February 27, 2020

Abraham, Sodom and America in Crisis

Lot and his daughters fleeing the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Illustration by Eric Thomas/Getty Images

The United States in 2020 is facing a political and spiritual crossroads of major proportions. The current presidency has evoked in many a deep national reflection, not only in regard to the government but also the ways we, as a nation, identify good, evil and the differences between them.

Questions of how we determine legitimate behavior and its impact on leadership has vexed those who support the president as much as those who oppose him. Why do those who openly dislike, even despise, the president’s moral character continue to support him as the leader of the country and society in which we live? Why are these supporters willing to abandon moral standards to support a president they find morally compromised?

Like all biblically-based traditions, Judaism is obsessed with the categories of good and evil; how they are determined and how they function in human society and politics. Like all systems founded on theological premises, Judaism often illustrates a division between human desire and divine will, between the status of the human who can generate the good and the divine who commands it. 

Religious traditions must come to terms with today’s idea that humans determine the good, the secular. Do we need God or another definitive category to determine good at all? How much do we need God for us to act in good, ethical manners?

In biblical tradition, the society representing the opposite of the good is Sodom, a city in the desert that appears briefly in the book of Genesis. It is a city God destroyed because there were not even 10 righteous residents. Abraham prays to save Sodom to no avail. Why was Sodom so bad? The sins of Sodom are not wholly clear in the biblical text. It appears those living there were guilty of not welcoming the stranger. Mostly medieval commentators — Jewish, Christian and Muslim — assert they were guilty of sexual deviance and promiscuity (hence the term “sodomy”).

In any event, Sodom became a symbol of societal degradation subject to divine wrath. During the time of Sodom, there was no Israelite nation, only its precursor: Abraham. For biblical authors, Abraham represented Sodom’s opposite — something that should become a model society in the future. In Jewish tradition, the dichotomy of the attributes of Sodom (midat Sodom) and the attributes of Abraham (midat Avraham) serve as the model of any future society.

Below is a text offering a fascinating window into this issue by Jewish thinker Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlap (1882-1951). This text comes from Charlap’s commentary to Psalms and addresses what I consider a central problem in trying to decipher the nature of the good and evil in a societal framework.

To David, bless, O my soul (borchi nafshi) (Psalm 103)

What separated Abraham and Sodom was not simply how each acted in the world, but how each determined the boundaries and limits of human nature.

Corresponding to whom did David say these five instances of Bless the Lord, O my soul? … He said them about none other than the Holy One, Blessed be He, and also corresponding to the soul, as the verse refers to the relationship between man’s soul and God. The five instances of ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’ correspond to the five parallels between the soul in man’s body and God’s power in His world.

“This teaches we can learn from the general to the particular. And we can also learn from the particular to the general, as it is written, from my flesh I see God (Job 19:26). From here we see that the human is the mashal (the parable) and God is the nimshal (its true meaning). In the beginning one should learn from the mashal, that is, from the human, to the nimshal, that is, from God, and afterward from the nimshal (God) to the mashal (human). We each feel deeply inside us the inclination for good and thus turn toward that inclination more than toward evil. Within us, this passes beyond our personal inclination for the good and to the good that is drawn from the Supernal Good in its absolute form. 

And yet when we deduce that in any case we are the products of free-will, to choose either good or evil, this too marks the absolute freedom we receive from above, and through that we can come to recognize our freedom of choice that is rooted above. Hence, when we recognize this inclination toward the good from above, we can learn to inhabit such behavior below.

Existence itself is embedded in the Supernal Will to reveal the good. Thus the order of existence is determined, and thus there is really only one thing [the good] that obligates one’s neighbor toward another, and this extends to everyone. Thus the inclination for the good that is pushed forth from within us emerges because we simply cannot bear to witness the pain of the other, which then compels us to act in a goodly manner toward her. Thus the good within us is determined as is the evil that bursts forth from the desire to act in an evil manner. From this we can understand the ethos of the inhabitance of Sodom and Gomorrah. They felt that all manner of good was only the product of fulfilling one’s desires and thus for them good and evil were essentially equal [both humanly generated], in that both were products of our own nature.

Why was Sodom so bad? The sins of Sodom are not wholly clear in the biblical text. It appears those living there were guilty of not welcoming the stranger. 

Thus they said, we can learn from the world that those who act in an evil manner can achieve the same equipoise as those who act from the good. Instead they could have learned from Abraham for whom all of good behavior was the result of his recognition that God desires justice and righteousness. However, they did not learn thus, and so they were destroyed.

