“A Vote for Homes: Austin is not S’dom“
by Rabbi Rick Brody
The Sodomites rejected the poor and vulnerable within their midst.
In Austin, we voted to keep and help strengthen our “weaker links” for the sake of justice and righteousness.
Last Tuesday, Election Day, Austin voters passed–by a wide margin (over 60% of the vote)– the city’s “2013 Affordable Housing Bond” proposal, designating $65 million in general obligation bonds for affordable housing. I am proud to have played a small role in supporting the “Keep Austin Affordable” campaign and want to believe that the Jewish community played its part in responding as concerned citizens to the needs of the poorest in our midst who are in constant danger of being priced out of town. Last month, in the run-up to the election, my congregation, Kol Halev, hosted my friend, local activist and Jewish community-member, Isabelle Headrick, executive director of Accessible Housing Austin!, who spoke to us about the proposition and the importance of vigorously addressing Austin’s housing crisis.
I introduced Isabelle to the congregation by way of that week’s Torah portion, Vayera, in which we witness three relevant events. First, we see Abraham’s immense hospitality to three visitors, the proverbial opening by Abraham and Sarah of their tent, a reminder about the moral goodness inherent in providing shelter–without our knowing their full story–to those who, even temporarily, are homeless. We then jump to the scene in S’dom (usually rendered in English as “Sodom”), where selfishness and intolerance reign and the arrogant hoarding of resources and subjugation of the vulnerable translates, symbolically, into the literal attempted rape of these same travelers. Contrary to the common Christian emphasis on the story, the Jewish view was never about anything sexual but about the violent rejection of the stranger.
This excellent article, “The New Sodomites,” by Aryeh Cohen and David Waskow, from way back in a 1997 issue of Tikkun, spells out the critical moral lessons of the story as they appear throughout the history of Jewish exegesis. While the authors cover several different social issues and are directly responding to President Clinton’s “disastrous” efforts at welfare reform, their overall analysis of the way American society has lost its direction in terms of addressing the widening gap between “haves” and “have-nots” remains terribly relevant, and much of their discontent with the legislation they discuss appears to have been horrifically prescient:
[W]e will continue to suffer from the substantial gap between givers and receivers, who will each remain suspicious of a welfare system that deprives them of human connection. And that gap will be precisely the political opening needed by those who benefit economically from an eviscerated welfare system and the subsequent expanding disparity in income between the rich and poor. They will use the need for reshaped welfare paradigms as an excuse for what has become the central political practice of today – the demand that we keep what is ours and force others to get what is theirs.
Yet, right before this gloomy prophecy, the authors offer some thoughts about how what was clearly already a broken welfare system could be reconstructed in ways that would address the core problems:
[W]e may need to develop new models for welfare that reflect the truly civic nature of tzedakah as it was understood by the rabbis – for whom a sense of connection among a city’s dwellers was more palpable than it is for us. Perhaps in our era – when writing checks is so easy and giving to the homeless on the street often so difficult – we need a model of mutual responsibility that demands direct encounters between giver and recipient.
As Cohen and Waskow make clear throughout their article, the model we need to destroy is the one embodied by the citizens of S’dom. It is clear that those who seek to simply increase the divide between rich and poor through neglect and a proverbial “closing of doors” are actually doing much worse: they are figuratively breaking down the fragile and unsustainable walls of shelter in which the homeless seek refuge–and the result is a metaphoric raping of the destitute. It is these selfish members of our society who are the “new Sodomites.”
In our story, the unsustainable refuge of the homeless visitors to S’dom is inside the house of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. They and their host only make it out alive because of their own supernatural intervention (they are described both as men and angels and are not ordinary human beings). In our case, we know that we cannot rely on miracles and need to take action to overturn the Sodomy that is so rampant in our society. We need to take our own action, like that which Cohen and Waskow recommend above, to create new forms of connection and repair in our cities–so that rich and poor alike can live safely within our municipal borders. The fictitious Rabbi Jake Schram (Ben Stiller’s character in Keeping the Faith), offered his own dismissal of the misunderstood sexual emphasis on the S’dom story in favor of one celebrating human kindness and communal care:
JAKE: But seriously, what is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah really about? - Anybody. Steve Posner. STEVE: Sexual perversion. JAKE: Sexual perversion. Steve Posner's watching a little too much Spice Channel, okay. ... And Lot takes them in and he protects them. What happens next? Anybody. Greta Nussbaum, before she pulls her rotator cuff. GRETA: God spares Lot and his family. JAKE: Bingo! Two-week cruise for Greta! You're goin' to the Bahamas! You know, when you think about it...God is a lot like Blanche Du Bois. He's always relied on the kindness of strangers. And that's really what the story is about--it's about us taking care of each other. God relies on us to take care of each other.
When Isabelle finished speaking to our congregation, I took us back to the critical interlude that occurs between the hospitality offerings of Abraham and Lot. After the angelic visitors move on from Abraham and make their way towards S’dom, God invites Abraham into a conversation about the plans to destroy the two cities as punishment for their wickedness. What we then learn–even though, ultimately, the cities are not found deserving of being spared because of a lack of a minimal amount of righteous people besides Lot and his family–is that the Torah celebrates the human challenge to Divine policy. We human beings, represented by Abraham, enter into the “legal” system (God, of course, is law-maker, judge, and executive ruler) to challenge its processes and premises. God recognizes that Abraham and his descendants, in keeping the Way of the Divine (derech hashem), are to manifest “righteousness and justice” (tzedakah u’mishpat). Abraham responds to this expectation by calling God out for falling short of those very ideals: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? … Should the Judge of all the earth not manifest justice? (Gen. 18: 23, 25)” God allows Abraham to influence the approach to the impending situation. The message is clear: We are supposed to challenge injustice wherever we see it, even if it is coming from the Divine. All the more so, when we interact with our fellow human beings, should we be advocating for righteousness and justice in our social policies. And the Torah’s strategic placement of this message makes even clearer that we ought to be especially vigilant about justice when it comes to welcoming the stranger and housing the vulnerable.
My message to my congregation, then, was that this non-partisan bond measure that lay before us–a robust commitment by our city to help build homes, sustainable shelters of safety that secure the wellbeing of the poorer members of our city and allow them to remain our fellow Austinites–was a perfect opportunity for an appropriate political stand by a faith community. I made no endorsement of a candidate or party and acted completely within my prerogative as a rabbi to implore my congregants to vote for the bond. It was a matter of religious commitment to not be like the Sodomites but rather to be like Abraham, a caring and hospitable doer of righteousness and an unflinching advocate for justice.
I am delighted that people of faith from throughout Austin responded similarly to this sacred opportunity to be guardians of the wellbeing of our city, to enable us all to walk the Divine path and uphold universal values of openness, compassion, and opportunity. If you voted for this bond, thank you.