For good reason, Sodom and Gomorrah do not have a great reputation in the western tradition. Most people assume these cities gained their ill repute on account of their violent and criminal sexual behavior. While the events of the story certainly may support this reading, much of the rabbinic reflections on the sins of this city and their consequent destruction have a different focus.
A series of anecdotal reflections in the Babylonian Talmud give us a glimpse of what the sages viewed as repugnant about the behavior of the Sodomites:
“Now, the Sodomites had beds reserved for visiting travelers. If a guest was too tall, they shortened him [by lopping off his feet] so he might fit the size of the bed; if he was too short, they stretched him so he would fit. Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, once visited there. They said to him, ‘Arise and sleep on this bed!’ He replied, ‘I have vowed since the day of my mother’s death not to sleep in a bed.’
If a poor man happened to come to town, every resident gave him a coin, upon which he wrote his name, but no one would sell the poor man food. When the man died, each came and took back his coin.
The citizens of Sodom made an agreement amongst themselves: whoever invites a stranger to a feast shall be stripped of his garment. Now, a banquet was in progress, when Eliezer chanced there, but no one would give him anything to eat. Wishing to dine, he went and sat down at the end of the banquet table. They said to him: ‘Who invited you here?’ He replied to the one sitting near him: ‘You invited me.’ The latter said to himself, ‘Someone may have heard that I invited him, and strip me of my garments!’ The man quickly fled so he wouldn’t need to give up his clothes. Eliezer did this to each and every person at the banquet until they were all gone; leaving him to consume entire meal.
A certain maiden gave some bread to a poor man, [hiding it] in a pitcher. When the matter becoming known, they daubed her with honey and placed her on the parapet of the wall, and the bees came and consumed her. Thus, it is written, ‘And the Lord said: The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah, because it is great.’ (Genesis 18:20)” (Adapted from Sanhedrin 109b)
These anecdotes, some of which are quite amusing, speak for themselves. They represent reflections of the Babylonian Talmudic sages on the sins of Sodom. These sages seem to have been absorbed by the systemic and endemic cruelty of the inhabitants of the city. It was not a matter of individual callousness. The cruelty was societal. It was built into the legal system. It was not just legitimate, it was expected of every citizen. Anyone who bucked the system and showed any kindness – any sense of responsibility for the other, was criminal!
We have to ask ourselves why the sages projected these sorts of behaviors onto the story of Sodom. I suggest that the answer is quite simple. These vignettes are a social criticism par excellence. The sages were aware that these very same attitudes existed in the world they lived in. “Sodom” really was not so far away. The sages wanted to make it abundantly clear how societally destructive such behaviors and ideas are. In their eyes, there was no better way to do this than to make the association with Sodom and Gomorrah.
Times do not change. The picture that the sages painted of Sodom is as relevant today as it was in the past. We, too, have to ask ourselves whether we live in “Sodom”. If we do, we must take corrective measures before it is too late.