In Numbers 5:11-31 (one of the more perplexing sections of the Bible) it is written that if a man, in a fit of jealousy suspects his wife of errant behavior, he may take her to the Temple and make her undergo the ordeal of the bitter waters, even though there are no witnesses to her act. As part of the ritual, she is to drink a potion made of water, earth from the Temple floor, and ink dissolved into the water from a parchment on which are written the curses of this very chapter. If she is innocent, the waters will not hurt her; if guilty, they will cause her serious physical harm.

This chapter of the Torah gives the reader pause for several reasons. First, the Torah is sanctioning trial by ordeal, albeit only here and only for this suspected transgression. Elsewhere, the Torah sets a protocol for justice: It is to be dispensed in the courtroom, by judges, and based on the testimony of witnesses. Here, since there are no witnesses, there is, theoretically, no basis for a trial. We should recognize that the ordeal described here, where there must be divine intervention in order for the benign potion to do damage, is an improvement over others of the Ancient Near East, where the accused was thrown into a river and if innocent was assumed to be able to find his way out. Still, the Torah deviates from its own protocol to order for the sotah (“wayward wife”) a trial by ordeal.

Second, a man suspected by his wife of exactly the same kind of behavior cannot be taken to the Temple and subjected to the ordeal of the bitter waters. This asymmetry points to the underlying extreme patriarchy: She is his property, intended for his exclusive use, and must therefore conform to the behavioral standards he sets for her; he is not her property, and so she can make no demands of him.

Third, if the woman under suspicion was, in fact, unfaithful to her husband, she would be punished by the waters; but the man with whom she committed the act would go free. It does not seem right to us today that if the two of them committed exactly the same sin, that only one gets punished and the other does not.

Not only do we today find these to be serious inequities, but the rabbis of the Talmud did as well. If we examine closely their interpretation of the verses, as found in Tractate Sotah, we will see that they struggled with every one of these issues. Sometimes, what will appear to be expansions and clarifications of the Torah and nothing more are, in reality, rabbinic responses to complicated and troubling problems.

Of the nine chapters of Tractate Sotah, only the first six address the topic of the sotah. The tractate opens with several statements about warning and seclusion, topics that have no obvious biblical referent.

If a man issues a warning to his wife [], R. Eliezer says: He must do so in the presence of two witnesses. [Should she violate the terms of the warning and seclude herself with the forbidden man], her husband can subject her to the ordeal of the bitter waters on the basis of the testimony of one witness or even his own testimony.
R. Joshua says: He must warn her in the presence of two and can subject her to the ordeal only on the basis of two [witnesses to the seclusion]. (M Sotah 1:1)

How does he warn her? If he says to her, in the presence of two [witnesses], do not speak with that man, and she spoke with him, she is still permitted to her husband [lit., her house]...
If she secluded herself with him [], and remained there long enough to have defiled herself, she is forbidden to her husband.... (1:2)

These opening paragraphs, although they appear matter-of-fact, are in many ways astonishing. First, the rabbis interpret the Hebrew root [K-N-A] to mean “warn,” even though in the Torah in general and in this chapter in particular this verb means to “suffer a fit a jealousy, to be wrought up over.” Second, the rabbis interpret [S-T-R] to mean “closeting” herself with the specified man, not “hidden” which is what the root means in the Bible – in the sense that her sexual improprieties did not become known.

Why did the rabbis retain these biblical roots, yet stray so radically from their accepted definitions? I think they are deliberately and consciously preserving the sacred text but, at the same time, infusing it with new meaning. Upset that this section deviates from the standard procedures of justice, they attempt to make it conform: They say that the only circumstance in which a husband has the right to force his wife to submit to the ordeal is if he had warned her in advance (in the presence of two witnesses) not to have any contact with a particular man, and then two witnesses, or only one witness, or only the husband himself saw her closet herself with that man long enough to have had sexual relations with him.[*]

Since witnessing the seclusion is not tantamount to witnessing the sexual act itself (in which case one must testify that he saw “the painting stick inserted into the tube” [Makkot 7a]), such testimony could not normally stand up in a court of law, but here it does raise serious doubts about the behavior of the woman in question. According to these rabbinic rules, only those women who aroused their husband’s suspicion, were publicly warned by him, and then deliberately violated his word in the presence of others could be dragged by him to the Temple for the ordeal. This series of events is a far cry from the Torah’s mere “fit of jealousy.” The intention of the rabbis was to sanction administering the bitter waters only to women who were highly likely to be guilty of what their husbands suspected them of. Most fits of jealousy could not lead to further action on the part of the husband, however, for they involved neither prior warning nor seclusion in the presence of witnesses.

The rabbis sharply reduced the number of instances in which a man could subject his wife to the ordeal of the bitter waters because they recognized that, by their standards, this section of the Torah treats women unfairly. Those who agree that the rabbis reinterpreted the Torah may disagree, however, that their motivation was a concern for women. Some may argue, for instance, that the rabbis’ concern was for justice, a cause they pursued with a passion. I would answer that these concerns are essentially the same. If, as I will show [in my book], in case after case in which biblical law treats women inequitably in comparison to men, the rabbis rework it so that women are treated fairly, then differentiating between one motivation and another loses its importance.

One might also argue that the rabbis suppressed this ritual out of their embarrassment over what they perceived as a primitive, barbaric rite within the Jewish legal system. However, were this so, I do not think they would have made reference to the paramour’s punishment and to the husband’s possibly spotty past vitiating the results of the test, both of which address the specifically moral problems created by the ritual. When this tractate is read as a whole, we can discern how bothered the rabbis are by the immorality and discriminatory nature of the ordeal, not its barbarism. That latter aspect they almost seem to relish.

Despite the Talmud’s reinterpretation of the Torah to make it fairer to women, we cannot fail to notice the considerable residual patriarchy in the way that the Talmud presents the husband-wife relationship. That a husband could warn his wife not to talk with a specific man implies that he had extensive control over her ordinary, day-to-day activities. Although the contextual reading of these paragraphs explains why the rabbis proposed this warning – for her good, not his – even so, we must consider what the passage says about social relationships during the Talmudic period.

[*] Delimiting this time span gives rise to much dispute, but even the most lenient opinions allows for no more than a few minutes. As the Talmud notes, each rabbi defined the duration of intercourse according to his own experience. T Sotah 1:2; BT Sotah 4a s
From Prof. Hauptman's new book, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman' Voice - a reading of Talmudic texts using feminist sensibilities. The Westview Press. Copyright 1998.
Dr. Judith Hauptman, a well-known Talmudic scholar, is professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (New York).



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