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The Sins of Sodom

The recent, callous and brutal hate murder of the Wyoming young college student, Matthew Shepard, a murder motivated solely by hatred of his homosexual orientation, has shocked our country and focused public and media attention, once again, on issues of sexual identity and prejudice. People are struggling to make sense out of modern scientific insights into human sexuality and today's realities in the light of traditional cultural and religious beliefs. People are appalled by the viciousness of the crime and are seeking ways to understand it in terms of their society's and their personal approach to homosexuals.

Not surprisingly, the discussion of homosexuality remains current within the Jewish community. Jews today are re-examining our scared texts and traditions in light of contemporary knowledge and experience to develop responses to the needs of gay and lesbian Jews within our communities. Thoughtful Jews from all religious movements understand that this discussion is not an abstract intellectual debate, but an attempt to deal with the real needs of real people who are, literally and figuratively, our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, our neighbors, our friends, our selves.

Though there is no single Jewish position on homosexuality, Jews are united in our rejection of homophobia, the senseless hatred of people because of their homosexual orientation. As Jews we are all too familiar with violence growing out of senseless hatred, and as a community we instinctively protest crimes arising out of hatred. We know from experience that racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia shatter lives and destroy communities.

In popular imagination, homosexuality's sinful nature is associated with the wickedness of the city of Sodom, of whose destruction we read as part of this week's Torah portion. In fact, the English word sodomy, which has a range of meanings that stretch from intimate behavior between two men to bestiality, derives from Sodoma, the Latin form of the Hebrew city name, Sodom. Yet, the association of the sinfulness of Sodom and its inhabitants with sexual behavior of any kind is a misreading of the Torah story within the biblical context, and is only poorly supported by later Jewish literature. As we will see, the crime of homophobia is far closer to the biblical understanding of the wickedness of Sodom than almost any other sin.

In this story, the utter wickedness of the Sodomites is illustrated by the attempt of the men of Sodom to brutalize, en masse, the two angelic figures who arrived in the city in human form to warn Abraham's nephew, Lot, of the forthcoming destruction of the city (Genesis 19:1-11). Lot, deeply committed to the traditions of hospitality to and protection of strangers, is willing to offer his daughters to the crowd as substitutes for the men, and in this way is willing to sacrifice his honor and status for the protection of his guests. Although we may question the propriety of Lot's offer, the mob rejects it out of hand and turns its hatred against Lot, whom the people condemn as a foreigner himself. The horde then moves to attack Lot and is disbursed only by miraculous means.

It is clear from the story in this week's portion that the sin of the Sodomites is their utter rejection of the traditions of guest hospitality, an act whose sinfulness is underscored by the portion's earlier account of Abraham's generous welcoming of the same guests they wish to attack (Genesis 18:1-8). The Sodomites' desire to assault the angels and their condemnation of Lot for being a foreigner manifests their sin as violent hatred of those who differ from them, those who appear as strangers. The Sodomites express a vicious narrowness of spirit that still surfaces as racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and other forms of ethnic and religious prejudice.

As we look into the rest of our Bible, we see that Scripture does not describe the Sodomites' evil as sexual wickedness. Rather, the prophets charge the Sodomites with a variety of other offenses, including a lack of justice (Isaiah 1:10; 3:9), a general disregard of moral and ethical values (Jeremiah 23:14) and ignoring the needs of the impoverished (Ezekiel 16:48-49). These themes are picked up later by the rabbis of the Talmud who describe the Sodomites as mean, inhospitable, uncharitable and unjust.

In the Jewish community, as well as in religious communities throughout North America, people are re-examining traditional attitudes toward homosexuality. In the Jewish world we see a variety of approaches expressed by thoughtful and religiously committed people and supported by the various religious movements. However, when it comes to hatred and violence in general and to homophobia in particular, I believe that as a people we are unequivocal in our condemnation.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah