June 10, 2006


Parshat Naso


If I told you that Moshe Shmendrik was a Jealous Husband, what would you think?  What would you think of his wife? 

This Parshah in the triennial cycle includes discussion of the ritual for testing the wife suspected of adultery , the Sotah.  It also discusses the rules applying to the nazirite, and the priestly blessing.  As a retired social worker, and a female, I feel I must focus on Sotah the term used for the wife suspected of adultery.   

I found it relatively difficult to find discussions on this topic because I think many people prefer to avoid it.  For people who are sensitive to women’s issues, this parshah is an uncomfortable one.  Even the Torah has trouble being consistent about it. 

Briefly, the problem is this – the husband suspects his wife of adultery and she is brought before the priests and goes through the ordeal of drinking “bitter waters” to prove her innocence.  If she is guilty her belly will descend and her thigh will fall.  If she is innocent she will be fruitful.   The Torah waffles between describing her as actually guilty and describing her husband as having unreasonable jealousy.   Is the ritual meant to test her, or to satisfy him?  If he’s the one with the problem, why does she have to go through such an ordeal?  I found myself reacting to some of the devarim because the writers were also ambivalent about who had the problem – the wife or the husband and some assume she is guilty. 

The Rabbis say that the practice was abolished at the time of the second Temple but also developed their usual system of making a difficult Torah law  impossible to practice.

Firstly – the bitter waters had to be made with dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle which ceased to exist when the first Temple was destroyed.

Secondly, the woman must first be warned by her husband in front of two witnesses, and must have been seen by two witnesses entering a private place with the man in question.

By this logic, any woman brought for the trial must at least have looked suspicious in a society where women and men are kept apart.  If you are willing to accept this reasoning, then some of the Lessons might make sense

Part of the problem is that it is usually difficult to prove – to have actual witnesses in the days before private eyes, hidden cameras, etc.  So that is one explanation for having trial by ordeal.  It is the only ordeal that is prescribed in Jewish law. 

Another problem is interpreting what it means to say that her belly will swell.  Is she pregnant?  Is she miscarrying, having a prolapse?  Will she die?  What is the curse?

Rabbi Friedman suggests that she is pregnant and the point is to reassure her husband that the baby is his. 

People who focus less on the literal questions about the procedure wax philosophical on the importance of keeping peace between a man and woman because this is so much more important than anything else.  The point is made that the husband could ask for a divorce, or the wife could, rather than go through this procedure.  The fact that he or they would do this means he/they want to save the marriage.  Or does he want to keep his property and not have to pay for a divorce?

The Peaceniks say that continuity of the Jewish people depends on the cohesiveness of the larger Jewish family and the larger community depends on the strength of the individual families within it.

A jealous husband might not be convinced if a mere human court found his wife innocent. 

Those with a mind for allegory or mysticism relate the test to the relationship between Israel and God, or even to the unity to the male and female sides of God – the sefira of glory and the sefira of kingship.   

There is a lot of discussion of the fact that God’s name is erased when the parchment is soaked in the water.  Some say this serious step is taken to try to shake up the husband , others to intimidate the wife.   Some say that erasing God’s name reinforces the fact that the husband is destroying his wife’s name.  Whoever shames another person, it is as if he has spilled blood.  God is crying that the husband would do this to his wife.

One commentary says that if God is even willing to have his name erased  to save the marriage, how much more must we be willing to help others even if it is embarrassing or costly.  

It has also been pointed out that the creation of the Golem echoes the sotah ritual.

Another example of turning this troublesome law on its head led to even more peculiar conclusions.  The Mishnah states that if the accused woman “has merit”, that merit causes the water to suspend its effect on her.  Ben Assai concluded from this that a man is obligated to teach his daughter Torah, her learning will protect her if she has to go through this ordeal.  But Rabbi Eliezer said No – teaching her torah, teaches her lewdness.  The girl might feel she doesn’t have to worry as she will feel protected.

The ones we would call sensible say the proper conclusion is that torah study should not be done as insurance but only to enhance our morality and relationship to God.

None of the commentaries I have mentioned so far have too much to satisfy modern, liberal minds.  They do not address the questions we ask about the burden of guilt being put on the woman for the jealousy of the man.  The text itself has trouble with this issue-

It first says if a woman has gone astray and then speaks of her husband’s jealousy.  The offering is described as an offering of jealousy.

One commentary I enjoyed says that Rabbi Elazar in Berachot 31b  tells of Hannah turning the test on its head and using it to solve her problem of barrenness.  She says she will deliberately cause her husband to become jealous, by appearing to have committed adultery, so that she will pass the test and be rewarded with offspring.

The laws of Sotah are like many of the Torah laws that we find at best puzzling, if not actually repulsive.  We can attempt to rationalize them, find hidden meanings in them,

And express gratitude that we are no longer required to follow them. 

Rabbi Toba Spitzer says that the ritual though seemingly unfair, at least provides a social mechanism which protects women from more violent actions on the part of their husbands.  The jealous husband is not given license to kill his wife, but merely to humiliate her. 

Rabbi Sara Levine is not satisfied with this as she still sees this as a solution that inscribes itself on the body of the victim.  We know that women today are still beaten or killed by husbands who think that they have the right to control their wives, even in a society which no longer legally defines women or children as property.  Many of these men keep their women isolated, are jealous, and often hurt women for the first time when they are pregnant.  So perhaps the idea of a ritual does make sense. We know that the Jewish community is not guilt free and that there are Jewish women’s shelters in every community with a sizeable Jewish population.  In smaller communities there are education programs for the non-denominational shelters to help them understand Jewish women’s special issues.  One problem that has been uncovered is that Jewish women often stay in abusive relationships years longer than non-Jewish women because there is so much shame involved in admitting there is a problem.

Rabbi Sterne asks by what means  can we resolve this very real problem which costs women’s lives to this very day?  And concludes It is only when we can see each other and treat each other as full human beings will the name of God ceased to be erased from the parchment.