Read write prompt #77: opposites attract
This week's portion: nazir

Bread and bitter water (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.

This week's Torah portion, Naso, features one of the most fascinatingly bizarre rulesets in Torah: the ritual to be performed if a husband suspects his wife of adultery.

The sotah ritual is strangely magical. The priest mixes "sacral water" and earth from the floor of the Tabernacle. The woman suspected of adultery must bare her head, and she holds the couple's meal offering in her hands. (When else do women hold offerings to Adonai?) The priest offers a series of blessings and curses -- if the woman is innocent let her be immune to harm; if she is guilty may her belly and thigh sag -- and the woman echoes them with an "amen." And then the curses are written down, the ink dissolved in the water which already holds a smidgen of earth, the offerings offered, and the woman drinks. If she is innocent, the text tells us, she shall bear children; if guilty, the curse will come true, and she will bear her iniquity.

That this is a problematic text for women today hardly needs reiteration. There is no analagous ritual to be performed by a woman who suspects her husband of straying. Female sexuality here is apparently owned by men, both husband and priests, and the text seems to presume feminine guilt. But this passage is not irredeemable, and a variety of thinkers have spun the straw of this text into exegetical gold.

One of these is Blu Greenberg, who writes, in The Law of the Sotah:

On the surface, and to a woman of contemporary sensibilities, this scene is awful; a jealous husband hauling his wife before the authorities, a humiliating public ritual, gory consequences. Some have used these verses to prove how Torah and tradition deprecate women.

But Sotah is much more complex than that. In many ways it is a paradigm for the dialectic regarding women that runs through Torah and Talmud -- simultaneously hierarchical and protective, callous and compassionate.

She argues that the text can be read in at least two ways -- though it's possible to see this as an anti-feminist text which presupposes male ownership of female sexuality, it's also possible to see the Sotah ritual as designed to painlessly prove womens' innocence. Beyond that, she suggests that in the Talmud's move to supercede this ritual we can discern a kind of proto-feminist consciousness, an awareness that gender roles and paradigms needed to change.

Reform rabbi Judith Abrams has wise things to say about this passage, too. In Midah K'Neged Midah, Rabbi Abrams explores the sotah ritual through the fourfold lens of PaRDeS, looking at the text's pshat (simple meaning), remez (symbolic meaning), drash (the stories it tells us), and sod (the metaphors it can unfold for us.)

The sotah ritual, she points out, is strikingly similar to the ritual the Israelites undergo after the sin of the golden calf (which involves grinding the calf into dust, mixing that into water, and drinking the resultant potion.) The passage about the golden calf potion uses the phrase "great sin." In legal documents of that era, she explains, the term refers to adultery. But when the term appears in Torah, four of its six instances are explicit references not to marital adultery but to the spiritual adultery of idolatry. The Talmud explicitly compares these two passages, implying similarity between these two kinds of covenantal betrayal. Rabbi Abrams expands on that notion, reading the sotah ritual in a way that relates to the covenant between us and God:

If we are interpreting this ritual on a symbolic level as opposed to a practical or historical level, it becomes one of hope and reconciliation rather than judgment and severity. We, Israel, stray from God by worshipping idols or flirting with other faiths. When we do, we have a way of salvaging the relationship and reconfirming the relationship with God...

I like her point that in this passage about brokenness in our relationships with each other, we can find lessons about brokenness in our relationships with our Source -- and also, about repair.

For my own part, this year while studying the parasha I noticed something which hadn't struck me before: the nature of the offering the couple is to bring before God when the situation arises. In the JPS translation, the text says:

If any man's wife has gone astray and broken faith with him in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her but a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself the man shall bring his wife to the priest. And he shall bring as an offering for her one-tenth of an ephah of barley flour. No oil shall be poured upon it and no frankincense shall be laid on it, for it is a meal offering of jealousy, a meal offering of remembrance which recalls wrongdoing.

I'm fascinated that the barley flour brought as an offering in this instance is not anointed with oil, nor glorified with frankincense, because it is an offering of jealousy. (Everett Fox calls it "a grain-gift of jealousy / grain-gift of reminding that reminds of iniquity.") There's a poetic kind of appropriateness to the lack of oil and spice. Jealousy negates what is rich and valuable and beautiful. When jealousy consumes us, we are dulled in a way that obscures the flavor of our relationships, even our relationship with God.

In the ritual outlined by Torah, the woman who stands accused drinks a literal water of bitterness, in which dust and the words of a curse have been suspended. But the way the text describes the jealousy offering suggests to me that in truth, both partners partook of bitterness. When an accusation of sexual misconduct is levied, neither partner can truly access the splendor of thanksgiving or holiness until the fears of betrayal have been laid to rest.

Today the Sotah ritual is long gone. A spouse who suspects infidelity has different resources at her or his disposal. But I think this week's Torah portion hints at emotional truths that still resonate even so. Maybe the story of the Sotah can help us face jealousy's capacity to damage our relationships, and can give us insight into the necessary journey (both personal and partnered) between accusation and resolution.