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Republicans and the ‘Quality of Sodom’

July 23rd, 2012by Gershom Gorenberg · 3 Comments · Judaism and Religion, Politics and Policy

Gershom Gorenberg

My new piece, just up at the Daily Beast:

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. …

Read the rest here.

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