It’s entirely plausible to read Bamidbar chapter 4 and come away understanding that the Sotah ritual is a punishment for a woman who cheats on her husband, and a deterrent for a woman considering it. It’s a reading that sees Sotah as one of many laws that a patriarchal society creates in order to protect male control and the male ego by use of intimidation, coercion and violence. The most minor feelings of insecurity on the part of a husband as to his sole ownership over his wife invites a ceremony that, in the best of circumstances, spells extreme humiliation for the woman.
I don’t think one can deny that this is a fine, good, coherent reading of the text. But it leaves a bitter taste, unbefitting the Torah, whose paths are paths of pleasantness, and all of whose ways are peace. So within rabbinic readings of Sotah, you can find a very different understanding emerge.
Take the puzzling statement from Masechet Sotah (47a) that “once the adulterers proliferated, the bitter waters were stopped”. If the Sotah water’s goal was punishment and deterrence, you would expect the exact opposite! The increase in adultery should make it even more critical to enforce Sotah. But Chizkuni explains that the Sotah ceremony was only intended for cases of doubt, in order to return peace to a couple by calming a jealous, suspecting husband, offering him absolute proof that his wife was innocent. In the same vein, the Gemara points out that this goal of marital peace and harmony is so powerful that it even justifies erasing the Divine name, one of the most serious prohibitions in the Torah.
And then there are rabbis who go even further. In Rabbi Elazar’s radical Midrash, in the context of a gemara teaching of the ‘great things’ we learn from Chana, Chana offers God an ultimatum. Either answer my prayers, or I will make my husband needlessly jealous, he will demand the Sotah trial, and you will be forced to fulfill your promise to the falsely accused woman and give me a child. Thus, the Sotah trial which seems to represent a typical abuse of male power, is transformed into a vehicle of feminist empowerment and actualization.
Now there’s some Torah I can swallow.
This is a lately not very daily blog of the 929 chapter, currently falling behind, but never losing hope…learn more about 929 at 929.org.il.