Opinion // Why Sodom Was Destroyed
Religious Jews should be first in line to help today’s refugees and strangers.
by Gershom Gorenberg
My wife recently sent me an email with the subject line “Sodom.” It linked to a news report headlined, “Serbian police: You are not allowed to feed the refugees!”
In the article, Czech activist Eva Zahradníková described visiting camps on the Serbian-Hungarian border where refugees were living in tents made of rags in snow-covered fields. They’d come north from Turkey; they were waiting for a chance to cross into Hungary and the European Union. They were hungry. Zahradníková and fellow activists started handing out food. But then, “a policeman started shouting at us that it is illegal to help refugees.”
“Sodom” was the right title for this email from one observant Jew to another. If you’ve studied classic Jewish texts, “Sodom” calls up a tradition stretching back from Rashi through the midrash to Genesis that alludes to wider principles of public responsibility—what we now call politics—that are as basic to Judaism as Torah study, prayer and Shabbat. Those principles include a commitment to humanity. At this historical moment, they should translate into outrage over treatment of refugees, but not only over that issue.
So about Sodom: In Genesis 18, God decides to check on what’s happening in that city, to see if things are as bad as “her outcry” suggests. “Her” in the text could refer to the city itself, but in the midrashic work Breshit Rabbah, Rabbi Levi reads it differently: “Her” refers to a young woman executed in Sodom for sharing food with another woman who was starving.
I used to read this as hyperbole. Rabbi Levi saw Sodom as the archetype of a polity so morally debased that it chooses not to help the hungry. To put it only slightly anachronistically, it was a city run by the self-worshipping tenets of Ayn Rand. But no one, I thought, would actually make it a crime to give. The news report showed I was naive: “It is illegal to help refugees.”
The midrash is rooted in the straightforward meaning of the biblical text. The prophet Ezekiel says the sin of Sodom was that it had “plenty of bread… but did not support the poor.” In Genesis, the story focuses on a very specific kind of people in need: strangers who entered the gates, were given shelter by a townsman and were then threatened by a mob.
Let’s take note: Sodom’s failure wasn’t just a lack of giving by individuals. The city, as a polity, rejected responsibility.
The same section of Genesis describes the polar opposite of Sodom: Abraham, who sees strangers and runs to offer them shelter and food. After this, God gives the reason Abraham will become a great nation: “He will instruct his children and his house after him to keep the Lord’s way, to do justice….”
In short, the Torah says that the collective known as the Jews is called into being for the sake of justice. All the commandments given later are vital, but they rest on this. And one facet of justice is a society’s shared obligation to help people from outside that society.
That news item from Serbia, by the way, was dated January 17—before a new regime tried to close America’s doors completely to refugees. But the refugee crisis didn’t begin with Donald Trump. America has taken only a few thousand Syrian refugees a year, out of millions. Many Europeans would like to avoid the wave of refugees by keeping them in Turkey.
Israel, where I live, has evaded its responsibility under the 1951 Refugee Convention to give asylum to Eritrean and Sudanese refugees who have crossed the Sinai seeking safety. Just as scandalous, rabbis and religious political leaders have either ignored the issue or supported anti-refugee measures.
Instead, the Jewish Home party, the supposed home of religious Zionism, devoted its energy to passing a different insult to morality, the so-called Regularization Law. The law allows the state to confiscate private Palestinian land in the West Bank on which settlers have built homes. It turns land theft by individuals into theft by the state.
Around the time the bill first came up in the Knesset, the 929 project reached the Book of Hosea. The project, created by Rabbi Benny Lau, encourages Israeli Jews—religious, secular and in-between—to read the same five chapters of the Bible each week and meet to discuss them. A friend who’s taking part pointed out to me Hosea’s ancient protest: “The leaders of Judah have become like the movers of field boundaries”—that is, people who steal others’ farmland by moving markers.
Religious settlers and their backup band of rabbis would deny that this verse applies to them. Some have told me explicitly: The land is all ours, because God promised it to us.
But this argument flies in the face of another midrash, also quoted by Rashi—one so basic that any religious Jew should have learned it by third grade. It provides an explanation for the dispute between the herdsmen of Abraham and those of his nephew Lot in Genesis 14: Lot’s men, says the midrash, grazed their animals in other people’s fields. Abraham’s men objected. Lot’s men said that God had given the land to Abraham and that Lot was his heir, so the pastures already belonged to Lot. Abraham’s men answered, “What, is theft now permitted?!”
Which is to say: The promise of the land doesn’t abrogate the normal demands of justice. Rather, the promise of the land rests on justice. The land is supposed to be a means for creating a just society.
In both Israel and the diaspora, the perception is that there’s an inverse relation between halachic observance and concern for human rights. Statistically, to my great sorrow, the perception seems correct. But religiously, it has no basis. The difference between Sodom and Abraham is justice. Justice is the foundation of Judaism. And justice is absolutely a matter of politics.
Gershom Gorenberg’s most recent book is The Unmaking of Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.