In his most recent piece, Gershom Gorenberg suggests that modern day Republicans exhibit the miserly tendencies that define, by his reading, the traditional Jewish interpretation of the sin of the Sodomites. In pursuit of this argument, Gorenberg makes an inaccurate textual argument from Jewish sources and mischaracterizes a mainstream Republican position. As a PhD student studying Ancient Jewish texts, I feel a professional obligation to correct the former, and as an interested American citizen (although not a Republican) I feel the need to set the record straight on the latter, in the interest of fostering constructive discourse.
At the outset, Gorenberg states “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.”
But what is “rather obvious” to Gorenberg is actually rather complicated in the “Jewish religious tradition” which he invokes. In his argument Gorenberg commits a classic error—he privileges some Jewish texts while ignoring others and declares his preferred line of interpretation to be the one authentic rabbinic reading.
However, the old maxim “two Jews, three opinions” applies as much to ancient as to modern Jewish views. Careful scholars of Jewish texts highlight and even celebrate the diversity (some might even say the cacophony) of voices in both traditional—and non-traditional—Jewish sources. They know that the Jewish tradition is not so easily reduced to editorial sound-bites. The case of Sodom is no exception.
Gorenberg dismisses the idea that the sin of the Sodomites in Genesis 19 is related to sex—to him, this idea could only be concocted by Christians, whose views, apparently, are just as monolithic as those of the rabbis. Gorenberg relies primarily on a passage in Mishna Tractate Avot (as well as Genesis Rabbah, Ezekiel, and I suspect Nachmanides’ comments on this chapter), which endorses his view.
Yet Gorenberg neglects to mention that the Mishna in Avot actually explicitly prefers a different interpretation. Moreover, he ignores opinions in Genesis Rabbah, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 109, the position of Rashi, the inner-biblical interpretation found in Jeremiah 23:14 and Isaiah 1, not to mention the interpretations found in Josephus and Philo, to name a few non-canonical Jewish interpreters, all of which accept the view that the sin of Sodom was sexual. To Gorenberg, I assume all of these interpreters are Sodomites, Christians, or worse, Republicans.
But let’s, for a moment, play by Gorenberg’s rules, and assume that the interpretation he cites from Tractate Avot is indeed, as he claims, “the rabbinic position.” This passage says that the quality of Sodom is to believe “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours.” What exactly does this mean? As in any shorthanded moral aphorism, it’s quite hard to translate this into concrete terms.
In some respects, the disposition described here seems quite normal—and indeed, the preferred interpretation in Avot is exactly that—that it is not an evil or “Sodomite” attitude, but that it is an ordinary, unexceptional disposition (midah beinonit). The passage quoted by Gorenberg is merely an alternative reading attributed to a different set of unnamed rabbis. The simple reading of Avot, however, would seem to suggest that this passage describes not Sodomites, but ordinary people’s tendency to hoard their possessions rather than to willingly share them with others.
This brings us to Gorenberg’s application of the passage, wherein he argues that rabbinic tradition necessitates contemporary liberal economic policies. Now, it is true that the rabbis recognized the human inclination toward selfishness (as in Avot) and elsewhere tried to legislate an obligation to give charity. But at no point do they seem to align with positions we would describe as “Democratic.” In fact, just as with the interpretation of Sodom above, the rabbis prove to have quite diverse views on charity, some of which may (if we want to play Gorenberg’s game) be considered “Republican.” For example, in Babylonian Talmud Tractate Ketubot 67b, Rabbi Ilai says that one is forbidden from giving more than 20% of his wages to charity (sounds pretty GOP to me)! Of course, the truth is—as this exercise reveals—using traditional sources to support a modern political party and its partisan positions is reductive and anachronistic.
But Gorenberg doesn’t merely misrepresent the rabbinic tradition; he misrepresents the Republicans he purports to criticize. His article eschews the notion that differing points of view may nevertheless be legitimate (a notion the rabbis he cites wholeheartedly embrace). Thus, to Gorenberg, the Republican preference for low taxes can only be described as “Sodomite” and therefore anti-charity and evil. But, of course, the Republican position could be viewed as quite logical—which, I hasten to add, doesn’t mean that it’s correct—and not in conflict with a spirit of personal generosity. Without assuming, like Gorenberg, that all Republicans are of the same mind on this issue, I would suggest that there is no correlation between one’s willingness to absorb taxes and one’s charitable tendencies. Simply put, taxes aren’t charity. Indeed, Mitt Romney is unquestionably a very charitable man even if he won’t pay “one penny more” than his required tax rate.
Similiarly, it safe to say that Republicans have other reasons for not supporting universal healthcare than their alleged Sodomite disposition—such as their belief that government is not agile enough to accommodate such a huge enterprise, and that a market economy would serve our healthcare needs better. I don’t mean to suggest that universal healthcare is a bad idea—I personally think it’s a good one, and that we should be taxed for it. But my argument to support that contention isn’t based on Republicans being “Sodomites” or evil.
Gorenberg would be better served by making a robust argument for the cause he supports, rather than mischaracterizing and vilifying those with whom he disagrees on the basis of a selective reading of classical sources. Surely, the Jewish tradition deserves better than to be dragged into political polemics.