Now there’s no distance so great / as two people in the same bed, worlds apart
There is no chasm so steep as betrayal / no damage so deep to a heart
– Kathie Lee Gifford, “Only My Pillow Knows,” Born for You (2000 album)
On the surface, the agonizing procedure in the Torah (Bamidbar 5:11-31) for a sotah (a wife who went astray) is just like any of the other trials by ordeal, which were common from the Ancient Near East through Medieval Christian Europe.<1> There are several factors in common, including: accusation of a crime but no witnesses or proof; calling on God to reveal the innocence or guilt of the accused; impressive statements by the priest; symbols of holiness to influence the emotions of the accused; and an oath.<2>
On the other hand, there’s a major difference. The other ordeals require a miracle for the accused to be found innocent, while the sotah test requires a miracle for the accused to be found guilty.<3> For example, the Code of Hammurabi (#132) forced a woman accused of adultery to throw herself into the river. Presumably this wasn’t a simple swim, but jumping into dangerous water. Only if she survived was she exonerated.<4>
Furthermore, the Gemara says that with sotah, God allowed His Holy Name to be erased “to make peace between husband and wife.”<5> If this were like the other ordeals, we would have expected it to say that God allowed His Holy Name to be erased “to establish the wife’s guilt.”<6> Apparently there’s more than meets the eye here.
There are two approaches to understand the big picture of sotah. The first fits better with the simple reading of the verses, and the second fits better with the approach of Chazal in Masekhet Sotah.
The Husband’s Jealousy
Let’s start with why this ordeal is limited to suspicions of a wife’s adultery, and not any other Torah violation. Professor Jacob Milgrom points out that:
It has been shown in cross-cultural studies that societies will resort to ordeals when the people at large suspect an individual of committing an infraction which endangers the whole community. In such a situation a quick and decisive verdict is necessary. . . . But what danger does the suspected adulteress pose to her community that would mandate an immediate decision by God? Surely it cannot be that she violated one of the commandments of the Decalogue [=Aseret HaDibrot]. If so, the ordeal would have been instituted for other suspected covenantal infractions, e.g., idolatry, Sabbath violation, thievery. However, the fact remains that the ordeal is prescribed for the suspected adulteress and for no other case! The reason, then, must be sought in the dreaded consequences which the [Torah] wishes to forestall at all costs: that she be lynched by mob rule or its legal equivalent, a kangaroo court.<7>
In other words, sotah is less about the woman’s infidelity (which is possible) and more about the husband’s suspicion (which is definite). This approach fits with the repetition in the Torah here of the word kin’ah, jealousy. It shows up no fewer than ten times in the sotah story, which is summarized as torah hakena’ot, “the rule for jealousy” (verse 29). Thesotah‘s korban is called “minchat kena’ot,” a minchah of jealousy (verse 15). And it isn’t the wife who brings it, it’s the husband who brings it “aleha.” While that’s usually translated “on her behalf,” it could well mean “on account of her,” that is, for his jealousy of her.<8>
In LookJED, the online discussion group for Jewish educators, Mindy S. Kornberg of Yerushalayim comes to the same conclusion:
If one pictures a middle eastern society similar to that of the Beduins, one can easily come up with a scenario of a husband suspecting his wife of adultery and becoming so enraged with jealousy, anger and shame that his immediate response would be to kill her himself (this as we know is unfortunately not farfetched even today). What does the Torah do? It doesn’t just command the husband to not kill his wife. It is not likely that the husband in question would obey such a commandment. Remember, we are dealing with a man being possessed by a ruach kinah! Rather the Torah sends the husband a different message; one that doesn’t allow him to carry out his private impulsive death sentence but tells him:
“We understand the depth of your anger and shame. But let us, those representing G-d’s law, handle the situation. If she is guilty she will be punished publicly and accordingly. Her shame will equal the shame that you are now experiencing.” The prescribed ritual allows for a sublimation of the husband’s rage within legal boundaries, while protecting the life of an innocent woman who though put through a humiliating procedure emerges alive and publicly vindicated. Obviously a less extreme ritual would not be as effective in persuading a husband possessed by such a ruach kinah to refrain from murdering his wife. The whole sotah process seen this way can be understood as the Torah response to and attempted prevention of certain kinds of crimes of passion which were and are still prevalent in certain societies.<9>
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin elaborates based on his personal experience:
An incident occurred in Efrat about a decade ago which gave me an insight into the meaning of this ritual. Due to the positive relationships we enjoy with many local Arab villages, as the local chief rabbi I am often called upon to adjudicate disputes between Palestinians and Israelis, and sometimes even between Palestinians and Palestinians. In this case, two Palestinian cousins from separate villages were suspected of having a sexual relationship.
