Thursday, June 16, 2016

Echoes from the Sotah / Parshat Naso 2016-5776

Nujood Ali may be the youngest girl in the world to get a divorce. Nujood’s father sold her to a man in his 30s when she was nine years old for $750—a child bride in Yemen. He beat her and raped her. Two months later, while visiting her family, she hailed a cab and headed straight to a courthouse where she insisted upon seeing a judge. At the age of 10 she was divorced from the man who had bought and abused her. Just to put this all in perspective, Nujood was married in the second grade and divorced in the third grade. Nujood’s story is told in I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced (written with Delphine Minui). Nujood’s royalties are paid to her father. Rather than educating his daughter, as he agreed to do, he used the money to buy himself two more wives, and sold Nujood’s younger sister to a middle-aged man. Nujood may be the youngest girl to be divorced, but certainly not
 the youngest to be forcibly married. Girls as young as six have
been sold by their fathers to men in their 40s and older. The consequences are horrific. For example, Elam Mahdi, a 12-year-old Yemini girl died in 2010 three days after her wedding” from internal bleeding resulting from intercourse.  Three years later, also in Yemen, an eight-year-old girl married to a 40-year-old man (five times her age!) died on her wedding night of internal bleeding and uterine rupture. Then there is the case of a Saudi father who sold his eight-year-old daughter to a friend in his 50s to pay off a debt. There are countless examples. Selling girls as brides for much older men is common in many countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Is this treatment of girls and women “natural” among the human species? Is this “the way of the world?” Is this an ancient tradition from time immemorial that modernity will eventually extinguish? Apparently not at all.

Human beings were not always monogamous. That is the intriguing starting point of the thesis of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. Moreover, the authors Christopher Ryan and Dr. Cecilia Jeth argue, monogamy is a social institution that evolved among human beings as a result of agriculture. Prehistoric humans, hunter-gatherers, had overlapping sexual relationships. They were usually organized in bands of 20–50 people (adult and children). They moved about, hunting game and seeking edible vegetation. The had few possessions (too much trouble to shlep them) and were marked by individual autonomy, sharing, cooperation,
egalitarianism, and nonviolence. Sharing and cooperation extended to sexuality and parenting. Sexuality was a shared resource, much like food, shelter, and protection. Paternity was not of concern because child care was also a shared resource. In fact, anthropologists argue, multiple sexual partners served nomadic hunger-gatherers by strengthening bonds of trust and connection among members of the band. Harvard Biologist E. O. Wilson, often called the Father of Sociobiology says that human “sexual practices are to be regarded first as bonding devices and only second as a means of procreation.” In the last century, anthropologists identified and studied dozens of still existent
hunter-gatherer societies living in remote regions and isolated from modern influence, finding confirmation for the patterns of relationship Ryan and Jeth describe. (The pictures on this page are of contemporary hunter-gatherers.)

Evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and psychology tell us that with the advent of agriculture and the domestication of animals 10,000 years ago (approximately 5% of our approximately 200,000-year history as a species), people settled in one place and began to accumulate and hoard property and possessions. Under these conditions, paternity begins to matter because men want to hand down their property to their sons, and they do not want to expend energy and effort to support children that are not theirs. Women come to be seen as breeders and treated as the property of men, as exemplified in both versions of the Ten Commandments.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbors. (Exodus 20:14)

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not crave your neighbor’s house, or his field, or his male or female slave, or his ox, or his ass, o anything that is your neighbor’s. (Deuteronomy 5:18)

Where nomadic hunter-gatherers formed egalitarian societies in which paternity was unimportant, farmers developed hierarchical societies in which men owned and controlled the sexuality and procreativity of women in exchange for food, shelter, protection, and status. Under these conditions, the institution of marriage and monogamy came into practice.

Anthropologists provide a very different narrative about the nature of the human species and the institution of marriage than one finds in Genesis and throughout religious writings but it may explain, at least in part, the bizarre and disturbing institution of the sotah, the suspected adulteress, described in Parshat Naso. Anthropologists would note that this scenario would not happen in a hunter-gatherer society because no man would presume exclusive right to the body of a woman. Torah tells us:

If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her—but a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself—the man shall bring his wife to the priest. (Numbers 5:11-15)

If a husband becomes dangerously jealous and potentially violent, thinking that his wife has had sexual relations with another man, but there is no evidence nor any witnesses (and quite possibly nothing has happened) Torah establishes a recourse to violence. The husband is instructed to bring his wife to a priest in the Tabernacle or Temple along with the ingredients for a “meal offering of jealousy.”

