You are hereHome >
Maggie Birnbaum’s D’var Torah
Shabbat Shalom! My Torah portion is Naso, and the part I have been exploring is about the Sotah: a woman who is accused of adultery by her jealous husband and the ritual used when a husband strongly suspects his wife has cheated on him, but there are no witnesses, she keeps it a secret, and she wasn’t forced. If a case meets these requirements, the jealous husband takes his wife to the Tabernacle, where they will perform the Sotah ritual. In this ritual, the priest brings the woman forward in order for her to stand before G-d. Then the priest makes “mayim marim,” or bitter water, by mixing water with dirt from the floor of the tabernacle. After this the priest uncovers the woman’s head. Once she is married, a woman’s bare head is only supposed to be seen by her husband, so when the priest bares her head, this is an important moment. Then the priest writes down a spell that says: “If you have gone astray and defiled yourself while being married to your husband, may God curse you and your people, causing your thigh to sag and your belly to distend.” The woman must say, “Amen, amen.” Next, the priest washes the written curses into water. Then the woman must give the priest the meal-offering of jealousy, which the priest will bring forth and burn on the altar. Finally, the woman must drink the bitter water that the priest made, mixing in water, dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle, and the written curse. I think the next part is so troubling that I will just read you the quote from the Torah: “If she has defiled herself by breaking faith with her husband, the 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 able to retain seed.” The Sotah ritual is so troubling because it is unfair. The biggest problem is that it was meant for the man, but it happens to the woman! This ritual is meant to rid the man of his jealousy. Even if the woman is not guilty of committing adultery, she still has to go through the humiliation of being accused of unfaithfulness. Another problem I have with this ritual is that it’s one-sided. What if a man is suspected of cheating on his wife? Will they have a ritual for him? What is a jealous woman supposed to do? The Torah doesn't say anything about this. The Sotah ritual relies on magic to supposedly discover the truth. In modern day life this seems ridiculous, but there have been other real life examples. In fact, something similar did happen right here in the United States: the Salem Witch trials. The Witch Trials took place between February 1692, and May 1693, almost exactly three hundred and fifteen years ago. Some girls from the town of Salem, Mass, mostly daughters of important people, began to behave strangely. They dove under things, flailed around, and had crawling sensations under their skin. The townspeople believed that a spell had been put on the girls by witches, and that when these girls were in the presence of a witch, they would show these strange behaviors. Witch trials like this happened all over Europe in the middle ages. The witches were almost always women. When people found a person they thought was a witch, they would give her a physical test, like tying her arms and legs together, throwing her into water, and seeing if she drowned. In Salem, they used other physical tests, like making the accused touch the afflicted girls, and if the girls started behaving strangely, the accused would be killed. In the end, fourteen women and five men were convicted of witchcraft and hanged. It upsets me that these rituals focus specifically on women, because men are just as capable of cheating on their wives as women are of cheating on their husbands, and men can be just as capable of witchcraft as women. Maybe the Puritan town of Salem got the idea of a woman’s physical reaction showing her guilt or innocence from the Sotah ritual, which is in the Bible that they also read and believed in. Maybe this ritual especially stood out to the Puritans because it needs a little magic to affect the woman’s body. And in the Salem witch trials, magic is exactly what the witches are being accused of. These two magical trials are very similar, but one important difference between them is that the Sotah ritual is in the Torah, and the Salem Witch Trials happened in isolated towns across New England and Europe. There were no laws that said, “You have to perform witch trials,” but the Sotah ritual is a law in the Torah! What are we supposed to do with such a gruesome passage in our holy book? When difficult stories like this one appear in the Torah, Jews have different ways of dealing with them. One way of dealing with a Torah story like this is to try to find the brighter side of the story, by interpreting the story, looking for things that aren’t so obvious, that make it seem more optimistic. Some people who have looked at the Sotah ritual in this way think that the ritual is actually a good thing, because if the woman didn’t commit adultery, but her husband is still extremely jealous, the ritual gives her a way to show that she is innocent. This would help the woman, because her life at home would be much more pleasant, since her husband wouldn’t think that she had cheated on him anymore. They also might point out that the Sotah ritual itself does not physically hurt the woman. The priest bares her head, which is supposed to humiliate her, and makes her drink the bitter water, which might be disgusting, but it does not actually hurt if she is innocent. Later, if she has committed adultery, her thigh will sag and her belly will distend, which