Sodomizing Sex

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated R

Editor’s Note: Trigger Warning: The following post has been identified by the Jewrotica staff as containing content that may be triggering for some readers.

Sex is about pleasure.

That should be obvious, but it’s not.

Yes, sex is the vehicle by which we procreate, but G-d could easily have created us with a biology that would have allowed us to reproduce without sex, or for sex to be without pleasure. There are several animals that can reproduce without a male, and several others that require a male can nevertheless reproduce without an orgasmic experience. Was G-d concerned that if we didn’t enjoy the process, we wouldn’t reproduce? Maybe; but even if that’s so, sex is undoubtedly the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. Because it’s about pleasure.

Sexual pleasure is so intense, however, that it touches us in very deep places. It insinuates itself into our psyche. It alters our internal chemistry. It makes us do crazy things. And because sex has that kind of power, it has historically been the vehicle of choice for cruel people who wish to manipulate others.

Rape, for example, has only the loosest connection with sexual pleasure. More often than not, a rapist seeks to take some deep-seated anger out on his victim; or his twisted mind revels in the power that sexually violating his victim delivers to him. Now, some people express their anger with violence – perhaps they will physically beat up their victim. Some seek power by physically subduing others, forcing them to their will. But even those are not the reviled rapists. Because rapists seek to dig deeper, to hurt deeper, to control deeper. And sexuality is the yellow-brick road to their victim’s kishkes.

After all, doesn’t pure and unadulterated sexuality involve a strong element of compassion? A desire to achieve mutual pleasure? A merging of two people, two bodies, into one? When that element of compassion is missing, sexuality becomes an unstable compound, missing one of its key binding ingredients, and a destructive power is then unleashed.

Enter Sodom.

Merriam-Webster defines “sodomy” as “anal or oral copulation with a member of the same or opposite sex; also : copulation with an animal.” Where does that definition come from? Merriam-Webster also provides the origin of the word: “from the homosexual proclivities of the men of the city in Genesis 19:1–11.”

That’s our Parshah – Vayeira. In Vayeira, two angels visit Abraham’s nephew Lot, who resided in the famously-wicked city of Sodom. Their Divine purpose was to destroy the city, putting an end to its iniquity, and to rescue Lot and his family. When Lot first sees them approaching, he invites them into his home to spend the night; an invitation which they reluctantly accept.

They had not yet retired, and the people of the city, the people of Sodom, surrounded the house, both young and old, the entire populace from every end. And they called to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, and let us know them.” And Lot came out to them to the entrance, and he shut the door behind him. And he said, “My brethren, please do not do evil. Behold now I have two daughters whom no man has known. I will bring them out to you, and do to them as you see fit; only to these men do nothing, because they have come under the shadow of my roof.” But they said, “Back away.” And they said, “This one came to sojourn, and he is judging! Now, we will deal even worse with you than with them.” And they pressed hard upon the man Lot, and they drew near to break the door.

Genesis, 19:4-9.

Conventional wisdom – supported by Rashi‘s commentary – is that the Sodomites demanded that Lot turn over his guests for their homosexual pleasure – hence the word “sodomy.” And of course, the “knowledge” in “let us know them” is, indeed, a frequent reference to sex. “Adam knew Eve” (Genesis, 4:1). “Behold now I have two daughters whom no man has known” (Genesis, 19:8). “The maiden was exceedingly beautiful, a virgin, and no man had known her” (Genesis, 24:16).

However, there is surely more to the story than that. Were the two visitors so handsome that they were irresistible to the “entire populace”? Could not the Sodomites find sexual pleasure with each other? Moreover, at least some of the Sodomites must have been at least bisexual, right? After all, they did have “young” that joined the mob, so there must have been some heterosexuality going on. And what is their reaction when Lot, in a twisted display of hospitality, offers his own two virgin daughters to the crazed mob? They have no interest. Instead, the mob grows even more frenzied, and now Lot is added to the hit list.

Could this possibly be about sexual pleasure?

Ramban draws a parallel between this story and a facially-similar story that happened about 700 years later, known as the incident of the Concubine in Gibea. The story goes as follows.

A Levite man went to retrieve his concubine from her father’s house, where she had gone after a particularly difficult period in their relationship. Traveling home, they arrived in Gibeah, a city of the Benjamites, just at nightfall. The locals extended none of the traditional hospitality to the guests, until eventually, an old man – himself a foreigner – invited them to spend the night at his house.

Suddenly “certain base fellows” of the city surrounded the house and beat on the door. They called out to the old man, saying, “bring out the man who came to your house, that we may know him.” The old man offered his own daughter and the Levite’s concubine instead, begging them to leave the Levite alone. When the men would not be dissuaded, the Levite thrust his concubine out the door. They abused her all night, not letting her go until dawn, when she collapsed outside the door.

The Levite found her the next morning, and shortly thereafter, she died from her injuries. Enraged, the Levite carved up her body into twelve pieces which he sent to all the Israelite tribes, demanding revenge. The Israerlites responded to his call, and a bitter and tragic war ensued which resulted in the near extinction of the Benjamite tribe.

