In recent weeks, particularly since the election of Donald Trump, a great deal has been written and discussed in relation to “fake” news. The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and so many other news outlets–mainstream and otherwise–have been reporting on this issue. Tech giants like Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg have even found themselves on the defensive, justifying the presence of fake news on their platforms, and emphasizing that fake news–despite the headlines otherwise–did not get Mr. Trump elected.
It’s a worrisome problem, not because the fake news exists (it is a first amendment right, after all) but because it suggests that we, as a nation, lack the critical thinking skills necessary to deduce fact from fiction. For my wife, Barrie, the rhetorician professor, she points to the effect fake news may have had on the election results as further evidence for why the liberal arts are so important. Her field, which dates itself back to the academies of Plato and Socrates in Ancient Greece, is a field grounded in asking the right questions. As she will tell you (and as the socratic method suggests), the questions are always more important than the answers. For Barrie, whether the news is fake or not is less interesting, and less important, than why the fake news was written. And how it is consumed. And who is consuming it. And so on and so forth.
As a rabbi, and a modern Reform Jew, I happen to agree with her. Indeed, during my recent trip to Israel, just a week before Donald Trump was elected, I found myself thinking along similar lines. While my family and I travelled south from Jerusalem towards the Dead Sea, our guide, Omri, shouted for us to look out the window to our right, where we would find Lot’s wife. Lot’s wife, as you might remember, is the biblical character who disobeyed God’s order to look forward during the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. For instead looking back, she was turned into salt. So there we were, looking out the window, when we soon passed a rather human-like rock formation.
It was a timely encounter since the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is found in this week’s parsha, Vayeira. In the story, a man named Lot, who happens to be Abraham’s nephew, is sitting at the gates of Sodom when he encounters two angels in human form. Just as Abraham, in a previous biblical story, had invited three angels into his tent, Lot invites these two angels to stay with him. But here is where the story gets interesting. The townsfolk of Sodom learn that there are two strangers staying with Lot–two newcomers to the city–and gather at Lot’s house, demanding that he release the angels to the crowd, so “that we may be intimate with them.” Lot, devoted to the hospitality of his guests, decides instead to offer up to the mob his daughters. But the mob isn’t interested in bargaining and as they approach, the angels send out a blinding light so that the mob cannot find the entrance to Lot’s house. The angels then warn Lot of the city’s impending doom and he and his family escape. Which brings us to the point in the story we always remember. As the cities are destroyed by sulfur raining from the heavens, Lot’s wife looks back, and is then turned into a pillar of salt.
But despite what you may remember from Sunday School, the story does not end there. When Lot and his family make a new home in a cave outside the city, his two daughters decide that since there are no other men around, they should get their father drunk on wine and take advantage of him, which they do. The daughters subsequently become pregnant and name their children Moab and Ben-Ammi (which mean “from Dad” and “son of my Dad” respectively). These sons then become the beginning of two peoples: the Moabites and the Ammonites.
Now, if that all doesn’t sound like a fake news story, I don’t know what does. But as I repeat again and again in my text studies and classes, the question we should not be asking is “did this really happen?” If that is the only question we ask, then we have truly missed the point. After all, the answer to that question would be short and unprovable. What we can ask, on the other hand, at least to start, is if there is any evidence that perhaps inspired the story, or any historical connection to an event such as two cities said to be destroyed by sulfur? In this case, the answer is no, there is no archaeological evidence to identify these cities, or to particularly pinpoint their location. So, we can go about this one of two ways: we can decide that the cities perhaps never existed in the first place, or that these two cities really were destroyed to the point vanishing without a trace (cue the X-Files music). But how? Well, if God did not rain sulfur upon them, are there natural phenomena that could have caused this? So far, geologists have ruled out the presence of a volcano in the area, which would have possibly caused an eruption, destroying the city. However, there is a sound theory and some evidence perhaps of a massive earthquake having occurred during these times. The Jordan Valley, part of which my family was traveling through on our way to the Dead Sea, sits on the Syrian-African Rift, which is a huge break in the earth’s crust caused by tectonic plate movement. In fact, the row of rocks and mountains that we rode past showed thousands of years of crust moving. So it is possible that Sodom and Gomorrah sat on a point in the rift and was affected by one of the large earthquakes that helped shape the Jordan Valley itself.
