Sunday, June 11, 2006

Parshat Naso: Sotah—the “trial by ordeal" of the wife suspected of adultery

From the ADDeRabbi’s 6/6/2006 post, “A Miraculous Ordeal,” and the comments, concerning the “trial by ordeal” of the Sotah, the wife suspected of adultery.

“A man suspects his wife of infidelity. However, he has no real evidence that she's done anything, and might just be going on a whim; in the language of the Mishna, a little bird told him. Should he take her to court, his case would be thrown out but his jealousy would not be assuaged. He needs to know what happened.

The woman is then subjected to a terrifying and embarrassing procedure which is designed to get her to admit if she was unfaithful. If she confesses, then the husband's fears are borne out, and they must divorce (and she forfeits the rights to her ketubah). The Talmud assumes that in nearly all cases, the unfaithful woman would confess before drinking the cursed water.

But let's say she drinks. And let's be hyper-rationalist and say that no miracles ever really took place, but that these superstitious folks believed that one would if she was truly guilty. So she drinks and survives. Her husband now believes that she's been faithful (even if she really wasn't), and they can live happily ever after. Thus, the ordeal itself will always yield a peaceable outcome even if it's never a miraculous one, as long as either the husband or the wife believes that the miracle may occur. The threat of a miraculous death is designed to appease his jealousy or force her conversion.

Thus, the true purpose of the Sotah ordeal is, as Rashi tells us based on the Gemara Sukkah 55b, to create peace between husband and wife. For that, God is willing to have His Name effaced.”

Two of the comments:

ummm...'create peace between husband and wife'? would you be able to 'live happily ever after' with someone who accused you publicly, and made you go through such an ordeal?

if the torah wanted to do that, it could have also said 'trust your wife' or 'listen to both sides of the story'

i admit this may be my modern sensibilities getting in the way, but i fail to see how a woman treated this way by her husband and her community would be so happy as to go back to have a wonderful marriage and relationship with said husband.
chanie 06.07.06 - 12:07 am #

i think it is modern sensibilities getting in the way. i can't imagine subjecting a woman to this today, let alone her going back to him. i also can't imagine that forcing a rapist to marry his victim is a pleasant solution for her, but apparently women didn't or couldn't expect all that much from a marriage.
adderabbi Homepage 06.07.06 - 12:36 am #

On the same subject (from this post):

“According to Parshat Naso, Numbers, chapter 5, verses 11-31, any man who was afflicted by so little as “ruach kin’ah, a spirit of jealousy,” could bring his wife before a Cohen (a priest), and have her condemned to public disgrace as an alleged adulteress simply by subjecting her to a trial by “ordeal.” Not being blessed with a good Jewish education, I ask this question of those more learnèd than I: Is there another single instance, in the entire corpus of Jewish law, in which a person could be tried and condemned with no witnesses whatsoever and only, for lack of a better description, circumstantial evidence?”

A further thought (from this post):

"One need only read the law of the Trial by “Ordeal” of a wife accused of adultery ("Sotah"?) also cited in the previous post, to notice the glaring absence of any similar ordeal for a husband suspected of cheating on his wife."

I read the law this morning, in Naso, and found this interesting tidbit: If the woman were found guilty, she would be held accountable, but if she were found innocent, there’s no mention of any punishment for her husband for having subjected her to a false accusation and public humiliation. And another thing: The woman is promised fertility if found innocent. Therefore, it would appear that it’s not enough for the suspected wife to survive the ordeal unscathed: If she doesn’t have a child within a reasonable amount of time thereafter, her husband still has grounds to suspect her. An innocent but infertile woman, or one with an infertile husband, could never clear her name.

Comments, please?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to Judith Hauptman in "Rereading the Rabbis," the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud were also uncomfortable with the extrajudicial nature of the Sotah ritual and the inequities involved, and made several changes to ameliorate the situation to some extent:

More can be found here:

Sun Jun 11, 08:28:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Elie said...

There are numerous sub-topics here but I will focus on just one of them for now:

One need only read the law of the Trial by “Ordeal” of a wife accused of adultery ("Sotah"?) also cited in the previous post, to notice the glaring absence of any similar ordeal for a husband suspected of cheating on his wife.

Given that polygamy was permitted by the Torah, a married man who has relations with an unmarried woman, cannot be commiting the capital offence of "adultery" since he would be in fact permitted to be married to both women. By definition therefore, in a polygamous society, adultery can only mean relations between a married woman and a man - married or not - besides her husband. In such case both the adulterer and adulteress are equally guilty and equally punished. In fact, the gemara states, in the case of the Sotah who did actually commit adultery and who drank the bitter waters, both she and her paramour would be affected by the curse.

