19/929 Sodom’s Culture of Coercive Kindness

This is the first in a hopefully daily series of short reflections in English on the daily chapter of Tanach in the (wonderful, wonderful) 929 Project. This initiative, and the ideas and opinions expressed here, are my own. If you haven’t heard of 929, you can learn more at 929.org.il

Sodom- the archetype of biblical evil. But strip away your stereotypes for a minute and take a careful look at what the Torah describes- what was so evil about Sodom? The emphasis of chapter 19, taken as a unit, paints the picture of a culture of coercive kindness, a society evil in the way it does good. It begins with Lot, stubbornly insisting the angels stay with him, despite their reluctance. Lot knows exactly what’s best for them, outlining in great detail the parameters of their stay.

The coerciveness of his hospitality is underscored by the Torah’s repetition of the word describing Lot’s insistence that it uses for the people of Sodom’s “generous” offer, which can almost be read innocently. “Bring them out so that we may get to know them!” Certainly, the intention is sinister, but you can almost hear their moral claim- “how dare you monopolize these visitors for yourself?” Lot’s response continues his Sodomite “generosity”, offering his daughters, who, we might guess, did not volunteer themselves. As the chapter closes, Lot’s daughters return the favor, raping their father for the good of mankind. They have clearly internalized the dark heart of Sodom, which expresses itself not in evil acts committed as much as in egocentric kindness that is extended without empathy, without real care for the other. The rabbis encapsulated this attitude perfectly in the image of the “Procrustean bed”, which cuts down or stretches out the recipient of kindness in response to the giver’s needs. This, then, is Sodom’s personal challenge to us. Is our kindness egocentric? Do we define the Good and then force our definition on others? Does our kindness, our charity, our giving, fit our own needs, or is it truly responsive to the other?

About the Author
Avidan Freedman is the rabbi of the Shalom Hartman Institute's Hevruta program, an educator Hartman Boys High School in Jerusalem, and an activist against Israeli weapons sales to human rights violators.