See Judges, Chapter 19.

The parallels between the story of Sodom and the story of the Concubine in Gibea are unmistakeable. In both stories, two guests come to an inhospitable town. In both stories, when the townsfolk learn of the visitors, they demand that the male guest be turned over to them. In both stories, the host offers his own daughter to be gang-raped rather than to allow harm to come to his male guest.

But there are a few key differences between the stories as well. First, unlike the story of Sodom, the cast of characters in the Concubine of Gibea were all Israelites, from the tribes of Benjamin, Ephraim and Levi respectively. These were our people, who had already received the Torah, and given their mandate to be a light unto the nations. Thus the stain on our national psyche resulting from the reprehensible conduct of the Levite, his host, and the men of Gibea is all the more personal and palpable.

Second, Gibea was not famous for having been a den of iniquity. Nor did G-d destroy it as a result of its wickedness. Justice for this incident was meted out in a very human way: the other eleven tribes mobilized their armies, and virtually annihilated the tribe of Benjamin.

Third, whereas in Sodom, the mob consisted of “the people of the city, the people of Sodom, surrounded the house, both young and old, the entire populace from every end,” in Gibea, it was only “certain base fellows.”

Which brings us to our fourth distinction. Ramban points out that the mob in Gibea was ultimately satisfied with their rape of the concubine. Although they had initially demanded the Levite himself, their deplorable hunger was sated by his concubine, and the Levite himself remained unmolested, and did not need to be spirited out of the city. Ramban explains that this is because the wicked men of Gibea were steeped in sexual immorality and driven by sexual lust. Thus, although they initially demand sexual relations with the Levite himself, they were ultimately satisfied with the gang-rape of his concubine.

In Sodom, on the other hand, it wasn’t about sexual lust at all. Sodom was like an exclusive, gated community. The excellence of their land, which was “as the garden of G-d” (Genesis13:10), is what led them to settle there, and they took steps and formed policies designed to keep out the “riffraff.” Accordingly, they were extremely inhospitable to any guests or visitors, and despised charity. In fact, the Sodomites had only allowed Lot to join their community because he came the riches and wealth that he had amassed while in Abraham’s company. This is why our sages say: “One who says, ‘What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours’ – this is the trait of Sodom.” Because absent from that philosophy is any trace of compassion, the notion that if you need something, I will make what’s mine, yours. The Sodomites thus created a culture out of selfishness, greed and miserliness.

Indeed, the Talmud relates that “The men of Sodom were corrupted only on account of the good which G‑d had lavished upon them… They said: ‘Since there comes forth bread out of our earth, and it has the dust of gold, why should we tolerate wayfarers, who come to us only to deplete our wealth? Come, let us abolish the practice of lodging travelers in our land.'” Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 109. “If a poor man happened to come there, every resident gave him a dinar, upon which he wrote his name, but no bread was sold to him. When he died, each came and took back his dinar.” Id. “A certain maiden gave some bread to a poor man, hiding it in a pitcher. When the matter became known, they daubed her with honey and placed her on the parapet of the wall, and the bees came and consumed her.”

So Sodom’s assault on Lot’s house, and their demand for Lot’s guests that they “may know them,” was not a group of misfits out for a sexual thrill who could not resist their sexual impulses. The Sodomites used sex – not for pleasure – but as a humiliating and destructive tool, to thoroughly punish those who violated their repugnant anti-hospitality policies. The arrival of Lot’s guests, and his hospitality towards them thus mobilized the entire town, for Sodom’s fundamental principles of greed were at stake. Not everyone was there for the sex, but everyone was there either to witness or mete out the punishment for transgressing the city’s charter. Violating Lot’s daughters would not have been adequate; the strangers themselves needed to be violated, as a message to all future visitors and those that might consider harboring them: “Your hospitality with prove to be the most inhospitable thing that you can do.”

It seems that Lot’s daughters, ultimately spared a punitive rape in Sodom, nevertheless walked away with Sodom’s twisted view of sexuality. After arriving safely in a cave in the mountains, they proceeded to get their father drunk, and successively had sexual intercourse with him. Another form of rape. “Come, let us give our father wine to drink, and let us lie with him, and let us bring to life seed from our father.” Genesis, 19:32. This rape was also not for the pleasure of sex. The daughters wanted children; they assumed that their father would be unwilling to impregnate them voluntarily; and so they contrived to take his seed involuntarily.

Yet, we are a compassionate people. Compassion is ingrained in us. See Babylonian Talmud, Beitza 32b. In fact, it is for this reason that G-d consulted Abraham regarding the destruction of Sodom. For whereas the culture of Sodom was the antithesis of charity and hospitality, Abraham was famous for his hospitality, and “I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice.”

So sexuality should never be about manipulation, power or punishment. Sex should be an experience of pleasure, brimming with compassion and mutual desire. It is how we reach deep inside of our partner and touch them – not with a destructive touch, but – with a gentle, loving touch that reaffirms the profound and enduring value that we each contribute to life.