Naso 5778

A Puzzling Law, Seen in Context
A D’var Torah for Naso
by Rabbi Len Levin

“I will not punish their daughters for loose behavior,

Nor their daughters-in-law for infidelity,

For they themselves turn aside with whores

And sacrifice with prostitutes” (Hosea 4:14).

Sometimes the Torah speaks to us as a timeless document, whose proclamations (“love your neighbor as yourself”; “you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” — Lev. 19:18, Deut. 10:19) are as relevant to us today as when they were first uttered.

At other times, its laws seem situated in a culture and society so remote from ours, that to tease the universal message from its particulars is a frustrating and complicated task. The law of the ordeal of the bitter waters for the wife of the jealous husband is one of those cases.

The history of the struggle for women’s equal rights is a long and tortuous one. As feminist scholars of the Bible have taught us, the evidence of the Bible points to a strongly patriarchal society, in which men held the preponderance of social power and prestige, and women lived in subordinate status, subject to many restrictions. Indeed, this description still applies to many societies in the world today. Even in Western society, the movement for women’s equality is a recent phenomenon and not yet complete in achieving its objectives.

Given the patriarchal society in which the Bible came to be, was the Bible successful in recognizing the humanity of the women living in it and positively addressing their needs and concerns? We are each entitled to form our own judgments on this. My own answer is a qualified yes. The Bible achieved some gains, but much was still left to do. Some of the unfinished agenda was addressed by the rabbis of the Talmudic age. And some is still unfinished in our own time.

The present case (Numbers 5:11–31) addresses the jealous rage of the possessive husband. In patriarchal societies such as the Bible depicts, the sexuality of the woman is regarded as a sacred treasure, carefully guarded by the males in her life. It must first be kept inviolate when she lives under her father’s jurisdiction. It is transferred (for a price!) to her husband, who gains exclusive rights to her sexual intimacy. Once she is betrothed, any violation of this trust may be dealt with by the sternest measures. The biblical narrative records two instances where the male rage at violated female honor reached horrific proportions, with results that even the biblical narrator deplored (see Genesis 34:1–31, 49:5–7; Judges 19–21). Though “honor killings” still occur widely today and cannot be condemned too strongly, they are testimony to the universally dangerous potential of extreme sexual possessiveness—more often exercised by males, but occasionally by females (see Euripides’ Medea).

It is to these dangers that this biblical law offers a safety valve. If a man suspects his wife of infidelity, he should not give in to his vengeful urge, but husband and wife should go to the priest (serving here as mediator, arbitrator or marriage counselor). The priest administers a potion to the wife, water in which a conditional curse has been dissolved. If she drinks it and is not struck down on the spot by divine punishment, the husband should take it as a sign that his suspicions were unfounded. The priest tells them to go home and reconcile.

This custom may have led to improvement in addressing a persistent, recurrent problem. It may have averted some disasters. But the solution generated its own problems. Most glaring of these was the inequality of treatment. If marital infidelity occurred, were not men and women equal participants? Why, then, were only women subjected to this humiliating ordeal, and not men?

In the first century, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai relied on considerations like these to abolish the ordeal (Mishnah Sotah 9:9). It is significant that he was able to bolster his argument with a verse from the prophet Hosea (see epigraph). Though the social institutions of the ancient world were universally predicated on gender inequality, the moral spirit of the biblical authors helped them perceive the equal participation of male and female in the divine image (Gen. 1:27) and their equal claim to human sympathy and dignity. As Judith Hauptmann has demonstrated, this case is typical of the ways in which the rabbis drew on the Bible’s underlying moral teaching to improve on its legal legacy with respect to the status of woman (Judith Hauptmann, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice, Boulder: Westview, 1998). It is this teaching that is the eternal legacy of the Bible and the rabbis, and their guiding message for our time.

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Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR and is the editor of Studies in Judaism and Pluralism: Honoring the 60th Anniversary of AJR.