Thus there is equal treatment of both adulterers and adulteresses in biblical law; it's just that the definition of adultery under polygamy can only involve a married women. One can look at this as being unbalanced against the female, but that's inherent to the nature of polygamy. And in fact, the Rabbis corrected this imbalance over 1000 years ago by forbidding polygamy under penalty of cherem (excommunication).

Sun Jun 11, 08:58:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Elie said...

Another comment:

The facts of the Sotah ritual, as explained in the gemara, are not at all as assumed here - i.e., that the husband has no evidence and has the power to put his wife through this ordeal on a whim. Rather, the ritual is only done in a case where
1) the wife was already known to be involved with a specific other man, and the husband expressed his initial suspicions before witnesses, and
2) there are additional witnesses that she later secluded herself with this same man long enough to have had relations, but there were no witnesses to an actual sex act.

Then and only then is the woman asked (see next paragraph) to undergo Sotah. It is emphatically not done on the husband's unsubstantiated suspicion.

The other key point is that at any time prior to the actual drinking, the wife has the complete power to refuse to undergo the ritual and simply admit to infidelity. Since as above, there are no witnesses to same, she does not receive any judicial punishment (death, lashers, etc.) and simply accepts a divorce without payment of ketubah. I would also say that the situation described in items 1 and 2 above is probably one of sufficient evidence for most secular courts today to assume that adultery did take place, and rule a divorce settlement in favor of the husband, which is the exactly analogous result to this ruling of the gemara.

Finally, given all the above, a woman who nevertheless agrees to undergo the sotah ritual is almost certainly one who knows she is innocent. Therefore the original statement, that sotah is primarily about removing suspicion and restoring peace between the spouses, is quite correct. As to whether the wife would want to stay married to a man who suspected her falsely: well again, given 1 and 2 above, she placed herself in a highly suspicious situation to begin with. So there is likely need for apologies and forgiveness on both sides. Whether such would or could eventually occur, must have been then, as today, highly subjective and individual.

Sun Jun 11, 09:19:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

So, Anonymous and Elie, essentially, the rabbis themselves saw the inequities and, in the gemara, interpreted this passage in such a way as to make the procedure more just and equitable. That's certainly for the best.

Mon Jun 12, 01:49:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Anonymous, thanks for the reference. It's been a long time since I read that book. I'll have to go back and reread that passage.

Mon Jun 12, 02:13:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember learning in h.s. chumash class, that if the husband has had any forbidden sexual relationships himself, than the sotah ritual will never work for him (i.e. his wife would always appear innocent, even if she had had an affair).

I can't remember a source though.

As for your fertility point, I guess the p'shat can be read that way. Fortunately, I don't think it traditionally has been.

Thu Jun 15, 05:35:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sotah is the only case in which there are no witnesses and with only circumstantial evidence.

However, it's also the only case in which God does the judging (assuming judgement happened).

So I'm not sure what the problem is with this aspect.

Thu Jun 15, 05:39:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Rebecca, I certainly appreciate the care that the rabbis took to interpret the ritual in a more equitable fashion, making the husband accountable for his own behavior. Drash, if that's the correct term for an interpretive reading, can be a great improvement over p'shat, a literal reading.

I don't suppose that there's much evidence one way or the other re the fertility thing. I would certainly hope that it wasn't taken too literally.

As for the problem of there being no witnesses and only circumstantial evidence, the rabbis seem to have put so many conditions for determining eligibility for trial as to have rendered that a moot point. But the problem with the p'shat is twofold. For one thing, Jews are mandated to seek justice, and such an accusation is patently unjust. Call me a 21st century American, but I see nothing right about forcing the accused to prove her innocence, rather than forcing the accuser to present evidence of guilt. Second, Jews are forbidden to humiliate a person in public, and I can't imagine a greater humiliation than being publicly accused of adultery. That Hashem is brought in as judge goes only to prove that the accuser has faith in Hashem but not in his own wife. Who would want to be married to such a man?

Thu Jun 15, 06:42:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Elie said...

I just posted on this subject on my own blog, incorporting my earlier comments and some additional thoughts. Check it out.

Thu Jun 15, 11:14:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Yes, please do--nice post, Elie.

Thu Jun 15, 10:53:00 PM 2006  

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