This morning’s Torah portion, Naso, introduces the peculiar ordeal of the Sotah, the suspected adulteress. Before I explain it, I urge all of us to temporarily suspend our standard assumptions about justice, morality, and biochemistry.
In Jewish law, adultery occurs when a married woman has sexual relations with a man who is not her husband. In a clear-cut case of adultery, both parties are considered guilty, and the punishment is death.
The ritual of Sotah is introduced to deal with a situation in which a husband suspects his wife of cheating, but does not have any witnesses.
The woman is brought to a priest. The priest takes sacred water in an earthen vessel, and adds some dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle. The priest writes down a curse on a piece of parchment, and recites the words out loud. The woman responds by saying “Amen, amen!”
The curse basically says that if she is guilty, her thigh will sag and her belly will distend, which probably means that she will become infertile. If she is innocent, than nothing will happen. The priest then places the parchment in the vessel so that the ink, with the words of the curse and God’s name on it, dissolves in the water. The priest then makes her drink the water.
If she is guilty, her thigh sags and her belly distends, and she becomes a curse amongst the people. If she is innocent, she is unharmed.
Before getting too upset, keep in mind that this is a three thousand year old ritual. “Trials by ordeal” like this one have been a part of human justice systems throughout history. It was practiced in Europe into the Enlightenment. There are some societies to this day which conduct similar rites.
The medieval Spanish commentator, Nachmanides, notes that this is the only mitzvah in the entire Torah which depends upon a miracle. For this legal procedure to work, God has to actively intervene. It is quite remarkable. We must wonder why, of all cases, does this one rely upon a miracle. And why are there not others?
Nachmanides refers to the Mishnah in Sotah which reports that “when the adulterers proliferated, the bitter waters ceased…” (M. Sotah 9:9) In other words, at some point during the Second Temple era, more than two thousand years ago, the priests stopped administering the ritual. The Rabbis tend to understand this to mean that the Sotah ritual would only work in a case when the husband was himself free of sin.
Nachmanides expands upon this explanation. It is not just the guilt or innocence of the husband which is responsible for the cancellation of the Sotah ritual. It is “the deterioration in the moral climate of the people [that] makes the Sotah ordeal meaningless,” as Dr. Aviva Zornberg explains. Only in a society in which adultery is “an unequivocal taboo” does the ritual have meaning. But “where the taboo has lost its force, an exquisite attunement to holiness has been lost and the ordeal’s high import likewise becomes underappreciated.” (Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments, p. 37)
If society does not take the sin of adultery seriously, then God will have no part in this ritual. Society’s moral indifference drives God away, leaving us human beings on our own to figure out what is just.
In two thousand years, our situation has not changed much. We still live in an ethically confused world without clear-cut morals.
Over the past few weeks, there has been widespread controversy over the lenient verdict that was issued in the Stanford Rape Case. If you have been following the story, you know the basic details. In January 2015, a twenty year old Stanford student sexually assaulted an unconscious woman on campus. Fortunately, two graduate students were passing by on bicycles. They stopped the rapist and apprehended him until police could arrive.
I am not going to enter into the debate over whether the verdict was correct or not, or whether the Judge should resign.
This case has resonated with me as a man, as a husband, and especially as a father of a boy and a girl. I am worried about my daughter, and I am equally worried about my son.
What do I need to do to make that happen?
Throughout human history, societies have placed the moral burden of sexuality on women. This is an undeniable fact. It is as true of Judaism as it is of any other culture. From the story of Eve being tempted by the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and feeding it to her husband; to the ritual of the Sotah, in which only the woman is subjected to the ordeal; to the laws of family purity – women are held to be responsible, while men are innocents – victims even, of female sexuality.
This classic misogyny exists blatantly in many cultures today, including in segments of the Jewish world. Do not expect it to disappear any time soon.
But it is insidiously prevalent around us as well. Think about the ideals of masculinity and femininity with which we are bombarded daily. Men, according to the so-called “bro-code,” are supposed to be physically tough, in charge, unemotional, and sexually aggressive. Women are expected to be sexy, passive, and emotional. If you have any doubt about this, just look at the magazine covers the next time you are in line at the grocery store.
For the past several decades, we have tried to teach our girls to take ownership of their own sexuality. We have encouraged them to have the courage and strength to say “no,” to protect themselves, and to speak up. “Be cautious about whom you go out with,” we warn. “Never go to a party alone.” “Take care of your friends.” “Be careful around alcohol and drugs.” We have had all of these conversations in my house in just the last two weeks.
We place the burden to protect themselves on our daughters because, after all, “boys will be boys.”
It does not seem to be working that well, does it?
The emphasis is starting to shift. Health curricula in some schools have begun to chip away at the ideals of masculinity expressed by the “bro-code.” We have begun to teach our boys to respect boundaries, take responsibility, and only proceed in a relationship when there is affirmative consent.
But we are only at the beginning of a paradigm shift that releases us from the burden of unhealthy gender roles and places the responsibility for sexual violence on the perpetrator rather than the victim.
We have a lot of work to do. It must start with the way that we teach our children. It must start when they are young. And it must start at home.
Today is the day on which we remember the ancient ritual of the Sotah. We recall how God withdrew from performing the miraculous part of the ritual because of sexual hypocrisy. Tomorrow is Father’s Day. a day for celebrating fathers’ roles in raising their children.
It is a good time to make a commitment to do better, especially with our boys. I encourage us to adopt Rabbi Rosenthal’s words: “I commit to teaching my children to respect boundaries, to understand that their bodies and the bodies of those around them are created in the image of God.”