Emanuel Synagogue

This week’s parasha contains a rather complex ritual involving a woman suspected of committing adultery (a Sotah). Bemidbar 5:11-31 provides a deep level of detail in terms of the trial that the woman is put through, in order to establish whether she is innocent or guilty. The suspecting husband brings his wife to the Temple, where the priest conducts a ritual involving a (jealousy) meal offering, unbinding the woman’s hair, having her swear an oath that she is faithful only to her husband. Then the writing on the scroll containing the oath and related curses is erased in a mixture of water and dust from the Tabernacle. The woman is then made to drink this mixture. If she is guilty; “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 wife shall become a curse among her people’‘ (Bemidbar 5:27). If she is innocent; “she shall be unharmed and able to retain seed” (Bemidbar 5:28).

 When we study our texts and learn about the customs and rituals described, we often wonder about the suitability of such a practice today. We may comment that while a specific ritual would not be acceptable in modern society, we acknowledge that it was written in different times, suitable for managing society then. However, this ritual garners even deeper criticism.

We are compelled to ask what is going on here? Does our text go too far in the development of this very strange ritual? How is it conceivable that something which clearly belongs in the Salem Witch Trials or perhaps Monty Python and the Holy Grail, has found its way into our heritage, and with such intricate detail?

The answer lies in how the Torah deals with a jealous husband who has accused his wife of committing adultery, recognising that a number of other cultures around that time would be inclined to adopt more radical approaches when confronted with such accusations, usually resulting in harsh imprisonment or death for the accused woman (the Salem Witch Trials had to be based on some ancient practice). To mitigate such behaviour, while still being able to deal with the accusation satisfactorily (bearing in mind who the audience was), this convoluted trial was devised.

To what end, you may ask. Biblical scholar Professor Richard Elliott Friedman writes; “Jacob Milgrom [bible scholar and rabbi], doubting that the potion that is described in this law could produce any sure symptoms, therefore proposed that the law’s effect was precisely to find all women not guilty and thus to prevent ‘lynchings’. The advantage of his explanation over most others was that it did not depend on something that could not be counted upon to occur. Rather it was based precisely on the fact that nothing would occur”. 

Creating this ritual allowed our ancestors to provide a robust (albeit not totally fair) ritual that was aimed at protecting the woman (think about the outcome), and oddly enough, providing a space for reconciliation for both parties. Sometimes we need to see the whole picture and acknowledge the various intricacies, to understand the most challenging elements.