The family of the young woman spoke of an honor killing. The family of the young man persuaded the woman’s relatives to come to me for arbitration and to abide by my ruling. I interviewed the two cousins separately and together, listened to the testimonies of witnesses who had seen unseemly behavior but had not seen any sexual activity. Based on this, I ruled that there was no legitimate proof that cohabitation had taken place. I insisted that the two get married, which they did with alacrity.
Judaism emerged from the Middle East, where jealousy is rampant and women are often considered the chattel of their husbands. A jealous husband can easily persuade himself to harm the wife whom he suspects of adultery. I therefore believe this trial of the bitter waters provided a marvelous psychological ploy to protect the woman from a husband’s wrath.<10>
The novelist Emuna Elon argues that the lack of an equivalent ritual for anish soteh isn’t because more women than men commit adultery, but rather because more men than women are jealous and suspicious of their partner. This phenomenon is alive and well today. There are husbands who scream at their wives when they’re a little late, “Who were you talking to?!” There are husbands who see their wives putting on jewelry and immediately convince themselves it must be for someone else. Of course, a relationship quickly becomes poisoned by such accusations. How to stop the poison? Elon suggests that Hashem here is telling a jealous husband the following: I’m ready to erase My Name if that’s what it takes to get you to let go of your jealousy. What are you ready to do? Can you bring yourself to have My Name erased and your wife humiliated in public? No? Then drop it, just let it go and move on.<11>
The above fits with the simple reading of the verses. But there is a different possibility, as follows.
Grounds for Suspicion
Even in the verses, there are indications that apart from the accusation of adultery, the wife has done something wrong. Dr. Moshe Sokolow points out that this wife is described with the roots STH and M’L. The former refers to going astray, and the latter usually refers to me’ilah, the misuse of what belongs to God. Applied here, it seems that:
- Asotahis a wayward spouse. We are dealing with a case in which there is circumstantial evidence that a woman has been unfaithful to her husband.
- Unfaithfulness to a spouse is equivalent to unfaithfulness to God; a sacrilege.
- Like a sacrilege, it requires atonement as well as compensation.<12>
What happened? Based on the Gemara, Steve Bailey describes it in contemporary terms:
A married woman is working in a downtown office. She becomes quite friendly with a male co-worker and the two spend much time together, socially. Soon, the husband believes that their social relationship violates his “exclusive rights” in his marriage. So – in the presence of two witnesses – he forbids his wife to be alone with this man. She ignores his warning. A few days later, the wife and her co-worker are seen entering a nearby hotel during lunchtime. Two witnesses observe them registering at the desk and entering a hotel room together. That’s it – end of story. (If the story continued with even one witness barging in the room to find them in an adulterous union, the marriage would be dissolved legally. This is not the case ofsotah.)<13>
Rabbi Elchanan Samet explains the fallout:
Let us now examine the event to which the halakha refers in the parasha of sota. A couple has arrived at such a crisis in their relationship that they are unable to continue living together. What are the possibilities that are open to them, from the point of view of Halakha? The husband may, of course, decide that he no longer wishes to be married, and may divorce her (with payment of the wife’s ketuba, if he is not prepared to clarify his suspicions through the test of the water). The wife, likewise, may decide that she is not prepared to be tested, and thus brings the marriage to an end, as Rambam rules:
“A woman whose husband was jealous for her and she secluded herself – she is not forced to drink. If she confesses and declares, ‘Yes, I was defiled,’ she goes out without her ketuba, and is forbidden to her husband forever, and does not drink. [But she and the adulterer are not put to death because there are no witnesses to the actual sin.]
