Naso: the strange ordeal of bitter water

Moses informs the people that when a husband is jealous and suspects his wife of unfaithfulness, but there is no witness to prove his accusation, she is to be brought before the sanctuary priest.  He will uncover her head and ask her to place her hands upon the altar of the meal offering.  He is then to prepare a mixture of water, earth, and ashes from the meal offering, then say to her: ‘if no man has had intercourse with you, and you have not been unfaithful to your husband, be immune from this water of bitterness. If you have been unfaithful, then may God curse you with sagging thighs and belly”  and she must say ‘amen’. After the priest writes the curse and washes the ink into the water, the woman will drink the waters of bitterness and if she is guilty then her body will change as described. If it does not, then she is declared innocent.

            What do we make of such a piece of Torah?  Leaving aside the inherent sexism of a ritual reserved for women suspected of adultery, and not for their husbands, we are still faced with what appears to be less a piece of legislation for societal stability, than the practice of sympathetic magic.

            The real issue here is not the woman’s adultery, but the husband’s jealousy and suspicion, and because there are no witnesses or evidence, and yet this suspicion cannot be allowed to fester, the situation is cleared by deferring to divine judgment through the ritual of ordeal. 

            The ritual of ordeal is well known to us in various forms. The ducking of witches in this country is a good example – if she floated she was guilty and if she drowned she was innocent.  The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (@1750BCE) states that a wife who is suspected by her husband of infidelity is to prove her innocence by throwing herself into a rapidly flowing river – if she survives she is deemed innocent, if not then she was guilty.  Then there was the ancient ordeal by fire, where the accused’s tongue would be touched with red hot iron tongs, and guilt would be proved by the presence of a burn.  Trial by ordeal always placed great odds against the proof of innocence.  Yet the ordeal of the Sotah is something else – dirty inky water may not be pleasant to drink, but was not likely to actually cause her harm . 

            So what is the ordeal really about?  There are those who say that it was never meant to be an actual physical test, but a devastating experience during which the guilty woman would be unable to hide her guilt, and would give herself away in some way.  This must be the origin of the infamous statement by Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud (Sotah 20a)  that the man who taught  his daughter torah was teaching her lechery (tiflut) – that in other words if she knew that the water of bitterness was simply dust, ink and water, she would know that there would be no reason to give herself away. 

Another possibility is that the insignificance of the actual physical ordeal is intended in order to practically guarantee that the woman could prove her innocence.  In other words the real purpose of the ritual would not be to convict adulterous women who were able to hide their wrongdoing, but to create a way for women to clear themselves of any such suspicion.  “Suspicion of adultery in a close knit community would be almost impossible to dispel and could easily lead to ostracism and perhaps violent revenge.  The ordeal of the bitter water allows a fairly simple safe way for a woman to clear her name with divine approval, sanctioned by the priest and the Temple ritual. If this is the case we have a kind of inverted institution here: the trial by ordeal is transformed from a formidable test weighted toward guilt to an easy one, strongly biased in favour of demonstrating innocence.  The ordeal is changed from a measure threatening women to a mechanism for their protection.” (Rachel Adler quoting Jacob Milgrom).

            Whatever the ordeal of the Sotah meant, it is clear that by Talmudic times the rabbis had no historical memory of the ordeal being practiced.   It is even possible that by the time it was recorded in the book of Numbers, it was already archaic.   But it is interesting to note how the disappearance of the trial of the Sotah was explained n Mishnah and Gemara – “when the adulterers increased in number, the bitter waters ceased. And Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai discontinued the practice….. 

When the adulterers increased in numbers: our rabbis taught “and the husband shall be guiltless” At a time when the husband is guiltless the waters test his wife, if the husband is not guiltless the waters do not test his wife… (Sotah 47a-b)

The efficacy of the ordeal of the bitter water depended on the accusing husband’s innocence. Very early on it seems, the law decided that one could not assume that the accusing husband had no guilt in the matter, and so the ordeal of the Sotah was dropped from the live legislation.  So too was the sentence of capital punishment to deal with the guilty, as the deterrent power was transferred to the consequences in the community for the adulteress.

            So what do we make of the passage – ambiguous and obscure as it is? And what do we make of its disappearance into history?   It is hedged about with conditions: – for example the husband must have warned the wife in the presence of two witnesses about meeting secretly with a man. There must be two witnesses who testify that she secretly spent time with the named man; the case cannot be held in a local court but only by the Supreme Court (Sanhedrin) in Jerusalem – the ordeal of the Sotah seems to be a way to protect women from the injustice and the fury of jealous husbands.  But what a way to go about it!  Why not legislate against men who will not bother to control their fantasies or who allow them to spill over into real life?  The list of these is endless – for example forcing the separation of men and women in synagogues (or at the Western Wall); silencing the voices of women; curtailing the freedom of women to move around in the public domain or showing the images of women in advertisements or newspapers.. 

This Jewish law may have been designed to protect women from weak or resentful husbands, but the way to do it is not to put the constraints on the women whose very existence is said to drive men to uncontrolled frenzy.  The way to do it is to teach men and women that such a frenzy is unacceptable.  It is time to give up all the well meaning circuitous judgments may help the individuals but will never change society.  The law of the Sotah is one such, where the reason it fell into disuse is more useful to us than the reason why it was first instituted.     


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