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What Makes a Society Evil Beyond Salvation?

I am not the first person to wonder out loud about whether Western Civilization is heading toward its own destruction. But I’d like to take a step back and ask a basic introductory question: what makes a society evil in the eyes of G-d – so evil that it merits being destroyed outright?

Sodom is our case study, the only time post-flood when G-d destroys people because of their sinfulness. But it is not – of course — that simple.

Here is the outline of what happens:

Then the LORD said, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will know.”

Here is a key element: G-d has not decided in advance to destroy the city. Instead, He decides to actively test the city by sending in angels and seeing what will happen. It is clear in the text that if the angels had been treated well, then Sodom would not have been destroyed.

Here is what the people of the city do:

[The angels) had not yet lain down, when the townspeople, the men of Sodom, young and old—all the people to the last man—gathered about the house. And they shouted to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” So Lot went out to them to the entrance, shut the door behind him, and said, “I beg you, my friends, do not commit such a wrong. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please; but do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof.” But they said, “Stand back! The fellow,” they said, “came here as an alien, and already he acts the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” And they pressed hard against the person of Lot, and moved forward to break the door.

There is a lot in these few verses, but we can see the major elements of what dooms Sodom:

  1. The city acts as a mob. Every single person participated in encircling the house and making demands. There is no tolerance in the city for outliers, for individuals who make their own decisions. It is a majoritarian tyranny, and a cautionary tale about how crowd behavior can easily lead to wrongdoing. The mob are like the Borg: “You will be assimilated.” There is no room in Sodom for people who are different.
  2. The desire to “know” the travelers may be about judging them, or raping them. Either way, there is no right to be free from the oversight and judgement of the populace.
  3. There is no respect for private property, for the protection under a homeowner’s roof. Invasion of someone else’s space is clearly evil in the eyes of the Torah.
  4. Treating strangers as less than fully respected was the law and custom in the ancient world – but both Avraham and Lot had breached this principle by welcoming strangers and making them comfortable. Excluding and snubbing outsiders and strangers is considered evil.
  5. The decisive blow, the words of the mob that end G-d’s evaluation and trigger the destruction of the city, is the decision to reject Lot’s advice. The mob does this not because they consider his words on their merits. Instead, they reject the advice because of where the advisor came from. In other words, the people engage in an ad hominem attack on Lot as a recent immigrant who came as a stranger, instead of questioning whether or not his advice was sound and good.

This last part is important for a very basic reason: G-d wants a world that seeks to grow and improve, which means we must be open to hearing criticism, internalizing it, and then changing ourselves. Once people refuse to accept or consider good advice regardless of the source, they are irredeemable. If the purpose of our lives is to grow, then G-d may decide that a person who excludes good advice because of the person giving it, no longer deserves to live.

All of the above, of course, is extremely relevant today:

  1. We have a mob mentality governing far too much of our public “discourse.” Dissent is increasingly stifled or canceled.
  2. We have an assumption that nobody should have privacy any longer, that even seeking privacy makes someone somehow suspicious.
  3. Private property is increasingly under attack in a wide range of ways – from no-knock warrants to Child Protective Services and a host of other government overreaches.
  4. Xenophobia is really just a form of tribalism, of hating and fearing and mocking “the other.” In an increasingly fractured world, it has become increasingly rare for people to do anything other than excluding people who are not in their own “tribes,” whether political or geographical, racial or class tribes.
  5. Ad Hominem attacks, along with disregard of what another person is actually saying, are the rule, not the exception. Everyone seems to use labels about the opposing person as a conclusive reason to reject what someone else is saying, instead of actually discussing the underlying issue.

Using this scale, America today is not in a good place, and certainly is not going in the right direction.

What could have saved Sodom – and can still save us?

G-d identifies that if there are ten righteous men in the city, it will be spared. Note that this is an absolute number, not a percentage. It is seemingly OK if the majority of people are demonstrably evil, as long as there is potential for good ideas to overcome the bad, for good people to battle back.

But what makes such a “righteous” person? In the Torah, surprisingly, the Hebrew word for justice is not defined by a code of law. Instead, as I wrote here, https://creativejudaism.org/2020/10/15/what-is-justice/ :

Justice means hearing each person, making them feel valued and appreciated. A good judge is someone who cares about people, who is sensitive to their feelings and need for respect. That is the single biggest prerequisite for justice to be done.

I am not saying that a justice and a society do not also need laws (the Torah certainly gives us the principles for a detailed set of laws), but I am saying that the laws are ultimately only worthwhile if justice is seen to be done, if petitioners feel that they have been heard fairly.

That is why “justice” in the Torah is not given to us in the name of a Torah scholar. Instead, the two people associated with justice, Noah and Malchi-Tzedek were not even Jewish. The lesson in this is incredible to me: the Torah is not only telling us that we have to treat fellow-Jews and non-Jews the same under the law. It is also telling us that the torch-bearers of the concept of justice were indeed themselves not Jewish.  This is a shockingly egalitarian revelation to me, both for the ancient world and for the modern one. The Torah credits not G-d and not the forefathers for inventing justice, but two outsiders, thoughtful and empathic men, men who could hear a non-corporeal voice and who could see a situation through the eyes of other people.

For Sodom, then, “ten righteous men” would have been men who would have been able to see things from the perspective of a visiting stranger. In other words, a righteous man is a man who can put himself in the shoes of the stranger, hungry and alone, understand his perspective, and connect with that person on a human level.

Listening is the foundational aspect of justice: being able to hear G-d and man alike, being able to truly see things from the perspective of the other person. The Torah tells us that this is a critical virtue, one that we learned from non-Jews and in turn must apply it zealously within our own society as well as seeking to make it a universal virtue across all the lands and peoples of the world.

Had there been ten such men in Sodom, then “all” the people could not have gathered to form a mob. They would not have sought to invade privacy or property. Identifying with the strangers and with Lot, these ten righteous men would have been able to hear Lot’s argument and empathize with the plight of his family and the strangers alike. And then Sodom would not have been destroyed.

Which means there remains a path forward for us.

[an @iwe and @kidcoder work]

Comments are welcome!