Last night and today, we celebrate the festival of Shavuot. We, like many Reform congregations in the Diaspora, follow a Festival calendar that is similar to that of the land of Israel (although the second day of Rosh Hashanah continues to be observed in Israel; its rationale is different from that of the other Festivals). As such, should the cycle of Reform Shabbat Torah readings after a Festival also follow that of the land of Israel and be out of sync with our the rest of our local Jewish communities for six to fifteen weeks, or should local Jewish community custom prevail? We have chosen to be in sync with our Jewish community here in the United States and since we end Shavuot with the beginning of Shabbat this evening, we will take this week’s Torah portion, Naso (Numbers 4:21-5:31) and divide into two parts – thus next Shabbat, it will be Naso – Part two.
We learn that Moses informs the people that when a husband is jealous and suspects his wife of unfaithfulness, and there is no witness to prove his accusation, she is to be brought before the sanctuary priest. He will uncover her head and ask her to place her hands upon the altar of the meal offering. He is then to prepare a mixture of water, earth, and ashes from the meal offering, then say to her: ‘if no man has had intercourse with you, and you have not been unfaithful to your husband, be immune from this water of bitterness. If you have been unfaithful, then may God curse you with sagging thighs and belly” and she must say ‘amen’. After the priest writes the curse and washes the ink into the water, the woman will drink the waters of bitterness and if she is guilty then her body will change as described. If it does not, then she is declared innocent.
What do we make of such a piece of Torah? Leaving aside the inherent sexism of a ritual reserved for women suspected of adultery, and not for their husbands, we are still faced with what appears to be less a piece of legislation for societal stability, than the practice of sympathetic magic. The real issue here is not the woman’s adultery, but the husband’s jealousy and suspicion, and because there are no witnesses or evidence, and yet this suspicion cannot be allowed to fester, the situation is cleared by deferring to divine judgment through the ritual of ordeal.
The ritual of ordeal is well known to us in various forms. The ducking of witches in this country is a good example – if she floated she was guilty and if she drowned she was innocent. Yet the ordeal of the Sotah is something else – dirty inky water may not be pleasant to drink, but was not likely to actually cause her harm. So what is the ordeal really about?
There are those who say that it was never meant to be an actual physical test, but a devastating experience during which the guilty woman would be unable to hide her guilt, and would give herself away in some way. Another possibility is that the insignificance of the actual physical ordeal is intended in order to practically guarantee that the woman could prove her innocence. In other words the real purpose of the ritual would not be to convict adulterous women who were able to hide their wrongdoing, but to create a way for women to clear themselves of any such suspicion. “Suspicion of adultery in a close knit community would be almost impossible to dispel and could easily lead to ostracism and perhaps violent revenge. The ordeal of the bitter water allows a fairly simple safe way for a woman to clear her name with divine approval, sanctioned by the priest and the Temple ritual. If this is the case we have a kind of inverted institution here: the trial by ordeal is transformed from a formidable test weighted toward guilt to an easy one, strongly biased in favor of demonstrating innocence. The ordeal is changed from a measure threatening women to a mechanism for their protection.” (Rachel Adler quoting Jacob Milgrom).
Whatever the ordeal of the Sotah meant, it is clear that by Talmudic times the rabbis had no historical memory of the ordeal being practiced. It is even possible that by the time it was recorded in the book of Numbers, it was already archaic. But it is interesting to note how the disappearance of the trial of the Sotah was explained in the Talmud – “when the adulterers increased in number, the bitter waters ceased. And Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai discontinued the practice….. When the adulterers increased in numbers: our rabbis taught “and the husband shall be guiltless” At a time when the husband is guiltless the waters test his wife, if the husband is not guiltless the waters do not test his wife… (Sotah 47a-b)
The efficacy of the ordeal of the bitter water depended on the accusing husband’s innocence. Very early on it seems, the law decided that one could not assume that the accusing husband had no guilt in the matter, and so the ordeal of the Sotah was dropped from the live legislation. So too was the sentence of capital punishment to deal with the guilty, as the deterrent power was transferred to the consequences in the community for the adulteress.
This Jewish law may have been designed to protect women from weak or resentful husbands, but the way to do it is not to put the constraints on the women whose very existence is said to drive men to uncontrolled frenzy. The way to do it is to teach men and women that such a frenzy is unacceptable. It is time to give up all the well meaning circuitous judgments which may help the individuals but will never change society. The law of the Sotah is one such, where the reason it fell into disuse is more useful to us than the reason why it was first instituted.