“Likewise if she says, “I am not defiled, and I shall not drink,” she is not forced to drink, and she goes out without her ketuba [since her husband is ready to remain with her if she agrees to the test].
“And likewise if the husband says, ‘I do not wish for her to drink’ … then she does not drink; she receives her ketuba and leaves, and she is forbidden to him forever” (Rambam, Sotah 2:1).
But what if both of them – the husband and the wife – wish to continue living together, and to repair their relationship? The Torah allows for such a possibility: a test through the waters of the sotah. Only on the basis of this test can the woman once again be permitted to her husband, if she is found to be innocent, and the family has a chance of being rehabilitated.
This test, then, is performed only upon the joint wish of both the husband and wife; each of them may prevent the performance of the test if he or she does not want it. This reality is far from the impression created by the literal reading, according to which the husband forces the test on his wife against her wishes. According to Halakha, however, only if she is prepared to undergo this procedure of her own free will is it carried out. The woman will be willing to do so out of her desire to continue living with her husband, and out of the knowledge that she was not defiled.<14>
Only in such a rare case – in which his warning and her defiance combine with the two of them wanting to stay together – is the sotah ordeal perfomed. That’s when her guilt or innocence is shown to all. A guilty woman probably would opt out rather than be exposed as an adulteress and punished by God (whether by infertility or death). An innocent woman who undergoes the ordeal, though, will be rewarded by reuniting with her husband and cementing the relationship by having a child with him.<15> Under the circumstances, that’s a good deal.
Ordeal or good deal? Both understandings are possible.
- See, for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trial_by_ordeal
- Prof. Yaakov Licht, “Bedikat HaSotah KeOrdeal,” Mechkarim BaMikra(5747), pp. 173-179. Cited in Rabbi Elchanan Samet, “The Sota (5:11-31),” translated by Kaeren Fish. http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.63/35naso.htm
- Code of Hammurabi #132, as cited by Rabbi Dr. Emanuel Rackman, “The Case of the Sotah in Jewish Law: Ordeal or Psychodrama?” National Jewish Law Review 3 (1988). Reprinted in his Modern Halakhah for Our Time(Hoboken: KTAV, 1995), p. 156.
- Sukkah53b, Nedarim 66b, and Chullin 141a.
- Rabbi Rackman, p. 167.
- Prof. Jacob Milgrom, “The Case of the Suspected Adulteress, Numbers 5:11–31: Redaction and Meaning,” in The Creation of Sacred Literature, ed. Richard E. Friedman (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981). Reprinted inWomen in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader, ed. Alice Bach (Routledge, 1998), p. 480.
- Rabbi Sarra Levine, “Inscribing Jealousy on the Bodies of Women,” in Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, ed., The Women’s Torah Commentary(Woodstock,Vt: Jewish Lights, 2000), p. 266.
- Mindy S. Kornberg, “Re: Difficult topics to teach: Sotah,” Lookjed Online Discussion Group, March 15, 1999. http://lookstein.org/lookjed/read.php?1,214,249
- Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin, “Parshat Naso: Psychological Ploys,” TheJerusalemPost Magazine, May 21, 2010, p. 43.http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Judaism/Parshat-Naso-Psychological-ploys
- Emuna Elon, “La’atzor et Tiftuf HaRa’al,” Makor Rishon, Musaf Shabbat. Unfortunately, I don’t have the date of this article.
- Dr. Moshe Sokolow, “A Modest Pedagogical Proposal,” Lookjed Online Discussion Group, March 16, 1999. http://lookstein.org/lookjed/read.php?1,214,254
- Steve Bailey, “Naso” (Teaching Notes), 1999. http://www.lookstein.org/articles/naso.pdf
- Rabbi Elchanan Samet, “The Sota (5:11-31),” translated by Kaeren Fish.http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.63/35naso.htm
- Bamidbar5:28; Rambam, Hilkhot Sotah 3:16, 22.