There are moments when our sages, though thinking and writing a millennium or two ago, understood the complexities of human behavior in our own day. Case in point — a statement in Pirke Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] that divides human character into four categories:
- one who says, "what's mine is mine, and what's yours is yours";
- one who says "what's mine is yours and what's yours is mine";
- one who says "what's mine is yours and what's yours is yours";
- and one who says "what's mine is mine and what's yours is mine."
The last three categories are more straightforward than the first. Respectively, a simpleton, who does not understand the basic notion of propriety; a hasid, or pious person, who goes above and beyond the minimum to help others; and a rasha', or evil person, who presumes to own and control everything.
The first category — "what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours" — though it seems no less straightforward, is the only one that elicited two different explanations. Some rabbis defined it as that of a benoni, a somewhat elusive Hebrew word that can mean average, ordinary, intermediate or neutral. Accordingly, this refers to a person who is neither pious nor evil to others, but concerned only about their own needs and concerns. The truth is, we all know people like this. We look at the way they treat others and conclude "not a bad person, but not a good person either ... a neutral person." The temptation, per this first valuation, is to accept this person for who they are — acceptably neutral, neither good nor bad. They care only about themselves but they are ostensibly not hurting anyone else.
Other rabbis, unwilling to settle for so passive a treatment, offered a second, much more strident judgement: "This is the character of Sodom and Gomorrah!" To be clear, Sodom and Gomorrah (in the bible, not the MCU) represent the epitome of evil — a more subtle evil but no less heinous than the overt wickedness of the rasha' — and, more specifically, interpersonal behavior at its absolute worst. Thus these cities were worthy only of being erased from existence by divine wrath.
In present-day terms, the crime of Sodom and Gomorrah is unabashed selfishness, a me-first attitude gone hog wild. Along these lines, the fifteenth century Italian commentator Ovadia Bartenura explains what made the "mine is mine, yours is yours" behavior of Sodom and Gomorrah ultimately irredeemable:
"An individual who becomes accustomed to treating others this way will even deny something to others simply because it does not benefit him, even something that does not cost him anything."
This, Bartenura explains, was the essence of the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah. They had plenty of space and resources to house guests properly, but because they did not benefit from housing guests, they refused under the pretext of "not my concern" or "not my responsibility," or, in our own terms, "my right not to do it."
This is an aspect of human behavior that continues to confront and confound to this day. Examples abound, but here are two that are especially troubling and particularly un-Jewish. The person who says: "I earned this money, it is mine, it is my right not to have to give any of it away to help someone else. Let others fend for themselves the way I fend for myself." This is the mentality of Sodom and writ large, no less than an ignorance of the modern principle that purports to justify such selfishness, that modern exemplar of "mine is mine yours is yours" — the right to property.
This core notion of the Enlightenment is often invoked as a justification for the “haves” of society not to share their wealth with anyone, even with those in dire need. Yet every major proponent of the right to property — from Adam Smith and John Locke to John Stewart Mill and the father of modern conservatism Edmund Burke — believed that the right to property was premised on the obligation and responsibility of propertied people to use their wealth in order to help the less fortunate; and on the state as the institution best suited to make sure propertied people fulfill this sacred civic responsibility properly. The selfishness of those who refuse to help others violates the modern right to property as much as it exemplifies the mentality of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Equally Sodom and Gomorrah-like are those people who refuse to wear a mask on the pretense that these moral obligations somehow impinge on their personal freedom. (Those who refuse to get vaccinated are a variation on this theme, with a hefty dose of hubris thrown in.) Anti-maskers effectively collapse freedom and selfishness into a single, self-serving mantra. In fact, the classical Jewish notion of helping others, no less than the modern American notion of civic responsibility, abhors such selfish behavior and, even more, the chutzpah of defending it as an act of piety or freedom. A society is at its best when its members act in the best interests of all; at its worst when they refuse to look beyond their own self-interest.
This idea is not new to American or any other modern, advanced society. No reasonable citizen would ever claim that having to obey a traffic signal in the name of public safety is a violation of freedom. Smokers have (however grudgingly) agreed not to smoke in public spaces to spare others the dangers of second-hand smoke. We wear a mask and get vaccinated to protect each other and especially the most vulnerable among us. After a year or more of people still refusing to recognize that wearing a mask is a simple civic duty that is inseparable from personal freedom — and, for Jews, an essential part of our ethical DNA — we know at least a couple of ancient Canaanite towns where they would have blended right in.