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The Distinctiveness of Judaism Sdom: The Mask of Evil

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NOTE: This post is a continuation of the discussion that began here and continued here and here.
Imagine a perfect little neighbourhood with its picket fences and neatly arranged gardens; not a homeless person in sight. When the neighbours come out of their homes and interact with each other they are all friendly to each other; the scene is so peaceful and calm. But why is there not a homeless person in sight? Is it because they have truly taken care of the needs of the homeless and so homelessness has been removed? Or, is it because of the other meaning in the words “taken care of”, that homeless individuals have been removed or eliminated, so that this neighbourhood need not have this trouble? From the image of this ‘perfect little neighbourhood’, the question is: how would you know?
It is with this perspective that one can fully understand the Jewish view of the story of Sdom, why its full presentation had to include the Written Word and the Oral Word in the manner that it did, and how Lot, the nephew of Avraham Avinu, who lived for years in our forefather’s camp, could have even considered living in Sdom. Lot was clearly far from being as righteous as his uncle Avraham but he, nonetheless, also did learn some aspects of ethics and morality from his uncle. It is very difficult to perceive Lot settling in a place as totally absent of basic moral values as the colloquial vision of Sdom. He confronted his townsfolks to protect the angels – could this have been his only skirmish with them in the years he lived amongst them? But if he was constantly in conflict with them, why did he choose to live with them? Perhaps the confrontation with the angels was really his first battle with his neighbours? The problem was that he saw the perfect little neighbourhood and did not look any deeper.
What Traditional Judaism recognizes is that there are two types of evil. One is more obvious, easy to recognize – but this is not the one which usually causes the greatest problems. It is the other type of evil that is the one that is most malicious and causes the greatest havoc. It is the evil which is often not even recognized – until it may be too late. It is the evil that presents a cover of goodness, through immediate (often false) images of this goodness, with an intent to further direct us away from consideration of the overall effect of what is really happening. This was Sdom – and this is why it was singled out for destruction amongst all the evil entities of its time. It presented itself in such positive terms but beneath this false exterior lay the motivations of gross evil. The presentation of this false image was, in fact, its greatest evil.
To convey this message, the Oral Law tells us of Sdom’s ‘white picket fences’ so that the text can actually inform us of the residents’ deeper true inclinations that were maliciously hidden from view but really shaped everything. This is the methodology of Traditional Judaism that is often misunderstood. In Nishma (the organization I serve as Founding Director), we have a slogan: “Life is complex; Decisions are complex; Torah is complex.” The complex messages of Torah can often only be conveyed through the complex methodology of Torah and Talmudic study. This is a distinguishing mark of Judaism and it plays out in so many ways in the story of Sdom. The world sees this story as a simple one with an understanding of good and evil in the simplest of terms. Religion, in general, is almost thereby defined as simple.  The story, from a Jewish perspective, is, as is life, most complex as is the very challenge of understanding and applying yardsticks of good and evil. How often do we miss the fact that evil people will justify their actions by vehemently declaring that they are really doing good? A distinctiveness of Judaism lies in the very fact that it understands this challenge.
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