Derashot HaRan #11 cites an unnamed sage as saying “There is honor even among thieves”, or more precisely, “even a band of thieves agrees to use integrity as the standard for in-group relationships”. For that purpose, they are best off choosing an honest person as their arbiter. But should an honest person agree to be the judge for a band of thieves? Or is it better to let them tear themselves apart?
This question is intensified when the “thieves” are not outlaws, but rather members of civil society in good standing. What are the responsibilities of a good person in a corrupt society?
One possibility is revolution. But the costs of revolution are always high; success is rare; and not everyone finds the rebel stance psychologically congenial.
A second possibility is withdrawal. But if all good people withdraw, does this not assure the triumph of evil?
In any case, total withdrawal is rarely practical – society comes to collect its taxes and tolls regardless, and not everyone has the multiple talents necessary to be wholly self-sufficient with regard to food, clothing and shelter, let alone sanity.
So religion must face the question of how its followers should behave while members of a corrupt society. How should they relate to the norms of that society, especially when those norms are embodied in law? Perhaps most challengingly, how should they react when they are offered the opportunity to exercise power within that society?
Chazal read the story of Lot in Sodom as a case study. Lot lived in Sodom, belonged to the society of Sodom, and yet did not share the values of that society.
What were those values? Sodom was a hyper-legalistic rights-based society. Someone has “the character of Sodom” when they say “Mine is mine and yours is yours” (Avot 5:10). Ownership in Sodom meant refusing to let others benefit from your property, even when that would cost you nothing; but also refusing to benefit from anyone else’s property.
Sodom required all visitors to sleep on a Procrustean bed – those too long for it were shortened, while those too short for it were stretched (Sanhedrin 109b). But Eliezer, Avraham’s servant, asserts that he swore an oath after his mother’s death to never sleep in a bed again – and he escapes unscathed, as Sodom would never force anyone to break an oath.
Indeed, the Procrustean bed is itself a very useful metaphor for law, when law is interpreted and applied mechanically rather than humanistically. Why did Chazal understand Sodom this way? A close reading of Bereishis 19:9 was a partial impetus.
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They said (to Lot): Approach away!
They said (to Lot): The one came to dwell vayishpot shafot (=and he judged judgment) –
now, we will do worse to you than (to) them!
They pleaded with the man – with Lot – greatly
They approached to break the door
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A striking feature of this narrative is that the mob negotiates with Lot rather than simply taking what they want. They even plead with Lot before resolving to use force. Mobs can be cowed by resolute individuals, but their words suggest that they expect him to be on their side, and cannot understand why he is opposing them.
Chazal therefore read vayishpot shafot as an accusation that Lot, an outsider chosen shofet (=judge) on the assumption that he was completely assimilated, is violating the terms of his selection. Lot is putting the law of Sodom itself in the dock; he is presuming to judge the law rather than according to the law.
Now Chazal were well aware that halakhic society was (at least potentially) hyperlegalistic. Sodom was therefore a way to think about the vulnerability of their own society to decay, and about the responsibility of the good halakhic authority in a society that values sacrifice more than obedience, and privileges legal punctiliousness above kindness. Their portrayal of Sodom as a culture whose corruption was rooted in attachment to the forms of law comes across as self-parody. I am always heartened by their capacity to laugh pointedly at themselves.
Chazal may never have reached a clear answer to the question of when exactly a society becomes so corrupt that it is better to let it collapse than to participate in any way. They knew that their own society was subject to corruption; they felt obligated and compelled to work internally for its improvement; and yet they recognized that matters could reach a point at which they would be enforcing the laws of Sodom.
I suspect that it is the failure to recognize that possibility which makes it most likely to occur in practice. Orthodoxy in America today has good reason to reflect on Lot.