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June 1, 2012 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Naso

In this week’s Torah portion, the most interesting issue is the Sotah ritual- a kind of trial by ordeal.  To summarize briefly, a husband suspects his wife of adultery and brings her to priests to drink “bitter waters.”  If she drinks them and is unaffected she is declared innocent.  If she suffers some kind of physical illness (which is unclear from the plain meaning of the text, but may include death) everyone assumes she is guilty.  (For a more extensive discussion see, for example, here for a frum perspective and here for a more neutral one).

Nachmanides has a couple of interesting thoughts on this issue.

First, he asks why this discussion is right before the ritual of the Nazirite (a person who vows not to cut his or her hair or drink wine for awhile).  He writes that according to the Talmud, “whoever sees a sotah in her disgrace should abstain from wine, the reason being that harlotry, wine, and new wine, take away the heart.”  (commentary to Numbers 5:6). In other words, drunkenness can lead to improper sexual conduct, and so seeing the results of same should motivate you to drink less.   This strikes me as a nice example of using “negative role models”- seeing something bad should motivate you to avoid it.

To draw an analogy: lots of Americans are on highly restrictive diets.   Why? Sometimes it is because they really do have health problems.  But in my experience, it is often because they are so grossed out by the obesity/diabetes epidemic (and panicked media coverage of same) that they are flat-out horrified and willing to try anything to avoid the health problems they see around them.

Second, he writes something that doesn’t quite make sense to me.  He writes, based on a Talmud-era midrash, that the reason Sotah does not happen any more is that “the people became debauched with sexual sins.” In particular, the “miracle” of women being punished directly by God for adultery occurred only when Jews were “a holy people.”  Nachmanides writes that when “the man is clear of iniquity, the water tests his wife; but if the man himself is not free from iniquity, the water does not put his wife to the proof.” By contrast, at some point husbands also began to commit adultery (or at least to engage in other sexual misconduct), and thus could not rely on this miracle.

But if there really was a “miracle of Sotah” why shouldn’t it happen in those instances where the husband is blameless, even if those instances become fewer over time?  Isn’t Nachmanides saying that a law becomes ineffective if it is generally disregarded? That can’t be right.

I suppose you could argue that (assuming the facts are as he and the Talmudic sages say, which I instinctively doubt)* God was trying to protect Jewish males from embarrassment, since if the wife drank the waters without ill effect it could mean that the husband just did something wrong instead of that the wife was innocent.  But wouldn’t this be true even in earlier years (though to a lesser extent if sexual mores really did change)?

A more plausible explanation to me is that for some reason, the ritual fell into disuse, and the sages invented an after-the-fact reason why. (see below)

On another

*Alternative explanations: the sages thought it was a crazy primitive ritual and wanted to eliminate it.  Or they thought it only made sense in the context of a Temple, where the awe and majesty of the Temple forced women to confess in order to avoid the ritual, or really did have some sort of psychological effects on women who were lying.

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One Comment

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  1. Billie Sina / Nov 13 2012 2:42 pm

    There is always in increasing trend in obesity these days as more and more people turn into a sedentary lifestyle.-

    Latest post on our personal website
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