A lot of things happen in the Torah portion we all read today. One of the many plotlines is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. While every adult here probably knows what that story has come to symbolize in our culture, you all may not know the basics of the actual story. I didn’t. I always thought it was about a town where a bunch of gay people lived happily in consensual sex until death and destruction rained down on them. It turns out that is not how the story goes; I will give you the super Cliff Notes version.
A man named Lot has some houseguests, who are men. He serves them a delicious dinner and they’re all about to turn in for the night when suddenly there is a terrible commotion outside. Every single male person in Sodom – and the Torah is very clear that it was every male in the town, of all ages, from toddler to grandfather, every single last one of them – is outside Lot’s house and they’re shouting, “Hey! Where are those men you brought in your house! We want to have sex with them!” (The Bible doesn’t actually say the word “sex” – the text literally says, “We want to ‘know’ them” – but we can infer that they mean “have sex with” because this particular Hebrew word for “know” is the same word used in various places in the Torah to describe sex and not mere information gathering.)
Lot pleads with the entire town of Sodom outside his house to spare his houseguests from being “known” and offers the crowd his two virgin daughters instead! All of the male citizens of Sodom say “No, we don’t want your virgin daughters, we want the men!” And then the crazed toddlers and grandfathers break Lot’s door down to get the men. Then just in time, God saves Lot and his family and his houseguests and rains sulphurous fire down on Sodom and Gomorrah.
When I told Anna, my wife, I was going to talk about Sodom and Gomorrah for my d’var Torah, she said, “What? Why? Is there nothing else you can talk about? Isn’t it supposed to be inspiring?” I have to admit that I have had the same question at Torah study many times. Isn’t it the job of spiritual texts to be inspiring? Christians have texts about having a special friend that’s looking out for them. Mainstream Buddhists have simple yet profound words from people like Thich Nhat Hanh. Why are we reading these melodramatic, apocalyptic, stories of mass hysteria, incest, murder and rape, starring a God that is constantly contradicting itself? How is this inspiring?
The Torah was the last aspect of Judaism I came to love. Susan Sontag said that books can be categorized as either husbands or lovers. A husband of a book is one that has characteristics of a desirable spouse, such as decency, reliability, and generosity. A book that is a lover is one that is moody, unpredictable and maybe even brutal. I had assumed the Torah should be a husband and felt frustrated and unfulfilled by it. Then feelings of liberation and relief washed over me when I realized it is actually a lover; maybe one with multiple personality disorder.
It took months of coming to Torah study before I realized that reading the Torah is not what we’re doing. We are not passively perusing the text and accepting it at face value. We are dismantling it and putting it back together, and we are doing it with love and skepticism. We are diving willingly down rabbit holes and examining historical contexts. We are arguing with each other. And I believe we are creating something new. Something that couldn’t have been made by any other combination of people at any other time. By the end it feels like a mystical experience. Some part of my brain gets blissed out and it feels like God is there.
So, when I learned that our Torah portion included the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, I may have rubbed my hands together and cackled with glee. This is one of the main Bible stories that Christian America has indefatigably used as proof that God hates gay people. As a gay person, this always felt personal. Now, I was going to get a turn with it. I was going to own Sodom and Gomorrah.
My research for this endeavor included reading interpretations from the perspectives of all the Abrahamic traditions. I found that the Jewish interpretation differs greatly from the Christian and Muslim interpretations. The Jewish interpretation, dating back to the Sanhedrin in like year 30, was that the grave sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not homosexuality, but the failure to care for one’s community. How can this be? I thought. Were they not reading the same text? It turns out that while this particular story of Sodom and Gomorrah in our Torah portion is the one known in popular culture, there are other stories in different parts of the Bible where the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah refuse to feed the poor or welcome the stranger. While the Christian and Muslim scholars don’t focus on those earlier stories, those are the ones that have interested Jewish scholars throughout time. The Jewish rabbis and sages haven’t been particularly interested in this story where Sodom and Gomorrah meet their theatrical, terrible end. Maybe because next to all the other crazy stuff that happens in the Torah it doesn’t really stand out. But I find it interesting.
I find the story a pretty effective illustration of depravity, not in the fact that it is men wanting to have sex with other men, but in the other details the Torah provides. Details like that these were toddlers breaking down the door to rape grown men. There is no mention of consensual sex. The crimes described are not homosexuality; they are loss of childhood innocence and rape. That is a heartbreaking detail, because in the Jewish tradition, humans are born with original blessing, not original sin. We come into this world pure and whole, and with a responsibility to help heal a world that is broken. The specification that even the babies are rapists effectively enlists our imaginations to conjure a profound degree of brokenness. The whole story is meant as a nightmarish illustration of what happens when we don’t take care of each other. We don’t only lose our communities, we lose ourselves and our original connection to God.
What’s probably most interesting to me is maybe not the text itself so much as the way it has been used. What does it mean when different religions use the text differently, and how do these usages make manifest the message of the story? What if all the energy that was put into communicating that God hates gay people was instead put into communicating the urgent need to take care of each other? When we study the Torah in the tradition of sages and rabbis throughout the ages, we do the work to interpret it in a way that takes care of each other. We take care of our ancestors. We put ourselves in their shoes and give them the benefit of the doubt. We
take bizarre and at times horrific stories and find the truth in them that will help us see each other more kindly. We create a loving space for people that came before us and who will come after us. We make God.
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