The Real Sin of Sodom, by Rabbi Steve Greenberg
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is surely the best known of the biblical narratives used to condemn homosexuality. For over a millennium, preachers have employed it – with dramatic effect – to prohibit and punish sex between men. The word “sodomy,” invented by an English churchman to describe male intercourse, helped to transform male sexual relations into an unparalleled evil.
Despite the common perception that the sin of Sodom was rampant sexual vice, Jewish literature has largely rejected this reading. The Prophet Ezekiel locates the sin of Sodom in its inhospitality, its cruelty and perversion of justice, and not in homosexuality. He describes Sodom as arrogant and insensitive to human need. The residents of Sodom had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet they refused to support the poor and the needy.
The people of Sodom are not only protective of their wealth and punishing of acts of charity; they are also desperate to force everyone to fit a single measure. They have a well-to-do gated community that makes sure no beggars disturb their luxury and peace. They have zoned out poverty. But what makes Sodom the “right” kind of neighborhood is that no difference is tolerated. “Our kind” of folk are welcomed and protected, while all the rest are excluded or eliminated. It can hardly be incidental that the locus of this one-size-fits-all violence is a bed that serves as a guillotine and a rack. The place of sleep, comfort, and sexual pleasure in Sodom has been transformed into a place of threat and malice, a device of torture for strangers.
Eliezer saves himself from being amputated or stretched by the mourning of his mother. Mourning the dead is a particularly selfless expression of relationship and love. The people of Sodom treat all who are not inside the walls as being as good as dead; Eliezer treats the dead with an honor and presence that makes their memory a living reality. Sodom is a place where compassion is punished brutally, as the story of the young maiden suggests. Eliezer is saved from Sodom’s evil not by his sword or cunning, but by his own loving beyond all boundaries or benefit — by a loving which, like a mother’s love, has no reasons.
What bought down the wrath of God upon Sodom was not homosexuality, but inhospitality and cruelty, arrogance and greed, callousness, fear of loss, and ultimately, violence against the stranger. Indeed, we cannot let [our communities] become like Sodom — a city where humiliation and even violence against people who are different is judged to be the epitome of moral decency and religious integrity.