False hospitality

False hospitality

Reconstructionist Temple Beth Rishon Wyckoff

A phone call came into my office the week after the brutal attack Hamas launched on October 7.  It was from a congregant who teaches in a school in the city and was grappling with the way her school had reacted — and hadn’t reacted — to the horrific massacre of more than 1,400 Israelis.

Growing emotional, she spoke about the way the administration had failed to address the enormous grief and fear that Jewish students and faculty members were experiencing in the aftermath of the attack, and perhaps even compounded it by not making the necessary space they needed to process and be supported.  To make matters worse, several of her fellow teachers, with whom she had longtime relationships, seemed ready to excuse Hamas’s actions and lay responsibility for the massacre at the feet of Israel.

We spoke about how isolated she was feeling, as the school didn’t seem able or even willing to acknowledge the pain and sense of marginalization she was grappling with, and how she was concerned that Jewish students were undergoing the same experience.  This despite the fact that her school, like so many others, has made a laudable commitment to values of inclusion and of trying to ensure that all students’ identities are respected and affirmed.  But somehow there seemed to be a blind spot when it came to Jewish students and faculty, whose legitimate needs for support and understanding were being pushed to the side.

In this week’s Torah portion, God decides to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness: “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grave. I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached me” (Genesis 18:20-21).  Although there are different traditions about exactly what the sin of Sodom — never explicitly identified in the Torah — was, the prevailing Jewish explanation is that the chief crime was inhospitality. This interpretation is based in part on the experience of two angels who come to the home of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. Eschewing the overriding dictate in that part of the world to show hospitality to guests, the people of the town seek to attack the visitors and violate them.

To illustrate the point about Sodom’s inhospitality, the rabbis relate elaborate stories of the lengths to which the people of the city would go to avoid providing assistance to those who sought support. One such story says that every time a poor person would come to town seeking help, each of the townspeople would give him a coin in order to appear as if they were fulfilling the injunction to give tzedakah. But they would then refuse to sell him any bread with the coins he had, and so he would die of hunger — at which point they would reclaim their coins, exactly as they had intended to do all along.—

The way that this congregant’s school — and so many other institutions around our country — are relating to the events in Israel and to their Jewish students smacks of hollow lip-service  of giving coins that they have no intention of honoring. Statements saying the situation is complicated, that people need to do more listening, that both sides bear responsibility — these positions that fail to condemn the terrorist atrocities for what they are create a false impression of hospitality, of providing support for Jewish students who were first devastated by the horrific news and are now dealing with the consequences of not receiving the support they so badly need as Jewish Americans. Schools that are supposed to be safe and affirming places for all members of their community are becoming inhospitable for Jewish students, whose concerns that they are being overlooked are dismissed and whose real pain both from the attacks themselves and from the discourse that has sprung up around them are not taken seriously.

Contrast the false hospitality of the people of Sodom with the genuine hospitality of Abraham in the same portion. Standing by his tent during the heat of the hot desert day, he sees three travelers passing by and runs out to greet them, begging them to turn aside and rest for a while in his tent. Although they turn out to be angels, Abraham doesn’t know this — and this in fact is the point: he doesn’t know who they are, but he doesn’t stop and ask to check if they are worthy of his welcome and hospitality. He senses their need and runs to meet it: this is the standard we should be holding to.  Rather than hiding behind ideologies that allow us to say some people’s suffering is valid and should be taken seriously while other people’s is not, we should be striving to build a society and a world where all people can be supported in their pain, where we respond to hurt with compassion, where all are made to feel welcome and worthy.

True welcome demands affirming the humanity and dignity of all people. Otherwise, we are engaging in the false hospitality of Sodom and Gomorrah.

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