Sorting Out Sotah
The following is based on comments I made on a recent post by Shira of On The Fringe. This relates to the topic of the Sotah, a wife suspected of adultery, found in last week's Torah portion of Naso (the week before last in Israel). You can think of this posting as a bit late for that reading... or as really early for next year's. :-) But I do happen to be learning Maseches Sotah with my chavrusa, at a pace that assures we'll be overtaken at least one more annual reading of the parsha!
And I also think this is an important topic, because the Sotah ritual is one of the most misunderstood halachik areas in the Torah. A simplistic read of the verses leads to a number of basic questions, some of which were asked in Shira's post:
1) Why should a jealous husband have the power to put his wife through this humiliating public ordeal on just a personal whim, with no evidence?
2) Doesn't Jewish law generally consider forced trial by ordeal to be invalid?
3) Isn't this a sexist and unbalanced rule? Why isn't there a similar ordeal for a husband suspected of cheating?
4) Assuming the woman undergoes the ordeal and survives unscathed, and is thus presumed innocent, does the Torah really expect the couple to trust one another again and resume a normal married life?
To answer these questions we must understand both the social environment in which these events are taking place - very different than contemporary Judaism - and the actual nature and rules of the Sotah ritual, as elucidated in the Talmud.
First, a key difference between the time of the Torah/Talmud and today Jewish society was the permissibility, and prevalence, of polygamy. In a polygamous world, a married man who "cheated" (as we'd define that concept today) on his wife with an unmarried woman, would not be committing the capital offence of "adultery" since he is actually permitted to be married to both women. His behavior is certainly considered halachically improper and licentious, but can't technically be called adulterous. By definition, given polygamy, adultery can only mean relations between a married woman and a man - married or not - who is not her husband.
In such a case, however, halacha negates "sex discrimination" in that both the adulterer and adulteress are equally guilty and equally punished. In fact, the Talmud states, in the case of the Sotah who did actually commit adultery and who drank the bitter waters, her paramour would be affected by the curse the same extent as she. As an aside - just picture it! He could be walking down the street, and suddenly, the moment his lover drinks the water, boom! he falls down dead with a burst belly and "thigh" [euphemistic, as per the Talmud]. Talk about unsafe sex!
On a related note, the Talmud also states that the Sotah ritual is only effective if the husband himself is totally guiltless of any similar offences. That's why the verses end with the statement "and the husband shall be innocent". But is the husband right to put his wife through this ordeal at all, even for the sake of determining truth? This is a subject of much debate in the Talmud. Once again, the last verse is understood to imply that some guilt may well rest on the husband for acting on his suspicions.
But still, why does the Torah give the husband such seemingly unbalanced authority in the first place? There are two key facts concerning the Sotah ritual, explained in the Talmud and quite non-obvious from a literal reading of the verses, which help shed light on this question.
Firstly, the sequence of events that invoke the Sotah proceedings are as follows. A wife is known to be involved with a specific other man, and her husband expresses his initial concerns before witnesses. Then there are additional witnesses that she later secluded herself in a private place with this same man long enough for them to have had relations, but there were no witnesses to an actual sex act. Then and only then is the woman asked (see below) to undergo Sotah. It is emphatically not done on the husband's unsubstantiated suspicion.
The other key point is that at any time prior to the actual drinking, the wife has absolute power of refusal of the entire Sotah ritual. Instead, she can simply admit to the infidelity. Since as above, there are no witnesses to same, she does not receive any judicial punishment (death, lashes, etc.) and simply accepts a divorce without payment of the ketubah [marriage contract].
Thus clarified, the circumstances which trigger Sotah are roughly analogous to a contemporary situation in which a suspicious husband hires a private detective, and obtains pictures of his wife and her lover entering and leaving a motel room. This would probably be sufficient evidence for most secular courts today to assume that adultery did take place, and rule a divorce settlement in favor of the husband. This is the exactly analogous result to the ruling of the Talmud just presented, in the case where the wife chooses not to undergo the drinking.
However, if both husband and wife are determined to uncover the absolute truth, the Sotah procedure provides a way of doing so. But given all the above, a woman who nevertheless agrees to go through with the Sotah ritual is very likely one who knows she is innocent. Therefore, as the Talmud states, Sotah is primarily about finding the ultimate truth, removing suspicion, and restoring peace between the spouses. In fact, this was considered of such paramount importance that God's usually-ineffable name was allowed to be blotted in order to facilitate this ritual and the possible restoration of family harmony.
But would a self-respecting wife want to stay married to a man who put her through this, albeit voluntarily on her part? Again, since the only circumstances which trigger the Sotah ritual are ones where the wife placed herself in a highly suspicious situation to begin with, there is likely need for apologies and forgiveness on both sides. Whether such would or could eventually occur, must have been then, as today, highly subjective and individual.
But perhaps it was hoped that the woman's safe survival of the ordeal would turn the "I told you so"s into "sorry"s - or at least provide a possible context for this to happen. A biblical version of shock therapy, if you will. Sotah is about fixing a broken marriage, if it can be fixed at all. Certainly a value, and goal, that is sorely needed in today's divorce-happy world.