It’s 3,000 years ago, you’re a local tribal leader, and you want to combat honor killings, what do you do? You already made murder illegal. You set up a court system. Honor killings are still happening. Now what?

Sotah shows one approach. It gives the jealous husband another solution. He can take his wife to a reverse trial by fire. The woman drinks a mysterious liquid. Unless a supernatural event proves her guilt, she’s innocent. Further, if she’s innocent, she will be compensated for her humiliation with a child. Thus if she really had an affair, the Sotah ceremony removes any potential natural evidence of her guilt.

The Torah takes similar approaches to two other horrific crimes: military rape and paternal murder. Rather than tell the man to stop it tells him to delay. The man can satisfy his righteous rage or pathological lust, but not now, not in a private moment of passion alone with his victim.  He must wait for the cold light of dawn and for the testosterone rush to pass. He then must act publicly in front of his family and community and accept the consequences.

The Talmud asserts that the “Rebellious Child” protocol never resulted in an execution. It is not clear if these alternate “solutions” regarding Sotah and the woman taken in battle were ever used. For the most part they stand as a theoretical alternative. You’re overloaded with righteous rage or lust and think you’re entitled. Fine. But first sober up, calm down, and make your case to your family and community.

These sections teach us that the Torah sees:

  1. Evil in general and pathological male lust and rage in particular as problems that must be managed but that cannot be solved completely.
  2. Statements of absolute moral clarity as a good start, but as insufficient in many cases. They must sometimes be supplemented with pragmatic and often troubling approaches that must be understood in the context of their time and place.
  3. Man and the world as they are, not as we wish them to be. God concludes after the flood that man and the world contain much evil, and that a utopia with only absolute moral commandments will lead to another societal meltdown.
  4. A moral requirement to get its hands morally dirty, engaging in the world’s thorniest problems, even though this leaves it vulnerable to be derided as morally inconsistent or even evil.

In many other societies, honor killings and military rape are still quite common. We can’t prove causation, but societies under the influence of the Torah – while far from perfect — seem to have done a far better job outgrowing our primitive nature on these issues.

I’ll still feel uncomfortable in Shul on Shabbat as Sotah is read. I want the Torah to provide moral clarity and inspiration. A benevolent and omnipotent God fighting evil and eliminating suffering. And instead I get this. A jealous husband forcing his wife to star in a humiliating religious ritual. This is Torah? This is Judaism?

And I’ll ponder how in some ways the Torah is like the Sotah show trial. It appears to be one thing when perhaps it’s another. I want the Torah to provide a divine superhero who solves our problems. Unambiguous moral lessons. Happy endings. Instead we’re given ambiguous stories with troubling approaches to complex problems. I leave knowing that we must engage, but with less confidence in my answers, and with more respect for the questions. And yes, it seems. This is Torah. This is Judaism.