might be painful; but if she innocent, no harm will come upon her. People looking for a more positive reading of the Sotah story would also notice that it is not so bad in comparison to witch trials. The witch trials often determined if the woman was a witch by seeing if she floated in water; if she was innocent, she would sink to the bottom and drown. In the Sotah ritual, if the woman is innocent, nothing will happen to her, and even if she’s guilty, she still won’t die. So, in the Sotah ritual, the woman doesn’t die either way, but in the Salem witch trials, she dies no matter what! Another positive interpretation by Maimonides is that this ritual would make a husband think twice about accusing his wife of adultery because what would happen to her is so terrible, and it would also make the wife less likely to commit adultery. Another way to deal with this ritual is making sure it never happens, which thankfully it won’t, because it was stopped by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai over two thousand years ago. He said that adultery was so common in his time that the ritual didn’t make sense anymore. Originally, the ritual was not intended to be used a lot, because it depended on magic, and not proven facts, and when the ritual was created, adultery was not common. Now that it would have to be done regularly, he decided the ritual didn’t have any meaning anymore. My thinking has changed a lot over the time I’ve been studying this, because when I first read the portion I was infuriated at the fact that it only happened to women. I convinced myself that it was the worst law in all religious history. But then I learned about the Salem witch trials, and the ritual being outlawed in Jewish practice, and it made me realize that the Jewish religion wanted to abolish this law that was so unfair and horrible. However, even though the Sotah ritual was abolished, there are still other examples of unfairness to women in the Jewish religion. One of these is Jewish divorce, which requires the husband giving a get to his wife; without it, they cannot be divorced. An aguna is a woman whose husband will not grant her a divorce; it literally means “chained woman”. This can really damage an observant woman’s life and relationships with other people, because as long as she is technically married, she can’t have a relationship, get married, or have children, with anybody else. Originally, the aguna was a woman whose husband was lost at war or at sea, or his whereabouts were unknown. But many contemporary women are in this situation because their husbands won’t give them a divorce. Because the law is so unfair to women, two British agunot have started something called the Agunot Campaign. As part of the campaign, Modern Orthodox women in Britain went to the Beit Din, the Jewish court, and met with the Dayanim, the rabbinic judges, to try to abolish the laws. They were unsuccessful, because the Dayanim said that if there were any halachic solutions—solutions in Jewish law—they would have been found already. Noted Orthodox feminist writer Blu Greenberg has written that “where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halakhic way,” meaning rabbis could find ways to solve this problem if they wanted to. I disagree with the Dayanim and agree with Ms. Greenberg. Not finding any halachic solutions to the Sotah ritual didn’t stop Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai from abolishing the Sotah law while the Temple was still standing. Most commentaries seem to say that Rabbi Yochanan abolished the Sotah ritual because adultery had become much more common, and it wasn’t stopping people from being unfaithful. But one commentary I saw said that adultery among men was much more common than among women. Therefore, it seemed inhumane to just punish the women. If a well respected rabbi like Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai can abolish a law for logical and humane reasons, then I think the dayanim of today should be able to change the laws about Jewish divorce so that there won’t be any agunot. I think that it would be very difficult to be a feminist and an observant Jew. I do however think that it is possible. Look at Blue Greenberg! But observant Jewish women were and still are put in many situations, like being agunot, where they seem below men or their husbands. Even though a woman is put in these situations, it doesn't mean she can’t protest. Agunot women right now are protesting the laws of Jewish divorce, and they’re no less Jewish in my opinion. You can disagree with things in the Torah or halakhah and that doesn't mean you’re any less Jewish. I think that disagreeing with the Torah and trying to change laws actually makes you more observant in a way, because it means you are really thinking carefully about what it says and you take it really seriously. Studying Torah and changing it if necessary affects the people that do so. You become part of the process of progress in the world and in Judaism. Any time you read the Torah and interpret it, you are given the special gift of reading a holy book, and you give back to the congregation, and to Judaism, your thoughts about the Torah’s relevance to your personal life. This process also changes the Torah and Judaism. This process allows Judaism to change as the world, and people, change. A really old piece of text could stop being interesting if you just read it word for word and don’t interpret it and connect it to the modern world. Because we study and interpret Torah in every generation, the Jewish religion stays modern and relevant.