Many have said that this week’s parashah, Naso, features trial by ordeal in parshat ha-sotah (the portion about the suspected adulteress). I disagree.
Torah tells us that if a man is overcome by jealousy, believing his wife has had an extramarital affair, but there is no evidence and there are no witnesses, yet he is still consumed by a “fit of jealousy” (Numbers 5:14), he can subject her to the trial of the sotah.
If this were a trial by ordeal, we would expect it would determine her innocence or guilt. But if we read Torah’s description carefully, it becomes clear that the trial is designed to acquit.
How does it work? The husband drags his wife to the priest in the Tabernacle or Temple and accuses her of adultery. He brings a grain offering without oil or frankincense – this is not a joyful occasion. The priest bares the woman’s head. He then brings an earthenware vessel, puts some dust from the floor of the Tabernacle in it, and adds water. Next, the priest writes out the curse of the sotah (straight from this week’s parashah – Numbers 5:19-22) and rubs the very ink – the curse itself – into the vessel containing water and dust. The sotah is compelled to drink this concoction.
Once he has made her drink the water – if she has defiled herself by breaking faith with her husband, the spell-inducing water shall enter into her to bring on bitterness, so that her belly shall distend and her thigh shall sag; and the wife shall become a curse among her people. But if the wife had not defiled herself and is pure, she shall be unharmed and able to retain seed. (Numbers 5: 27-28)Let’s pause for a moment, step back, and take a broad view of this bizarre ritual. The husband has initiated a dramatic and public ceremony. His wife undergoes public humiliation (baring her head publicly adds to her humiliation). But what is the likely outcome? I recall as a child being told on many occasions the 18th century English proverb, “We must eat a peck of dirt before we die.” Okay, so a peck is a rather large amount – 2 gallons! – but this adage has been generally understood to acknowledge that a little dirt won’t hurt you. Water with a little dust and dried ink (probably made from some mineral and vegetable products) is unlikely to cause harm beyond a stomachache. We ate far worse at summer camp when I was a kid.
The outcome of the ritual of the sotah, then, is that the woman fared well, exonerating her of her husband’s jealous accusation. Along the way, he had subjected her to public ridicule and humiliation only to be proven a fool and someone the community ought to keep an eye on.
But what if the husband’s accusation were true? What if she were involved with someone else and – in a world without reliable birth control, this is a real possibility – was pregnant by a man other than her husband? The verses quoted above make it clear that, if guilty, the wife would be rendered sterile by the ritual. Yet the reality is that it would be highly unlikely that the concoction she ingested would make her sick, let alone cause the horrors described in the Torah leading to her sterilization or death. What happens then?
Here’s the amazing part: the ritual would still exonerate the wife – God would be considered the final arbiter – and in so doing she would be recompensed with a child (see Numbers 5:28 above). The expectation was that if she were proved innocent, she would immediately become pregnant, and the husband would certainly be the father. It now appears that the ritual of the sotah provides cover for an adulteress relationship. Why would that be the case?
A child born of an adulteress relationship would be stigmatized as a mamzer (bastard, one born of an impermissible relationship), unable to marry in the community except to another mamzer. It is a terrible stigma to bear. The ritual of the sotah assured that the child would be fully protected.
In addition, although ostensibly it was intended as a warning to women not to engage in adultery, in reality it served as a release valve for men given to “fits of jealousy” who might consider violent retribution against their wives. Instead, they could initiate the ordeal of the sotah. Given the likely outcome, in effect, it served as a warning to men to curb their irrational jealousy because a man whose wife is exonerated by the ritual looks like a fool before the community. In a world without prisons, police, and court orders, perhaps this was the best possible way to protect women – and their children – from men inflamed with potentially violent jealousy. The husband, having dragged his wife through this horrible, dramatic, and public ritual, was now embarrassed and under the watchful eye of the priests and the community.
And the child born subsequently – regardless of who was the biological father – was protected by the imprimatur of God.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai tells us that the ritual was discontinued due to the hypocrisy of subjecting women alone to the ordeal, given how adultery had proliferated among men. Mishnah Sotah 9:9 informs us:
When adulterers became numerous, the bitter waters ceased, and Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai abolished them, as it is written, I will not punish your daughters when they commit harlotry, nor your brides when they commit adultery; for they themselves go aside with harlots, and they sacrifice with cult prostitutes; therefore the people who do not understand shall fall (Hosea 4:14).(Mishnah Sotah tells us that Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai legislated the ritual out of existence, but according to Tosefta Sotah 14:1, he only records its annulment, suggesting that it had been discontinued before his time.)
The ritual of the sotah, which strikes many of us as primitive, even barbaric, was a clever and sophisticated mechanism for heading off potential violence provoked by the highly dangerous emotion of jealousy in an age where little else was available. It protected not only falsely accused women, but also the children of women who had conceived by another man. What is more, it fell into desuetude because practice and halakhah change with time to meet the needs and sensibilities of a community living in covenant with God. That is as it should be: Jewish tradition is about enabling us to respond to life by bringing holiness and healing into our lives and into this world – there is no one fixed immutable formula for all time to do that.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman