The Sin of Sodom

Sodom is the paradigmatic cruel society. In Tanach and throughout Rabbinic literature, Sodom is characterized by an attitude of supreme indifference, where the plight of the other doesn’t register in the consciousness of the Sodomite.

Yet, when the Torah describes the destruction of Sodom in this week’s Parsha, it doesn’t really address what their great crime was. In last week’s Parsha, we learned that they were very wicked, but without detail. The only crime that the Torah mentions in our Parsha is their attempt of homosexual gang-rape . Somehow, the notion developed, mainly in the Christian world, that Sodom’s great crime was sexual perversion. They even named a sexual deed after the town.

So here’s the question: if the problem with Sodom is complete lack of social welfare, why does the Torah virtually ignore that element and focus specifically on this act of sexual violence. It seems out of place. I think that the answer will also help explain what I believe is Chaza”l attitude toward sexual ethics. I know that I might be getting into some hot water with this, but believe me that it’s an honest attempt to understand one of the 613 mitzvot.

I’ll start with a joke:
The elderly Mr. Goldberg had a dream. In this dream, he is standing before a heavenly tribunal, being judged for his life on Earth. His record was stellar, completely unblemished. After going through his whole life, the ministering angel turns to him and says, “Mr. Goldberg, your record is so pristine that you can actually commit one grave sin and still get a seat in the front row. You’re time is up in one week; have a blast!”
It just so happened that in the same South Florida complex as Mr. Goldberg lived Mrs. Schwartz, a woman whose life had been made very difficult by a husband who had been debilitated for some years. Caring for him took up much of her time and energy, and her life, as a result, became sad and difficult.
Mr. Goldberg had noticed her occasionally give him the eye, so when he awoke from his dream, he already had an idea where he wanted to spend his one sin. One of their friendly conversations became a flirting match, and before you knew it, they were back in her apartment, making passionate love.
When Mr. Goldberg was ready to head home, Mrs. Schwartz stopped him and said, “I just want you to know, that you did SUCH a MITZVAH!”

You understand what the joke is, right? The act of lovemaking is one where a person experiences intense pleasure, but it’s also an opportunity to simultaneously give pleasure to another person. Mutual pleasure heightens the experience for each participant. It’s an act of simultaneous giving and receiving.

The people of Sodom were not at all interested in giving. The value that they placed on another human being was related solely to that person’s ability to make my life better. Human beings were means for one’s own gratification, not end in and of themselves. This is how they welcomed guests: they made it very clear that their stay in Sodom was contingent on their providing some kind of service for the Sodomite. If none was forthcoming, then they would take it by force. Their attempted homosexual gang-rape wasn’t about sexual baseness, but about a total lack of chesed, to the point that if one is gaining some kind of benefit from the city, even though it costs them nothing, they will take their payment in one way or another. Thus, the description of Sodom’s crimes in this week’s Parsha is, in this analysis, consistent with their lack of chesed.

The more interesting conclusion is the role of chesed in a Jewish sexual ethic. Sexuality that lacks chesed, is unconcerned with the pleasure of the other, runs the risk of becoming completely unbridled. Granted, there’s always a ‘price’ to pay for sex, but it will always boil down to a cost/benefit ratio. The Torah prohibits sexuality which is devoid of chesed, and as a case in point, to propose an understanding of the Chazal’s view of homosexuality.

Many are familiar with the explicit biblical prohibition against sex between men (I will avoid the term ‘homosexuality’ because I don’t believe that the Torah addresses sexual identity, only sexual acts). However, Chaza”l (Sanhedrin 58a) understood it to be contained within the 7 Noahide laws as well. Specifically, they explicated the verse (Bereishis 2:24) ‘Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.’ The Talmud sees each phrase in this verse as excluding a different type of forbidden sexuality. The term “and shall cleave” is taken to exclude sex with another male. Rashi, ad loc, s.v. ‘ve-davak’ says – ‘there is no cleaving here, because the ‘nishkav’ (penetrated partner) receives no pleasure, he does not cleave to him’. The universal ban on sex between males was formulated as a relationship in where the potential for ‘dibuk’ is absent because the pleasure of one participant is not itself invested in the pleasure of the other. The joke that I wrote above would fall horribly short if it was about Mr. Schwartz instead of Mrs.

In our parsha as well, the attempted rapists were wholly unconcerned with the pleasure of their visitors. The fact that it was homosexual only serves to reinforce the point that there was no potential for the visitors to have a pleasurable experience.

I will add a final caveat that I am attempting to characterize what I perceive to be an attitude within Chaza”l. Obviously, it is those who are directly affected whose experiences must be trusted when determining whether or not “men don’t feel pleasure from penetration by another man”. I do believe, though, that Chazal’s sexual ethics, and the role of chesed in sexuality, is crucial, and that this approach to homosexuality is different and significant enough to merit further development.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

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