Friday, October 29, 2010

Vayera (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at 2005_10_20_archive.html/ as well as November 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.

“The People of Sodom were evil and sinned greatly before the Lord”

This week’s parashah describes the destruction of the “cities of the plain,” Sodom and Gemorrah: like the world of the Flood and Nimrod’s kingdom of the tower builders, yet another example of an evil collectivity, an “anti-utopia,” if you will. What was the sin of these cities? One reading sees it as a spirit of meanness. Not only did they fail to practice kindness, hesed, but they were actively opposed to anyone who dared show the smallest kindness or human concern to another person. Thus, the midrash in Genesis Rabbah 49.6 tells of two girls who used to go to the well together to draw water. One day the one saw that the other was extremely wan and weak, and discovered that she had not eaten for many days, and was literally starving to death. She surreptitiously placed some flour in her bucket; when the townspeople discovered this, they tortured her to death.

Another midrashic motif shows them engaging in gratuitous sadism—again, primarily against strangers and visitors. Sanhedrin 109b relates that the people of Sodom had a special bed in which everyone who visited the city had to sleep. If the person was too short, his arms and legs would be stretched with ropes to fit its length; if he was too tall, his legs would be chopped off. This legend is the origin of the Hebrew idiom mitat Sedom, “the bed of Sodom” used to refer to any arbitrary, “no-win” situation. (Of course, it is almost certainly adapted from the Procrustrean bed of ancient Greek legend / myth.)

Similarly, the prophet Ezekiel: “This was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were filled with pride, abundance of food, peace and quiet, but did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and committed abominations before Me; therefore I removed them…” (Ezek 16:49-50). Ramban and other commentators likewise note the meanness and indifference towards others of its people.

But turning to the actual biblical text itself, we find another abomination: the name of Sodom is associated with homosexuality. Indeed, the paradigmatic homosexual act is known as “sodomy” is named for the incident described here, in Genesis 19. Many early and medieval Christian sources base or reinforce the prohibition against “unnatural connections” on the Story of Sodom, noting that they were subject to a divine punishment of destruction by fire and brimstone for their wicked acts. But a closer reading of this chapter suggests another possible interpretation. Interestingly, a parallel to this story, with many identical details (what literary critics would call the same “topos”), appears in Chapter 19 of the Book of Judges, in the incident known as Pilegesh begivah, “the concubine in Gibeah.”

In essence, the story is as follows: Two strangers come to a town (here—the two angels; in Judges—a Levite from the back-country of the Ephraim hills, who has gone to Bethlehem to persuade his common-law wife or “concubine” to return home with him), are offered hospitality by a person who is himself a newcomer to the place (Lot; an old man from the hill-country of Ephraim); they declare their willingness to sleep in the street, but their host prevails upon them to accept his hospitality. Some time later, after nightfall, a mob of people surround the house, demand that the visitor/s be sent out “so that we may know them“—i.e., for sexual relations—and even threaten to break their way into the house. The host tells them, “my brothers, do not be evil,” and offers them instead two young women with whom to quench their lust (Lot’s two virgin daughters; the daughter of the old man in Gibeah and the Levite’s concubine). (Needless to say, this part is strange and even repugnant to our own sensibility: is heterosexual rape morally preferable to homosexual rape? What of the father’s / husbands’ duty to protect the women under his aegis? And what of the women’s own wishes in the matter?) At this point the parallel ends: in the Lot story, there is a deus ex machine—the angels miraculously strike the attackers with temporary blindness from brilliant light, whereas in the story in Judges the concubine is thrown into the street, for the mob to do with her what they will. She is raped all night long, and crept back to the threshold of the house at dawn, where she dies, presumably from the prolonged abuse. Her death becomes a casus belli for a war between Benjamin and the other tribes—a traumatic event in early Israelite history—but that goes beyond our subject.

What are we to make of this story?

It is generally thought today that rape, whether of a woman or of another man, is at least as much about power and aggression as it is about sexual desire or even raw lust. All the more so in gang rape, where even the pretense of intimacy is absent. As such, the proposed homosexual rape in these two stories has virtually nothing in common with the type of homosexuality widely discussed today—i.e., sexual acts which may occur in a casual “pick-up” or within the context of a long-term relationship between two people—in either case much like heterosexual love. The type of behavior described here is known in prisons and in other closed and often coercive frameworks (armies, ships at sea, dormitory schools, etc.) where there are no women. It is an act of power domination, intended to humiliate and subjugate its victim. and only secondarily a form of sexual release; rape is perhaps the most elemental act, short of murder, in which one individual exhibits his power to dominate another; bodily penetration is the ultimate form of “conquering” another (hence, the same slang words are used for sexual relations and for aggressive domination). Indeed, it may often be committed by those who, on the outside, are “straight” in their sexual orientation.

In any event, the point of this story, as I read it, is that the mobs in these two stories were so infuriated by the act of gratuitous hospitality, which they saw as a violation of their own way of viewing the world that they wanted to do everything in their power to neutralize it. The idea of kindness, of hesed, of hospitality to strangers, was a dangerous hiddush to them, something that went deeply against their own culture of suspiciousness and mistrust of strangers. Perhaps one may speak of two opposing cultures: a culture of cruelty and power, which saw all human relations in terms of a kind of Hobbesian perpetual struggle of all against all, in which strength and ability to survive are the ultimate values, and in which kindness is interpreted as a dangerous sign of weakness. Against that, a culture if caring, of kindness, of responsibility for the Other, in which acts of helping others are seen as a positive value. I do not say that Judaism “invented” kindness, but it certainly developed a religio-legal system in which it plays a central role—beginning with Abraham’s behavior, in the opening scene of this week’s parashah. (And, of course, not all Jews are kind, nor are all non-Jews vicious. One of the ironies of the story in Judges is that the couple in question had the option to seek lodging in Jerusalem, but did not do so because at the time it was a Jebusite city and they thought, “We’re better off with our own people.” Were they ever wrong!) In conclusion, these two “cultures” or ways of viewing life are still very much with us, albeit garbed in sophisticated, at times pseudo-scientific justifications for human selfishness.


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