What happens next is not pretty. The Torah describes a humiliating public ceremony in which the priest writes out a curse, also prescribed by Torah:

“If no man has lain with you, if you have not gone astray in defilement while married to your husband, be immune to harm from this water of bitterness that induces the spell. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and have defiled yourself, if a man other than your husband has had carnal relations with you, may the Lord make you a curse and an imprecation among your people, as Adonai causes your thigh to sag and your belly to distend; may this water that induces the spell enter your body, causing the belly to distend and the thigh to sag. (Numbers 5:19–22)

The priest then dissolves the words of the curse (i.e., the ink from the parchment on which it was written) into water and adds a little dust from the floor of the Tabernacle. He bares the woman’s head and pronounces the words of the curse, to which the woman is required to say, “Amen, amen!” The priest offers the meal offering of jealousy and compels the woman to drink the “bitter waters,” the concoction of water, the ink of the curse, and dust. She literally ingests the curse; once inside her, God will empower the words to reveal her innocence or guilt.

This procedure has been called a “trial by ordeal” because the ritual is presumed to reveal the woman’s guilt or innocence.

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 woman shall become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is pure, she shall be unharmed and will [be able to?] conceive. (Numbers 5:27–28)

The ritual of the sotah has been condemned as misogynistic. It is understandable why modern people would view it this way. If the suspected wife did, indeed, have sexual relations with a man other than her husband, he is as guilty of adultery as she, yet no mention is made of him, and there is no corresponding ritual to ferret out his guilt or innocence. Moreover, if the woman is vindicated by this ritual, Torah explicitly says that the husband who falsely accused her, will be innocent of any wrongdoing (Numbers 5:31). There is no compensation for a woman who undergoes this demeaning public ritual and is exonerated. In the end, going through the ritual will tarnish, if not ruin, the woman’s reputation. Either way, she loses. Or does she?

The precise meaning of Numbers 5:27-28 (above) is unclear. Torah could mean that if the accused woman is guilty, she will die as a result of drinking the “bitter waters,” but if she is innocent, she will conceive and bear a child. Alternatively,  it could mean that if she is guilty, she will no longer be fertile, but if she is innocent, she will retain the capacity to conceive and bear a child.[1] Yet another possibility presumes that the woman is pregnant and the husband suspects that he is not the father: “Therefore, the central issue is paternity: if the wife is innocent and the husband is truly the unborn child’s father, then the fetus will grow to term. It follows, therefore, that if the wife is guilty and the husband is not the father, then the wife will not be able ‘to retain seed.’” That is, the spell of the ordeal will induce a miscarriage…”[2]

I would like to propose a fourth option. In an ancient society lacking police, jails, and restraining orders[3], there were few safeguards for a woman whose husband flew into a jealous rage, endangering her life. Even today, if you google “jealous husband killed wife” an alarming number of accounts from all around the world pop up—go ahead and try it.[4]

The ritual of the sotah can be viewed as a valve that allows an husband overwrought with jealousy to let off steam without physically attacking his wife. The husband would haul his wife to the priest and compel her to undergo an unpleasant, demeaning, and public ritual. The ordeal, he believed, would confirm his suspicion in a forum that would garner priestly approval and public acknowledgement that he was correct. The wife’s humiliation undoubtedly brought the husband some measure of satisfaction and bought time for him to calm down.

