means learning to focus on oneself leads to an insensitivity or lack of concern with others’ rights). The Torah took pains to lead Jews away from such ideas, through many obligations to help others when we can, charity, severance packages for indentured servants, lending money to those in need, helping repack an animal struggling under its load, returning lost items. All these came to remind us of society’s necessary and valuable interdependence, yet every generation has a few people who fail to learn the lesson, who decide everything should belong to them.

The people of Sodom took their view of independence far enough to make a law against hosting wayfarers. To ensure people knew Sodom’s rules, R. Arama thinks they made it legally permissible to rape guests. The demand to see the angels at Lot’s house had little or nothing to do with sexual desire, the mob was acting on a considered financial tactic.

He supports his idea from Onkelos’ translation of ra’im ve-chata’im, evil and sinful, the Torah’s description of the people of Sodom. Onkelos writes evil in their finances and guilty in their bodies, adding the monetary aspect because it was the root of their evil, their bodily evil an only occasional expression of their financial commitments.

The idea explains why Yechezkel noted only their failure to support the poor (and not their willingness to rape men, let alone women!) The rapes were an infrequent and undesired aspect of their financial concerns—if no guests or poor came to leech off them, they were happy to never rape anybody, R. Arama is saying [we see such examples in popular culture as well, where abusers—or worse—blame the victim, claim they were forced into it by the victim’s act which ran afoul of the abuser’s real concern, control, racism, or whatever. R. Arama also implicitly reminds us of how a seemingly small misfocus can take us down the path to being Sodom.]

The night the angels came to Sodom was the point their evil had risen to the level of destruction.

Moral Turpitude We Tell Ourselves Is Rectitude

Hashem’s response to Giv’a took another form because they never made such actions legally acceptable or proper. Punishing those who took in travelers by raping members of their household was officially a terrible crime in Giv’a, should by legal right have produced a forceful judicial response.

It did not, either because the local authorities saw and chose not to respond or made sure not to see (he says he’elimu ‘einehem, they turned a blind eye) what was done publicly. R. Arama includes the whole Jewish nation in “they,” meaning in his view, this was not the first occasion Giv’a acted this way. After local judges failed to act, tribal judges were supposed to step in, and when they did not, the nation as a whole should have.

They all did not, until the horrific killing of the one concubine spurred them to action, and the ensuing war went as it did (with the nation losing the first two days of the war, suffering many casualties, until they won and wiped out the tribe of Binyamin) to punish them all for their failures.

Communities Must Express Morality

R. Arama has made a point too-little noticed in our time. Polities of all sizes, cities, tribes/states, and nations must express a proper morality and also must enforce it. Morality unenforced becomes morality ignored, and the ensuing corruption counts in the ledger of all those who saw and did not protest, aside from those who perpetrate the specific wrongs.

He gives a remarkable example, after writing “this is true for any individuals’ sins, when any prohibition becomes widely violated, such as yeyn nesech or cheese made by non-Jews or shatnez or the like,” the willful ignorance by the judges and leaders makes it accepted, as if legally allowed, and the entire community becomes liable, despite only individuals engaging in the conduct.

His examples clearly draw from his contemporary experience, meaning we can reasonably assume enough Jews of his time drank non-kosher wine, cheese made by non-Jews, and wore shatnez for him to think the community had to be doing better at protesting those wrongs.

His next example has achieved some fame (among Jewish historians, anyway). He tells us he has several times argued with communal leaders about their tolerance of prostitutes! He knows of places which openly allow it, other places which pay prostitutes a stipend, preferring this option for unmarried men to their other options, married or non-Jewish women.

In their minds, they were choosing the lesser evil.

Personal or Communal Sins

R. Arama tells us he presented his case many times, to these judges and their gedolim, their great leaders [the passage of time has turned R. Arama into a name many of us know as a top-flight and important Torah scholar; in his time, he is letting us know, he was roundly ignored].

He tried to show them the difference between a private, personal sin and a communal one. A private sinner incurs liability only for him/herself. When a community condones a sin, if judges make a policy against objecting to some sinful act, the sin—no matter how relatively light—becomes serious, a stain on the community as a whole, doomed to be punished. This was what the tribe of Binyamin had done, which led to their terrible tragedy.

Better, R. Arama says he argued, for the particular sinners to be lost to their sins than for the community as a whole to agree, even tacitly, to the violation of any part of the Torah. Anyone who does not understand this “has no share in insight or a portion in Gd’s Torah.”

(Whew! I cannot let this go by, maybe because it resonates with views of my own for which I have taken flak, and can now attribute to R. Arama. When Jews sin, the broader community might generously try to protect them from themselves, or hope to help them find their way back to observance, partially by finding ways to lower the “sin burden” they unfortunately take on.

R. Arama is pointing out the fine line between helping and condoning, where what used to be recognized as wrong becomes acceptable. He also reminds us  many of the hard choices communities face today are not as novel as we like to believe, and gives a sense of pre-Expulsion Spain uncomfortably similar to Jewish communities today.

Today, our shuls and schools are the communal bodies which face choices of whom to include and how. As we do our best to help Jews feel welcome, R. Arama reminds us we must also never give the impression we accept sin. If we do, we as a community become implicated, regardless of our personal conduct.)

Cleansing Others and Ourselves

I have broken my usual rule of sticking to the pieces of R. Arama’s writing on the Torah itself because his read of Giv’a has such modern overtones. He returns to the story to explain why the broader nation also bore horrendous losses in the first days of the war. Pirke R. Eliezer 38 gives one reason, the people’s prior failure to object to the events of pesel Michah, the idol set up in the tribe of Dan (in Shofetim 17-18).

That story would take us too far afield, but it offers another reminder of Chazal’s insistence communities establish and maintain standards. Here, the whole Jewish people was liable for its failure to object to one tribe’s actions.

R. Arama offers a second reason. Before going to war, Devarim 20;8 has the officers of the people ask who is afraid, which Sotah 44a interpreted as fear of punishment for their sins. The tribes here underwent no such process of self-purification. Nor did they check with Hashem as to whether they should go, only which tribe should go first.

He continues (interestingly and productively), but I think we have to stop our detour, reminded of the significance of communal rules of conduct and the dangers of overconfidence about our righteousness and our ideas.

Back to the Proper Attitude to Property

Having run out of space, let me close with one more application of the idea with which R. Arama began, the ways in which we conceive of property. Avraham goes down to Pelishtim, where Avimelech takes Sarah, and Hashem tells him to ask Avraham to pray for him.

R. Arama has previously noted this as the first time Avraham prays; here, he focuses on Avimelech’s giving Avraham gifts before he returns Sarah, the way  Avimelech showed he understood the value of sheli shelach ve-shelach shelach, what is mine is yours and what is yours is yours. Taking on the standard of a chasid, he hopes, will show Avraham he has learned his lesson and assuage the Patriarch sufficiently for him to pray.

Bringing us full circle, to concluding a sha’ar which has cast the Sodom story as an issue of how low we can sink if we develop too strong a sense of the importance of our private property rights, as individuals and communities. [Someone more political than I choose to be in these posts might apply R. Arama’s ideas to our views on immigration, for example.]

R. Arama insisted society cannot survive without some gift-giving and business partnerships, and also thought interest in one’s property could expand beyond bounds, lead people to refuse to help others and to withdraw into themselves.

As Sodom did, making a standard of what should have been obviously wrong, taking them to a perdition which is supposed to serve as a permanent reminder to the rest of us (although the people of Giv’a failed to take the lesson, to their detriment) not to repeat their errors.

We can only hope we learn from them.

About Gidon Rothstein

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