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Friday, July 10, 2015

Judaism on the Story of Sodom

Written by  Rabbi John Franken

Reverend Rob Apgar-Taylor is quite correct when he wrote that the punishment visited on the biblical city of Sodom had nothing to do with homosexuality and everything to do with the city’s harsh treatment of the poor, the hungry, and the stranger in its midst.

Jewish commentators have made this point for centuries. Nachmanides, one of the greatest biblical scholars of the Medieval period, held that the unmatched cruelty of Sodomites toward the poor sealed that city’s fate. Even earlier sages imagined that Sodom’s cruelty was such that its people burned anyone giving bread to the needy and stripped any poor person of his clothing. Its judiciary was so corrupt that judges would reportedly fine the victim of an assault rather than the perpetrator.

Jewish commentaries do not attribute  the wickedness of Sodom to homosexuality. That notion seems to have arisen elsewhere, based on the failed attempt of the Sodomites to kidnap Lot’s out-of-town guests. But even if the Sodomites had been inclined to homosexuality, the point of the biblical story is that they wished to practice it violently and without consent. In other words, they didn’t want to love their fellows, but rather to rape them. For this reason the writer Jay Michaelson once said that reading the story of Sodom as being about homosexuality is like reading the story of an axe murderer being about an axe. Homosexuality wasn’t the sin; rather, it was the cruel oppression of the other.

That Lot and his daughters were the only ones spared from the city’s destruction does not owe to the fact that they were the only straight people in Sodom. They were saved because they were the ones in the city who welcomed the stranger and protected the foreigner. That is the overarching moral of a story which is, after all, bound up in a Hebrew bible which commands: “You shall not oppress the stranger” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”


John Franken is the rabbi of Bolton Street Synagogue in Roland Park. E-mail him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or visit Boltonstreet.org.

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