Let’s now look at the other side of the equation: the wife’s experience. As the chattel of her husband, she had little power and no authority. Jealousy is a powerful and dangerous emotion, and her life is in danger. She is brought to the Tabernacle or Temple where, for the time being, she is safe. A priest compels her to imbibe a strange concoction of water, ink, and dust. What are we talking about here? In the ancient world, ink was made of a variety of ingredients, among them soot, ferrous sulfate, gall nuts, and gum arabic. These ingredients are innocuous, especially the tiny amount the woman would ingest — ink enough to pen four verses. The dust added to the water is also unlikely to have much effect. All in all, the “bitter waters” certainly don’t compete with a daiquiri, but in all likelihood, the woman would be unaffected. The result? Immediate vindication from heaven in a public forum overseen and witnessed by priests. What is more, it is now clear to the priests (and probably to the broader community before long) that this man over-reacted and is potentially dangerous. The priests (and perhaps the community) will keep an eye on him. And what if the woman were pregnant, either by her husband or perhaps she actually did have an affair and carried another man’s child at the time of the ritual? It appears that the promise of fertility that accompanies her divine vindication will cover this: the husband will be presumed to be the father—surviving the ordeal promises her this outcome—and the child will be considered a very special “gift from heaven.” What is more, the jealous husband will be under the radar of the priests and community; he would be most unwise to harm his wife. If what I have postulated was not the intent of the ritual of the sotah, it seems likely to be the outcome.

The husband who is overwrought with jealousy looks different through the lens of anthropologists’ view of marriage as an institution that arose as a result of human cultivation of agriculture which allowed people to settle in one place and begin to amass property and possession. Men began counting women among their property and possessions. This is a situation ripe for exploitation and abuse. The Rabbis, recognized the problem, though they certainly did not understand the anthropologists’ long historical view. Mishnah Sotah 9:9 (47a) reports that R. Yochanan b. Zakkai, (late second century C.E.) suspended the procedure because adultery had become so common at the time. He cites a verse from Hosea: I will not punish their daughters for fornicating, nor their daughters-in-law for committing adultery; for they themselves turn aside with whores and sacrifice with prostitutes, and a people that is without sense must stumble (Hosea 4:14). To accuse women, alone, would be sheer hypocrisy. In the Rabbis’ discussion of the sotah, they determine that in order for the husband to bring his wife to the Temple and charge her as a sotah, he must warn her in the presence of a witness not to seclude herself with another man, and there must also be a witness to her seclusion. It is difficult to imagine a situation in which these conditions are met. What is more, harkening back to R. Yochanan’s stark observation about the state of marriage in his day, the Rabbis state that if the husband had at any time committed adultery, his wife would be immune to the bitter waters. Hence her vindication could be understood as meaning either that she was innocent, or that her husband was guilty.

We would hope that marriages would be based upon trust, respect, and freedom, but we must acknowledge that the institution of marriage, when first developed, had a very different, and deeply disturbing foundation. The historical entanglement of monogamy with treating women as chattel does not mean that monogamy should be jettisoned. It means that we must disentangled  marriage from control and exploitation of girls and women. Sadly, the situation of Nujood and countless other girls is the direct outgrowth of the institution of marriage as it developed in human societies 10,000 years ago. Religions may envelop the institution with
myth (as Torah does in Genesis 2 story about the Garden of Eden), but understanding the historical roots as explained by archaeologists, anthropologists, and psychologists helps us see the inherent problems that some cultures and religions latch onto and exploit to the detriment of girls and women.

There is more. Alas, the problem of marriage extends beyond girls and women to boys in some cultures. In Afghanistan, Turkestan, and Uzbekistan, the ancient tradition of Bacha Bazi (“boys for play”) is for young boys what child marriage is for young girls. It is sexual slavery. Wealthy men purchase poor boys as young as eleven for their entertainment: they dress them in girls’ clothing and force them to sing and perform sexualized dances for them, and then exploit them sexually.[5] In 2010, journalist Najibullah Quraisi made a documentary film entitled The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan about the Bacha Bazi. Ironically, when the homophobic Taliban was in control, they outlawed Bacha Bazi and executed those engaged in the practice, but now that they are no longer in control, Bacha Bazi is returning. American troops serving in Afghanistan were instructed to ignore child sexual abuse, including rape, and even when it occurred on a military base, all the while training and arming the people who perpetrated it.[6]

We can do better and we must do better, not only here at home, but for girls and boys around the globe.

Please check out some of these links for ideas on how you might help:

Videos: (Human Rights Watch, Bangladesh) (Journeyman Pictures, Najood’s story, Yemen)

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 824.
[2] Sharon Keller, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 836.
[3] Which is not to say that the latter are particularly effective—see here, here, and here.
[4] We might be tempted to compare these to so-called honor killings” that occur in some cultures; these, too, are about men controlling the sexuality of their daughters and sisters, who are viewed as chattel.

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