But what about the smoke that Abraham saw rising from the city? Well, when earthquakes happen, fissures are formed, which allow heat and gases to come up from the lower levels of the earth, and when you combine that with lightening, you can see those gases ignite, causing the sulfur to burn. If I were Abraham, or any author, and I witnessed an earthquake and a lightning storm that ignited gases and caused the absolute destruction of two cities, as well as the end of vegetation in the area, I’m pretty sure I would believe God rained down sulfur as well.
And as for Lot’s wife turning into salt? Well, that seems even more unlikely. However, when driving past the rock formation in Israel a few weeks ago, I can certainly see how a creative author may have thought this was the outcome. It’s a wonderful example of the reversal of stories, which cause evidence, to evidence, which inspires stories. But what of the “charming” story of Lot sleeping with and impregnating his daughters. While this is, I suppose, plausible, we should ask the bigger question here, which relates to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as well: “What is this story supposed to teach us?” The real million dollar question.
As we well know, history is written by the victors, and every story has its own agenda and rhetorical strategy. For example, if you ask Egypt, they have, historically, never lost a battle. Ever. Ask the surrounding countries and, well, it’s a different story altogether. And so it is for our Torah. It was written by those who wished for the Israelites to be the top dogs, the winners, and we can see how certain stories, such as this one, which seem altogether strange, may in fact be polemics against other peoples.
Sodom and Gomorrah were, indeed, Canaanite cities. Canaanites were not looked upon well by the Israelites for many reasons, including that they were a polytheistic pagan people who kept intermarrying and taking away Israelite daughters! Now if you are an Israelite author trying to get the next generation of Israelites to stay away from Canaanites, and you know about or witnessed the destruction of two cities, it’s a pretty good strategy to call them Canaanite cities, and to tell the story of how they were so evil that despite the Israelite leader, Abraham, arguing on their behalf, they still were so bad they were destroyed. That sure sends a message. Moreover, describing the men of the village as those who would wish to engage in homosexual rape of strangers is an interesting addition. Scholars seem to think that since homosexuality was regarded as a perversion at the time, the authors added that with aggression, and you get the idea that the city of Sodom adopted a policy of purposely maltreating any strangers that came to their city, in order to discourage future visitors; it’s a mixture of xenophobia and apparent selfishness in their want to keep their prosperity to themselves. The story paints quite the picture of the Canaanites! In regards to the story of Lot’s daughters bearing, through incest, sons that would become the Israelite neighbors and enemies, you can’t get any clearer of a polemic there. The scholars assume that this is an Israelite tale of the birth of the enemy clans who ruled neighboring kingdoms as the Israelites entered Canaan in the 14th century BCE.
One can only wonder what, perhaps, the Canaanites, Moabites, and Ammonites, would have thought of these tales about them. In truth, we see stories like this all the time and, at least according to some pundits, they elected our most recent American president. Indeed, as many throughout the world take to the streets in protest of this election, and as pundits and politicians argue about whether fake news should exist, and over who should be in charge of policing it, time might be better spent discussing what it is such stories, such “news” is trying to convey. By examining it for its rhetorical value, as we have just done with this week’s parsha, I think that you will all find that we have much more productive, and fruitful discussions. After all, the most recent US election, to say nothing of countless episodes throughout history, have taught us the danger of simply dismissing a story or a headline as falsehood or a ridiculous notion. Sure, we can scoff at the “religious zealots” who take the bible literally, and we can laugh at those who publish conspiracy theories, but the things these people say carry weight. True or untrue, they do not simply appear from a vacuum.
As my wife often explains to me, everything in language, and everything in argument, is connecting to something that came before it. There is a great metaphor from rhetorician Kenneth Burke, who explains it like this:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified
to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
This metaphor, aptly called “The Burkean Parlor,” speaks to our current political discourse, and to the ways modern, progressive Jews should approach our Torah. Every idea, every belief system, every argument stems from somewhere. We must be willing to investigate that somewhere, knowing we might never get a full picture. But we must interrogate what came before what is presently before us, if we want to understand it, and have an educated, productive discussion about it. Because ultimately, progress has never stemmed from questions that are easily answered with a yes or no. Indeed, progress has never been the result of clear answers, only solid questions.