What Was The Sin of Sedom? By: Rabbi Dan Margulies

A perennial question which every commentator must grapple is the question of identifying exactly what was the sin of sodom its people. Why did they deserve to be destroyed? What was the failing of their society? One answer which deeply resonates with me, and which I think can serve as a lens for examining broader hashkafic themes was given by Rav Moshe Avigdor Amiel ztz”l.

As his starting point to answer the question Rav Amiel took the mishna in Avot (5:9):

ארבע מידות באדם: האומר שלי שלי ושלך שלך זו מידה בינונית; ויש אומרין זו מידת סדום. שלי שלך ושלך שלי עם  הארץ. שלי שלך ושלך שלך חסיד. שלך שלי ושלי שלי רשע

שלך ↓          שלי ← שלי שלך
שלי רשע עם הארץ
שלך בינוי או מדת סדום חסיד

According to the mishna there are four archetypal character types based on how one relates to their own possessions and how one relates to the possessions of others. One to whom “mine is yours and yours is yours” is a hasid—pious. One for whom “mine is mine and yours is mine” is a rasha—wicked. One for whom “mine is yours and yours is mine” is an am haaretz—ignorant, foolish, plebeian. These are less interesting than the final archetype. The mishna gives two alternate interpretations of a person for whom “mine is mine and yours is yours.” The stam mishna considers this person a beinoni—an average individual. However, the mishna relates that others declare—yesh omerim—that this is the trait of Sodom.

Rav Amiel was troubled by the fact that the opinion in the stam mishna and the opinion of the yesh omerim are such polar opposites. It seems as if the stam mishna sees this attitude as relatively benign while the yesh omerim condemn it harshly. Rav Amiel suggested a novel way to read the mishna that harmonizes this tension and results in the mishna reading as a singe message. He would have translated  … האומר as “If one person says ‘Mine is mine and yours is yours’ it is an average trait” but …  ויש אומרים “… as soon as there are multiple people who say ‘Mine is mine and yours is yours’ it is the trait of Sodom.” According to Rav Amiel, a society can function and can sustain a basic ethical underpinning if there is a critical mass of hasidim in the society, whose generosity and altruism support the needy around them. As soon as there are too many benonim in the society, as soon as there are many who are guided by indifference and selfishness the society will collapse under the weight of its own iniquity.

I think this four-part classification (so common in Avot) and in particular the ambiguity in the fourth class are a useful lens for examining a core question that lies at the heart of many hashkafic debates today, and for isolating an orienting principle for a Modern Orthodox outlook, based on a story told by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ztz”l. (N.B. When I posted this story on Facebook on Tuesday it received over 40 “likes” and “loves”).

“A couple of years after we moved to Yerushalayim, I was once walking with my family in the Biet Yisrael neighborhood, where R. Isser Zalman Meltzer used to live. For the most part, it consists of narrow alleys. We came to a corner, and found a merchant stuck there with his car. The question came up as to how to help him; it was a clear case of perika u-te’ina (helping one load or unload his burden). There were some youngsters there from the neighborhood, who judging from their looks were probably ten or eleven years old. They saw that this merchant was not wearing a kippa. So they began a whole pilpul,based on the gemara in Pesachim (113b), about whether they should help him or not. They said, ‘If he walks around bareheaded, presumably he doesn’t separate terumot u-ma’asarot, so he is suspect of eating and selling untithed produce …

“I wrote R. Soloveitchik a letter at that time, and told him of the incident. I ended with the comment, ‘Children of that age from our camp would not have known the gemara, but they would have helped him.’ My feeling then was: Why Ribbono shel Olam, must this be our choice? Can’t we find children who would have helped him and still know the gemara? Do we have to chose? I hope not; I believe not. If forced to chose, however, I would have no doubts where my loyalties lie: I prefer that they know less gemara, but help him.

“… When all is said and done, you have to be guided not by what you love; you have to be guided by Torah. And the Torah tells us what is good: ‘… to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God. (Mikha 6:8)”

I find this story powerful because through the use of a strawman it isolates a core divide between “our camp” and other approaches to Judaism. Indeed, Rav Lichtenstein’s typology can be aligned with the one proposed in the above mishna, and developed by Rav Amiel. Rav Lichtenstein’s ideal, those who would help the man and know the sugya in the gemara we can call the hasidim who say “mine is yours and yours is yours.” Those ignorant of the contents of the gemara who would refuse to help the man are the mishna’s reshaim who say “mine is mine and yours is mine.” Rav Lichtenstein’s critique is thus. There are people who know the gemara, and based on it would refuse to help the man. In his strawman depiction, this attitude is embraced by the haredi street (even if not necessarily endorsed by its leadership). His own humanistic ethical answer to the dilemma is to see this behavior, not as that befitting a benoni but as that of Sodom; to see it not as simply less than ideal but deeply flawed and more problematic than the ignorance of the am haaretz.

In a scenario guided by both universal ethical principles and the laws of God’s Torah, the am haaretz is ignorant of the Torah but guided by enough basic ethics to decide to help the man. One guided by midat Sodom uses the technicalities of the Torah to skirt the ethical imperative; afterall, midat Sodom is not as bad as being a rasha. According to Rav Lichtenstein, the ideal is neither of these. The ideal, somewhat paradoxically, is to know the laws of the Torah well enough to be able to formulate the argument that one is exempt from helping the man. And then to take up the ethical imperative to help him nonetheless. To hold fast to nothing but the abstract law of the Torah, under this model, is not even the bare minimum. It is a failure. In order to achieve the heights demanded of us, to make ourselves hasidim, we need to transcend what is halakhically/legally required and contemplate the ethical requirements we have as well.

In Torah, we can suggest, there is no supererogatory, because in fact the super-erogatory is actually just “erogatory” (cf. Bava Metzia 83a). We have a mandate to exceed our mandate. And so “mine is mine and yours is yours” isn’t enough; it’s significantly less than enough. And the false premise that it could be enough is the kernel of what it takes for a civil and just society founded on Torah principles to decay into the indifference and cruel selfishness of Sodom.  

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