“The Ordeal of the Sotah – Barbaric or Enlightened?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, with 176 verses, is the longest parasha of the Torah, and always follows the festival of Shavout. Coincidentally, the longest chapter in the Book of Psalms, Chapter 119, also contains 176 verses, and the longest tractate of the Talmud, Baba Batra, consists of 176 pages as well. The Jewish people show their love for Torah on this day, the first Shabbat after celebrating the receiving of the Torah, by their unwillingness to bring the study of Torah to an end.

Parashat Naso has many interesting themes, but I’d like to go out on a limb this week and confront a topic that’s challenging and disturbing: the topic of the “Sotah,” the woman who’s suspected of being unfaithful to her husband. At first blush, this portion seems quite similar to the parallel law in the code of Hammurabi, which reads: If the finger is pointed at the wife of a citizen on account of another man, but she has not been caught lying with another man, for her husband’s sake, she shall throw herself into the river.

In our Torah portion, if a woman is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband, but hasn’t been caught in the act, the woman doesn’t drown herself, but instead, is brought by her jealous husband to the Cohen, the priest, at the Tabernacle. A special sacrifice, symbolic of her straying, is brought for her, and she is forced to drink holy water, containing dust, and scrapings of ink, that have been scraped from a parchment containing a terrible curse. If the woman were guilty of adultery, she would die from the drink. If innocent, she would live. All this seems very similar to the barbaric trials and ordeals of ancient civilizations, which were meant to prove the woman’s guilt or innocence.

But the truth of the matter is that the test of the Sotah is not barbaric at all. To the contrary, it is quite enlightened when studied in the light of the Talmudic commentaries and the legal codes. The Talmud points out that the Torah verses indicate that the husband’s accusations of his wife’s infidelity are not groundless or contrived. The verses imply, and the Talmud amplifies, that the woman had been caught by witnesses in a compromising position even after her husband had taken legal action to warn his wife not to be associated with the suspected paramour. What this implies is not necessarily the woman’s guilt, but that the marriage is in trouble, it’s really on the rocks, and that the wife is at least giving the husband legitimate grounds for suspicion. The real question is, can this marriage be saved?

In light of modern psychology, we know that suspicion of infidelity is one of the most corrosive and destructive elements in a marriage. In fact, once suspicion has entered into the marital equation, it is so pernicious that it can hardly ever be overcome. While people might forgive a spouse’s indiscretions, the suspicion usually lingers, and often festers, and any meaningful relationship becomes virtually impossible.

The Torah, through the ritual of Sotah, provides a G-d-mandated method to heal the suspicion, and give the couple that wishes to resurrect its relationship, the ability to start afresh without the taint of suspicion, since G-d himself testifies that the woman is guiltless. In fact, only a guiltless woman who wishes to save her marriage, would go through the ritual, either because of her love for her children, or because she realizes that she has, indeed, misled her husband. On the other hand, a woman could choose not to endure the ordeal, by opting out of the marriage and declaring that she wants a divorce. Since there’s no concrete evidence that she has committed adultery, she is not punished. The guilty woman, of course, would have to be out of her mind to go through the ritual, even though the whole test might very well be a Divine “psychosomatic” examination, resulting in true physical manifestations.

The Talmud tells us that the innocent woman who endured the ordeal, will not emerge from the trial tainted. In fact, she will emerge blessed, and will become a source of pride for the community, since her chastity has been confirmed by G-d. What about the man? The Talmud tells us that if the husband were guilty of any infidelity, this ritual would not work. And if the woman were guilty, and would die from the Sotah drink, her paramour, her lover, would somehow die as well. But, on the other hand, there is no comparable test for men suspected of being unfaithful since they are not given the benefit of the doubt, as are women.

Today we live in a very unhealthy sexual environment, with much too much immoral and improper behavior. Almost three out of five American marriages are terminating in divorce, for one reason or another, and an even higher percentage of second marriages are failing. Once suspicion sets in there’s no recourse to rebuild the trust that has been shattered. In most cases, it’s downhill once faithfulness has been questioned. Should we pray for the restoration of the Sotah ritual? Well, I don’t know, since it only really worked in a chaste society, and ours is not such a society. But I do know that there are many fascinating truths in the ritual of Sotah, and that we should not be so quick to ridicule, condemn, and dismiss it.

May you be blessed.