The Ordeal of the Sotah — Barbaric or Enlightened?
(Revised and Updated from Parashat Naso 5761-2001)
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 folios (2-sided pages), as well. On this Shabbat, the first Shabbat after celebrating Shavuot and the receiving of the Torah, the Jewish people show their great love and passion for Torah by extending their Torah reading, demonstrating their unwillingness to bring the study of Torah to an end.

Parashat Naso has many interesting and important themes, but certainly one of the most controversial topics in the entire Torah is the topic of the סוֹטָהSotah,” the woman who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband.

At first blush, this portion seems quite similar to the parallel laws found in the Code of Hammurabi, which read:

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 Kohain, the priest, to the Tabernacle. A special sacrifice, symbolic of her straying, is brought for her, and she is forced to drink holy water from an earthen bowl, containing dust from the Tabernacle floor and the scrapings of ink that have been scraped from the writings on a parchment scroll containing a terrible curse. If the woman were guilty of adultery, she would die from the drink. If innocent, she would live and become pregnant. All this seems very similar to the barbaric trials and ordeals of medieval times, to which women were subjected to prove their guilt or innocence.

But, truth is, that the test of the Sotah, when properly understood, is hardly barbaric at all. To the contrary, it is quite enlightened when studied in the light of the Talmudic commentaries and the Jewish legal codes, and is intended to greatly benefit the suspected adulteress.

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 seen by witnesses in a compromising position (secluding herself with another man behind closed doors) 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 was already in trouble, and that the woman had definitely given her husband ample and legitimate reason 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 relationship, it is so pernicious that it can hardly ever be eliminated. While some husbands or wives might forgive a spouse’s indiscretions, the suspicion usually lingers, and often festers, and, in most instances, a meaningful subsequent relationship becomes virtually impossible.

The Torah, through the ritual of Sotah, provides a Heavenly mandated method to heal the suspicion, and to provide the couple that wishes to repair their relationship the ability to start afresh without the taint of suspicion, since G-d Himself testifies that the woman is guiltless.

In fact, argue the rabbis, 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 had, indeed, misled her husband. On the other hand, a woman, guilty or not, even after she had been accused, could choose not to subject herself to the ordeal, by opting out of the marriage and declaring that she wants a divorce. Since there is no concrete evidence that she has ever committed adultery, even a guilty woman is not punished. That is why a guilty woman would never 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, remarkably, the innocent woman who was subjected to the ordeal will not emerge from the trial tainted or degraded. 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 accusing husband had been guilty of any infidelity, this ritual would not work on his wife. 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 men are not given the benefit of the doubt, as are woman.

We today, live in a very complex and confused environment, with much too much improper and immoral behavior. Almost 50% of American marriages terminate in divorce, for one reason or another, and an even higher percentage of second marriages fail. Once suspicion sets in, there is little recourse to rebuild the trust that has been shattered. Once faithfulness has been questioned, in most cases, it is, almost always, downhill.

Should we pray for the restoration of the Sotah ritual? Well, I don’t know, since it only functioned in a chaste society, and ours is certainly not worthy. But, I do believe that the many fascinating truths and insights that are to be found in the complex ritual of Sotah are worthy of examination and consideration. Surely, we should not be quick to ridicule, condemn, and dismiss the lessons to be gleaned from the ritual of the Sotah.

May you be blessed.