Column

07.23.12

Republicans and the 'Quality of Sodom'

Eavesdropping from afar on the debate about how American Jews will vote this year is a slightly surrealistic business. Not just the claim that Jews will vote Republican because of Israel. Anyone who has passed Polling 101 knows that few Jews choose their presidential candidate based on the Israel issue. What's truly strange about the idea of Jews–especially Jews connected to Jewish religious tradition–voting Republican is that the GOP is rather obviously committed to the quality of Sodom.

Sorry. Let me clear up the confusion caused by the English language and its religious history. I am definitely not referring to sexual orientation. The idea that sodomy has to do with sex is one more piece of evidence that Judaism and Christianity are two religions separated by a common scripture. In Judaism, Sodom stands for economic injustice, selfishness and refusal to redistribute wealth.

In Tractate Avot of the Talmud, there's a discussion of attitudes toward ownership. In the view of some sages, to say "what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours"–keep your hands off please, don't ask me to pay for his troubles–is moral mediocrity. According to other sages, that's "the quality of Sodom." The latter view is more strongly rooted in biblical texts and rabbinic commentary.

This week's haftarah, the furious prophetic riff that the sages chose as the annual prelude to commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem, is just one example: When Isaiah denounces the leaders of his country as the "captains of Sodom," he's talking about how they treat the powerless, personified by widows and orphans. Ezekiel, more pedagogically blunt, says that "the sin of your sister Sodom" was that the city-state "had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not support the poor and needy."

Both prophets were referring to cultural knowledge that they shared with their audiences: the original story of Sodom in Genesis. A couple of strangers show up in town. In the previous chapter they had arrived at the tent of Abraham, who hurried to put out the best meal he could provide. His wealth, he understood, was merely a trusteeship, something he'd been granted in order to share. In Sodom, the mob comes to get the strangers and the bleeding-heart liberal who tried to put a roof over their head. The threatened gang-rape is the means of aggression, not the point of it. Sodom is the original ungodly city, whose customs are the opposite of the justice that Abraham will teach his descendants.

Lest you think that Sodom was only stingy with outsiders, an ancient rabbinic tradition (preserved in Breshit Rabba) explains why the divine inquiry commission was sent to investigate the city in the first place: Sodom had a law against giving to the poor. This is meant as hyperbole; the point is that "what's mine is mine" was public policy in Sodom.

Sodom, in short, was a polis run by the philosophy of Ayn Rand, where redistribution of wealth was regarded as immoral, where government had the responsibility to protect private property but not to insure the well-being of the people. Upstanding Sodomites would not have accepted a decision by the city elders requiring them to put coins in the kitty to pay healers who might treat people besides themselves. They would have argued that "I'm responsible for myself and I'm not responsible for other people… I should get the fruits of my labor and I shouldn't have to divvy it up with other people." The city elders would not have asked people to pay for more teachers to educate other people's children, and certainly not to pay for food for those who couldn't afford it. Not to put too fine a point on it, but in Sodom there would have been no problem passing the Ryan budget plan. 

Yes, I know I'm making an argument validated by a particular religion. I would advance secular arguments were I to join the general American debate of economics. But this page is supposed to be home to discussion of "the Jewish future" and right now I'm talking inside the family.

And yes, I know that Benjamin Netanyahu's economics are as selfish as those of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. But America is the last empire standing, the capital of the early 21st century. The ideas it chooses have an influence far beyond its shores, and have to matter to me.  Besides that, I have read the surrealistic reports that some Jews are considering voting for the party of Sodom. Sisters and brothers, please reconsider.