When people hear the names Sodom and Gomorrah, the biblical cities destroyed by God in the book of Genesis, they usually conjure in their minds images of twin cities of sin whose excesses were worse than the strip in Las Vegas: corrupt gamblers, drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and thugs engaged in organized crime.
However, Genesis never mentions the two cities in connection with all that debauchery. A closer look at the biblical text reveals that Sodom and Gomorrah were exceedingly sinful to God because they were profoundly inhospitable, to the point of sexual brutality, to wayfarers who passed through their communities. In Middle Eastern culture, a lack of hospitality to guests or those in need of lodging and protection has always been considered a gross miscarriage of justice and kindness.
Early Jewish interpreters of the Bible reflected upon these stories of the cities’ inhabitants and developed an insightful explanation for why God decided to destroy them. Their wealth led them to arrogant cruelty. According to these Jewish sages, the Sodomites were incredibly blessed with food and money. They reasoned, “Since we are so wealthy to the point that we have bread and gold coming out of the dust, why should we let people pass through our country? They are only coming here to take from us what belongs to us!” Thus, they did away with what in Hebrew we call Torat Regel, the culture and practice of hosting wayfarers in one’s country.
Note the uncompassionate and dishonest logic that they used. Being blessed with more than they could ever need, they nonetheless behaved like people in desperate straits to avoid having to help those in genuine need of their help. Theirs was a culture of societal selfishness founded upon a false morality that demonizes the needy as rapacious thieves out to rip people off. This description of them is consistent with other classic Jewish views of the Sodomites. Jewish law even coined a term, Middat Sedom, “Sodomite character traits,” to refer to people who use legal technicalities to justify what Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz called malicious selfishness. Their behavior is considered to be so selfish and disingenuous that the Jewish sages of ancient times provided means by which courts could coerce them to share wealth and property or to behave more flexibly and generously.
Establishing a balance between helping one’s own and helping others is never easy. This is especially the case when a community or a nation’s resources are scarce and difficult choices must be made about financial and economic priorities. Serious conversations about this balance are worth having, but we should not confuse thoughtful disagreement with blind dogma posing as reasoned argument. For example, many anti-immigration proponents in the United States claim that there simply are not enough jobs and money to help immigrants and that documented and undocumented immigrants are taking resources away from Americans. American citizens must take priority in getting a leg up out of poverty and into prosperity. I do not disagree with the ancient principle that the poor of one’s household take precedence over all others. However, the manner in which this argument often gets abused is, I fear, an example of Middat Sedom. America is swimming in obscene wealth, so much of which is concentrated in the hands of the tiniest percentage of our wealthiest citizens, while the income gap continues to grow into a yawning chasm for reasons that have nothing to do with immigrants. But this does not deter anti-immigration activists from using false or half arguments that are often fueled by a thinly veiled hatred of foreigners and fears of the loss of a white majority in America.
At the very least, the principled argument can be made that immigrants, documented and undocumented, do not displace, but replace, American workers in less skilled jobs as the latter develop more skills and become more educated. At the very least, the principled argument can be made that the United States Congress has a supreme obligation to have a genuine, soul searching conversation about immigration reform, which it cravenly refuses to do. At the very least, the principled argument can be made that America’s great tradition of being a nation of immigrants is morally imperative and has always been beneficial to our nation.
Tragically, too much of the anti-immigration lobby has become a collection point for shrill, factually tone deaf conspiracy theorists. Much of the argument for severely restrictive immigration policies comes from proxies for nativist organizations, such as the Center for Immigration Studies, which attempt to impute an air of legitimacy to the very racist ideas of their founders and practitioners. I refer you to the websites of the ADL and The Southern Policy Law Center, two of the most respected American voices in civil rights work today, for more information. The facts you will learn there are terrifying.
Here in America, the characteristics of Sodomite selfishness often get dressed in the cloak of respectable concern for one’s fellow citizens. This is not helpful and it is unbecoming of who we Americans say we are as a nation. As we move forward from our bruising election season into a new presidency, all Americans would do well to not be fooled by this insidious version of Middat Sedom. The United States is a country founded upon a strong legacy of Torat Regel, a culture of welcoming those who Emma Lazarus referred to as the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free. Surely we can honor that legacy while also strengthening our own citizens, can’t we?