The Distinctiveness of Judaism – Midat Sdom and Sodomy

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NOTE: This post is a continuation of the discussion that began here.

In beginning to look at the distinctive nature of Jewish thought and ethics, a case example, rather than just an articulation of differences, may actually provide a good starting point. A presentation that is well-known, of which the general understanding is perceived to be straightforward and universal, would function well in this regard if it can be demonstrated that the Jewish understanding of this case is essentially vastly different than this accepted, dominant understanding. Beyond the variations inherent in the understandings themselves, the questions emerging from why the Jewish approach is so different could also demonstrate further distinctions inherent in Judaism. Such an example is, in fact, found in the story of the ancient city of Sodom (Bereishit 19:1-22).

Immediately, questions regarding possible distinctions in approach should emerge from the identification of the different words and phrases developed in response to the story. In that the English word ‘sodomy’ emerged from this story, a significant assumption by readers would seem to have been that the motivation of homosexual lust  was the key element in the evil perpetrated by this population. Within Jewish sources, though -- while not denying that the evil behaviour in the story did focus on sexual violence -- the term midat Sdom developed to describe the essential evil motivation expressed through the story. What is midat Sdom? Mishna Avot 5:13 states that there are four types of character traits amongst people. One type is defined by those who say ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours’; this, the Mishna continues, is the character trait of the average person but some say that this is midat Sdom, the character trait of the people of Sodom’. From this definition, the vast chasm between the above noted perception of the story, tied to the English word ‘sodomy’, and the Jewish perspective would now seem to be powerfully apparent. With the presentation of this Jewish perspective, however, what may be more on one’s mind, though, is the challenging nature of this definition of midat Sdom. What’s so wrong with an attitude of ‘what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours? – and how is this definition even connected to the story of the city of Sodom? Now we can actually truly begin to investigate the distinctiveness of Judaism.
To fully understand the Mishna’s perspective and to begin to answer these questions, our starting point must be how the Gemara further applies this term of midat Sdom. T.B. Baba Batra 12b informs us of the rule, applied universally throughout the Talmud (see, further, T.B. Baba Batra 59a, 168a), that a Jewish court can force someone to not enforce a position in accord with midat Sdom. Rashi, Baba Batra 12b, d.h. Al Midat Sdom explains this to mean that if someone is trying to apply their legal rights in a case of Zeh neheneh, zeh lo chaseir [This one benefits while the other loses nothing], the Jewish court will not enforce these rights. Applying such rights in this type of case is seen as a demonstration of midat Sdom and the court will not support the expression of such a characteristic. Midat Sdom is thus universally agreed upon to be the character trait within a person which would drive the person to exercise his/her legal rights in a case of Zeh neheneh, zeh lo chaseir. What does this mean?
When a person uses another person’s property, the person using the property is seen as benefitting from this usage while the owner of this property is seen, at the same time, as giving up or losing something, even if only the opportunity cost of using the property. The payment for the use or sale (i.e. the future right of usage) of property is thus seen as the compensation owing the owner for this combined benefit to the user or purchaser and loss, or cost, to the owner. The case of Zeh neheneh, zeh lo chaseir is one whereby someone used another’s property, thus benefitting from it, but there was no cost to the owner – not even a loss of opportunity cost defined in the broadest possible way. The item is not on the market. The owner is not using it at present and has no intention of using it in the foreseeable future. There is no chance of damage to the item. Simply, without any cost or potential cost to the owner, someone else used this property. The attitude of Jewish Law is that positive attributes of kindness and caring should lead an owner to not demand payment in such situations. Any subsequent attempt to try and push for compensation for the use of this property in such a case is deemed to be a reflection of midat Sdom. This is the evil of Sodom; a belief that, as long as one is not actively intent on harming another, any act of self-interest is proper and it is wrong for another to infringe on one’s self-reliant action of self-interest. The Sodomite would not steal from another but, on principle, he/she also would not extend a helping hand. If his/her property is being used, he/she wants payment.
The view of the Mishna which ties midat Sdom to the attitude of ‘what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours’ is simply arguing that this trait is the basis for the behaviour defined by midat Sdom. The other view in the Mishna is disagreeing with this psychological argument but both opinions agree as to the evil nature of this midat Sdom. A demand to be compensated just because you own the property -- especially if the one using the property was in need -- even though the usage by this other did not affect the property or you in any way, is deemed to be problematic. One should be kinder to his/her fellow human being. (The opinion that ties midat Sdom to ‘what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours’ may still be significant in attempting to understand the nature of this concept even if one does not fully agree with the specific delineation.)
The fact is that in Sodom, it was considered wrong for someone to receive something for nothing or to give something to another for nothing. To them, this was an important societal ‘value’, necessary for the proper functioning of a community. From a Jewish perspective, the adherence to such a negative moral viewpoint, though, was deemed to be the key nature of the evil within the population of Sodom. The driving force of the Sodomites in the story was their opinion that a wrong was committed, that it was ‘immoral’ for these strangers at Lot’s home to be receiving something for nothing – no matter what the circumstances. This drove the Sodomites to act. They had a ‘principle’ that what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours and nothing should be given for nothing. They did not simply act on emotion or because of lust. They were driven by their ‘principle’ – and there is no greater evil, from a Jewish perspective, than when one believes that, in the performance of an evil act, they are actually thereby acting properly, justifiably.
From a Jewish perspective, the story of Sodom is not one of a lustful mob but rather one of ‘committed’ citizens motivated by an evil principle, which they believed to be correct, that was being violated. This is clearly a distinct view of the story. How, though, did Judaism gain this perspective? How did Jews read the story to gain this understanding? Why is midat Sdom so evil that God felt that He had no alternative but to destroy the city that was its namesake? These are questions we will consider in our next post, both in their own right and in our quest to recognize the distinctiveness of Judaism.

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