Therefore, after we are able to recognize from the mashal (human) to the nimshal (God), that is, from the Absolute Good, we must also then learn from the nimshal (God) to the mashal (the human); ‘just as God is merciful so should we be merciful’ (b.T. Shabbat 133b). In doing so, we reflect that which is above. With the fullness of our understanding we can see that good itself is not determined [we choose it] but the absolute will to reveal the good is determined. So too, our will to be inclined toward the good. However, this must arise from the supernal freedom to reveal the good that is the divine will.”

Charlap made a provocative suggestion in determining the difference between good and evil, and the way that difference is blurred, even erased. He appeals to the idea of divine will — the will to reveal the good — and never quite defines what that means. Let us assume that definition is embodied in the “attribute of Abraham,” an action that expresses kindness and empathy for the neighbor in need. Its opposite is “the attribute of Sodom,” turning away from those in need. Here, Charlap offers a rendering of the uniqueness of Abraham. Abraham was the first to recognize that of the two human inclinations, only the inclination for good is rooted in something outside the human. Therefore, reaching for the good is not simply choosing good over evil but an act of fidelity to that existing beyond the self — which Charlap defines as the divine will to reveal good in the world.

Yet, as agents of free will, we can respond to that inclination or deny it. Accompanying that goodly inclination is the inclination for its opposite, also born deep in the recesses of the human psyche. From the perspective of the human alone, good and evil are equally part of the human experience. What separated Abraham from the rest was his recognition that his inclination for the good has its roots elsewhere, while the inclination toward evil is the product of human experience. This recognition is the foundation of building a just society.

What separated Abraham and Sodom was not simply how each acted in the world, but how each determined the boundaries and limits of human nature. The Sodomites assumed the inclination for good and for evil were humanly driven and thought people and societies displaying both inclinations could achieve the same sense of wellbeing. The Sodomite perspective is that we can act in any manner we choose and the results likely will be the same. There is no transcendent source that drives us one way or the other, so we should act for our short-term benefit. The source of their destruction was their unwillingness to see anything beyond themselves, making certain behavior unnecessary to achieve certain results.

Charlap’s most audacious — and beautiful — claim is: “From here we see that the human is the mashal (the external form or parable) and God is the nimshal (its true meaning). In the beginning one should learn from the mashal, that is, from the human, to the nimshal, that is, from God, and afterward from the nimshal (God) to the mashal (human).”

This suggests we begin not with God, but with a recognition and understanding of the human inclination for good existing in all of us. We should search and cultivate our natural empathy for our neighbors. From there, we recognize that such inclinations are rooted beyond us as a transcendent ideal. It is only after that recognition that we come to understand the deeper meaning through scriptural references to divine will (“just as God is merciful so should we be merciful”).

This suggests we begin not with God, but with a recognition and understanding of the human inclination for good existing in all of us. 

Human freedom remains. We may choose to act in accordance with that idea or against it. If, like the Sodomites, we see good and evil as fully human, we may be more inclined to choose the one offering immediate gratification and success. If, like Abraham, we recognize the inclination for good is not equal to its opposite, we may lean toward that inclination, not because it will result in human flourishment, but because it aligns one to something beyond the self.

Today, we have a president who exhibits Sodomite behavior — as Charlap understood it — more than Abrahamic behavior. The Sodomite perspective is that what matters most is what succeeds best: wealth, ratings, popularity, policy. This may come at the expense of others in need, against the divine mandate to reveal the good.

As I see it, there is a sense the president does not see one human inclination as categorically different than another. Many supporters who do see the difference seem willing to overlook that distinction for a variety of reasons: cultural, economic, political. The Sodomites did not think they were evil; they simply believed that choosing to act one way or the other mattered little in terms of immediate gain. And they were right … until they were wrong.

So why are these supporters so willing to abandon any moral standard and support a president they find morally wrong? The Trump presidency presents some communities of faith with a difficult choice: accept or reject a leader who espouses Sodomite values that good and evil essentially are the same and what matters is outcomes; or accept or reject an Abrahamic model, which views the inclination for the good as an exercise in fidelity to a divine mandate to reveal good in the world.

This decision is not about politics or religion, or politics verses religion; this is about how to understand what it means to be human and the power to choose. The Sodomite view will attract attention as its goals are easily accomplished and in many cases, of value. The Abrahamic view is subtler and sometimes requires more sacrifice in regard to outcomes.

The power of choice is as palpable in scripture as it is in the voting booth. The Bible offers two models of governance, but it gives us, the voters, the right and responsibility to choose.


Shaul Magid is Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue.