The Surprising Evil of Ideology

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NOTE: This post is a continuation of the discussion that began here and continued here.
The Distinctiveness of Judaism – Sdom in Context
As we have previously stated, the story of Sdom, from the perspective of traditional Judaism, 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.” The Sodomites believed that it was wrong for Lot to give his guests food and lodging for nothing. They believed people should always pay something for what they receive; otherwise people will expect something for nothing; To the Sodomites, this was wrong and undermined society. This was the fundamental principle upon which their society was built.
Lot’s response, however, was that these guests did not have anything of monetary value with which they could pay for what they received. His argument, as such, was that the whole issue was really a non-issue as the guests couldn’t pay anyway. It was then that the townspeople brought up the issue of sex: let the guests then pay with their bodies. To the Sodomites, the issue was that, for the proper functioning of society, people should not receive anything without paying for it. To demand payment will teach people, even (and, perhaps, especially) visitors to a land, that they have to carry their weight. As such, it was important to the Sodomites that these guests pay something, even if just through the use of their bodies. The sexual aspect of the event was actually secondary. What the Sodomites were really clamouring for was the upholding of this societal value of theirs.
The motivation of the Sodomites, as such, was not homosexual lust but the desire to maintain their ‘value’ of nothing for nothing. To them, Lot, a newcomer to the city, violated one of their society’s principles and this had to be corrected. A simple question, though: how did Judaism see this in this story? One could read the story with this perspective but this understanding does not emerge from the simple reading of the words. Why, then, read the story with this perspective?  Herein lies a fundamental principle of Judaism: no text within Judaism – including, and especially, the Written Torah – exists independent of its proper, external context. It is this external context which then provides the parameters for the proper understanding of the text. It is this recognition of context that is one of the fundamental principles of Torah She’b’al Peh, the Oral Torah.
T.B. Shabbat 31a presents a story of a non-Jew who, while declaring only belief in the Written Torah, approaches both Shammai and Hillel with a request to convert. Shammai summarily and assertively dismisses the non-Jew as conversion demands the acceptance of the basic principles of Judaism. In rejecting the Divine basis of the Oral Torah, this person is already declaring a lack of concurrence with these principles and so Shammai rejects him. Hillel, however, accepts the non-Jew, agreeing, in the process, to first teach him the Written Torah beginning with the Hebrew alphabet. Rashi states that Hillel did so because he was sure that he could teach the non-Jew the truth about the Divinity of the Oral Law – and this is what Hillel actually proceeded to do.
On the first day of the lessons, Hillel began with what would seem to be, self-evidently, the first step, the presentation of the Hebrew alphabet. Hillel, as such, went through, with the non-Jew, the name and pronunciation of each letter. On the next day, the non-Jew then returned to Hillel having proudly memorized the entire alphabet. As Hillel quizzed him, the non-Jew answered as he was taught the day before. Hillel, however, now responded, in regard to each letter, that the non-Jew was wrong. The non-Jew was totally bewildered; he knew that he was answering as he was taught but now he was being told that this knowledge was actually incorrect. In response to the non-Jew’s questioning of what was happening, Hillel makes a most profound statement in regard to education in general and Torah education in particular. Before any education connected to texts and writing, there must first always exist a trusted oral education from teacher to student. To learn how to read, the non-Jew had to trust Hillel in regard to the oral teaching of the names and pronunciations of the letters. This is what happened on the first day; the non-Jew trusted Hillel’s oral teachings in regard to the alphabet. On the second day, he was then taught this very lesson about trust. It is, in this regard, that Hillel then states that if the non-Jew trusts him in regard to the alphabet, he should also trust him in regard to the truth of the Torah She’b’al Peh. The non-Jew now recognized the very significance of this trust in the oral teaching of a teacher. It was thereby that the non-Jew accepted the truth of the Oral Torah.
What Hillel was instructing the non-Jew was the inherent limitation of textual truth. Any text can only have value subsequent to an oral teaching; the most basic one being the very language in which the text was written. In regard to any teaching, the starting point must always be an oral one; education must begin in the person of a teacher who instructs orally. It is actually trust in this person that begins the educational process. Any written instruction, as such, must always begin with the acceptance of a prior oral instruction. This was Hillel’s lesson to the non-Jew.
In regard to the Oral Torah, what Hillel was more specifically imparting is that there is often a general misperception that a text has greater validity than an oral teaching, perhaps because it is a text. There is then a further ill-conceived extension that a text is always primary and comes first, with any accompanying oral teachings being solely some type of interpretation of the text and thereby secondary. What Hillel is imparting is that the truth is often actually the opposite. In general, an oral teaching of some nature must always, in fact, precede a text; language, for example, must exist first for there to even be a text. The holiness of a text, also, can only be transmitted because a trusted individual informed one of this truth. The fact that a text itself defines itself as holy does not have this kind of weight. Similarly, the oral teachings of the Oral Torah, proceed – and, indeed, are primary to – the written text of the Written Torah.
Once the non-Jew understood this general concept, he could then apprehend the complete nature of Torah, both Oral and Written, and thereby accept the Divine nature of both. Texts do not exist in vacuums. There must always be an accompanying oral teaching to a text. The concept of Torah She’b’al Peh simply formalizes this idea in the context of God’s Revelation at Sinai. In addition to the revealed Written text given at Sinai, God also taught Moshe oral principles to accompany the text and provide it with context. (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Shemot 21:2, in fact, compares the relationship of Torah She’b’al Peh and the Written Torah to an extensive, base oral presentation with a ‘book’ “given…simply as a means of retaining and reviving ever afresh this knowledge which had been entrusted to their memories…”)
Why did God, though, not just present, as well, the Sdom story more clearly and explicitly in the text? This is, actually, a fundamental question in regard to the entire dynamic between the Written and Oral Torah. Verses in the text, as understood in the works of the Torah She’b’al Peh, often seem to run contrary to their simple textual reading. Critics of Judaism, in fact, often use such discrepancies between the text and the Rabbinic understanding to maintain that the Rabbis just freely interpreted the text to simply meet their own purposes. From a Jewish perspective, though, the question is not how the Rabbis came to these understandings – that was the insight of Torah She’b’al Peh -- but why, given this further information, the text was still written by God in the manner in which it was written. This would be the same question in regard to this story of Sdom. Why was the text presented in a manner to imply simply that the Sodomites were a lustful, homosexual mob rather than, as they actually were, a group of ‘concerned citizens who believed that their values were being violated’? This is clearly a question that must be addressed in the future.
It should first be recognized, though, that there are always hints within a text that point to the fuller understanding of the presentation within the context of Torah She’b’al Peh. Such is also the case with this story. A thoughtful reading of the story immediately raises a variety of questions. (1) How was Sdom different than the lustful pagan communities that surrounded it? Why was it singled out for Divine destruction? From the text alone, it would actually not seem to be so different than other societies of the time. (See, for example, the case of Egypt in Bereishit 12:10-20.) (2) Given that we know that Lot was in some manner affected by the teachings of his uncle Avraham Avinu, why would he have chosen to live in Sdom in the first place? 3) Why would Lot even think that offering his daughters to the mob would satisfy them if their desire was homosexual? The simple reading of the text really leaves these questions unanswered. To the one who understands Torah She’b’al Peh, though, these questions are actually the hints within the text that ties it to its Oral context. It is the reading of the text within its Torah She’b’al Peh context that effectively provides answers to these questions and explains the greater breadth of the story as it encompasses both the Written and Oral Torah – and it is from here that we will continue in our next posting.
To conclude now, though, I do wish to leave with you with one important thought. Most people think that the most severe forms of evil can be found in the barbaric actions of savages. In fact, though, the worst evils are actually found in the behaviour of ideologues. One really and fully encounters the extreme evil of the Third Reich, not in Auschwitz itself but in the orderly, officer quarters that surrounded the camp. It is the individual who believes that he/she is doing good – who justifies his/her behaviour as right along the spectrum of right and wrong -- but, in actuality, is acting in the most evil of ways who presents the full nature of evil. This was Sdom from the perspective of Judaism and we will expand upon this in our next post.

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