This week’s Torah portion includes the story of Sodom – the wicked city that God destroys with literal fire and brimstone. Although Abraham had argued against the city’s destruction if even ten righteous people could be found, we learn from the subsequent narrative that in fact everyone in the city, upon learning that Abraham’s nephew Lot has taken in two wayfarers, surrounds Lot’s home and demands that he surrender his guests to be raped. With the city’s thorough wickedness thus confirmed, Lot alone is whisked away to safety, and the city destroyed.
But what, precisely, was Sodom’s sin? In American political/religious discourse it is generally presumed to be sexual, and specifically homosexual. In the Torah, however, the wickedness of Sodom stems more from the fact that they wish to harm the visitors than from the particular means chosen. The fate of Sodom seems intentionally juxtaposed to Abraham’s destiny to “command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19), and the violence directed toward visitors in Sodom stands in sharp contrast to the hospitality the same men received from Abraham in the previous chapter. Ezekiel (16:49) , in turn, identifies the sin of Sodom this way: “Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom: pride, fulness of bread, and careless ease was in her and in her daughters; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.”
The rabbis of the Talmud picked up on these and other cues to identify the fundamental wickedness of Sodom with precisely its inhospitability: “The men of Sodom waxed haughty only on account of the good which the Holy One, blessed be He, had lavished upon them. . . . They said: Since there cometh forth bread out of [our] earth, and it hath the dust of gold, why should we suffer wayfarers, who come to us only to deplete our wealth. Come, let us abolish the practice of traveling in our land.” (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 109a-b.) The same talmudic passage then continues with a list of perverse Sodomite rules that, under color of law, benefited property owners over orphans, rich over poor, locals over travelers, and criminals over crime victims. The city went so far, we are told, as to criminalize giving to the needy, and meted out cruel punishments to those who attempted to share food with the hungry. (See Sanhedrin 109b; Bereshit Rabbah 49:21.)
So, when earlier this week, three people (two ministers and a 90-year old activist) were cited for feeding homeless people in a municipal park, in violation of a new Ft. Lauderdale ordinance, I thought, “Sodomy.”
Of course, it is not entirely illegal to feed the homeless Ft. Lauderdale. But the ordinance, which includes restrictions on feeding the homeless outdoors near the homes of those lucky enough to have them, or even indoors too close to another indoor feeding site, is concededly designed to make life more difficult for the needy. (One advocate of the laws put it this way: “”The people feeding them are enablers, and they enable the homeless by making their lives easier,” and “Hunger is a big motivator. Are people more likely to seek help when they’re hungry or when they’re fed and happy?””) Most shockingly, some rabbis even seemed to validate this line of thinking, wondering on social media whether “enabling” the homeless by feeding them might be ill-advised.
The halachah is that someone who asks for food must be given it without delay, and without investigation into his circumstances. (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 251:10) Building off of the double verb in Deut. 15:8 (“Surely shall you open – patoach tiftach – your hand” to the poor), the Midrash (Sifrei, Re’eh, 116:7) further notes that even when we have already given to a poor person we must continue to open our hands “even one hundred times.” The Torah does not share the pernicious contemporary ideology that failure to escape poverty indicates unworthiness, and I am certainly not aware of any Torah source that suggests denying food to the needy as an incentive for them to improve their own lot.
The Torah approach to improving the lot of the poor is to give to them (an approach that has the added benefit of being effective). “If there be among you a needy man, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates, in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thy heart, nor shut thy hand from thy needy brother.” (Deut. 15:7) We must not close our hands, hearts, and neighborhoods – nor succumb to the Sodom-like rationalization that we are simply applying neutral laws, or that this selfishness somehow helps those in need.
God agreed with Abraham to save Sodom if even a minyan of ten righteous people were present in the city. With Sodom’s ideology creeping into our lives, it is time for the rest of us to redouble our efforts to help the needy, and to fight, where we can, efforts to harm them.