Friday, June 21, 2019

The ancient rabbinic imagination could be harmful to women

For this year's B'haalot'cha/Behaalotecha/Behaalotcha (whatever) post, see here.

The fearless leaders of our local Jewish Justice Text Study group had a few interesting things to say about Sotah (see (last Shabbat's reading, Parshat Naso, Numbers 5:11-31) in the source sheets that they distributed.  They referred us to Mishnah Sotah, where I read this:

אִם אָמְרָה טְמֵאָה אָנִי, שׁוֹבֶרֶת כְּתֻבָּתָהּ וְיוֹצֵאת. וְאִם אָמְרָה טְהוֹרָה אָנִי, מַעֲלִין אוֹתָהּ לְשַׁעַר הַמִּזְרָח שֶׁעַל פֶּתַח שַׁעַר נִקָּנוֹר, שֶׁשָּׁם מַשְׁקִין אֶת הַסּוֹטוֹת, וּמְטַהֲרִין אֶת הַיּוֹלְדוֹת, וּמְטַהֲרִין אֶת הַמְּצֹרָעִים. וְכֹהֵן אוֹחֵז בִּבְגָדֶיהָ, אִם נִקְרְעוּ נִקְרָעוּ, אִם נִפְרְמוּ נִפְרָמוּ, עַד שֶׁהוּא מְגַלֶּה אֶת לִבָּהּ, וְסוֹתֵר אֶת שְׂעָרָהּ. רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר, אִם הָיָה לִבָּהּ נָאֶה, לֹא הָיָה מְגַלֵּהוּ. וְאִם הָיָה שְׂעָרָהּ נָאֶה, לֹא הָיָה סוֹתְרוֹ:

If she said, “I am defiled to you”, she gives him a receipt for her ketubah and goes out [with a get]. But if she says, “I am pure”, they bring her up to the east gate, Nicanor’s gate, where they give women suspected of adultery the water to drink, purify women after childbirth and purify lepers. A priest seizes her clothing if they are torn, then they are torn, and if they become unstitched, then they are unstitched, until he uncovers her bosom, and he undoes [the braids of] her hair. Rabbi Judah says: if her bosom was beautiful he does not uncover it, and if her hair was beautiful he does not undo it.

הָיְתָה מִתְכַּסָּה בִלְבָנִים, מְכַסָּהּ בִּשְׁחוֹרִים. הָיוּ עָלֶיהָ כְלֵי זָהָב וְקַטְלָיאוֹת, נְזָמִים וְטַבָּעוֹת, מַעֲבִירִים מִמֶּנָּה כְּדֵי לְנַוְּלָהּ. וְאַחַר כָּךְ מֵבִיא חֶבֶל מִצְרִי וְקוֹשְׁרוֹ לְמַעְלָה מִדַּדֶּיהָ. וְכָל הָרוֹצֶה לִרְאוֹת בָּא לִרְאוֹת, חוּץ מֵעֲבָדֶיהָ וְשִׁפְחוֹתֶיהָ, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁלִּבָּהּ גַּס בָּהֶן. וְכָל הַנָּשִׁים מֻתָּרוֹת לִרְאוֹתָהּ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (יחזקאל כג) וְנִוַּסְּרוּ כָּל הַנָּשִׁים וְלֹא תַעֲשֶׂינָה כְּזִמַּתְכֶנָה:

If she was clothed in white, he clothes her in black. If she wore gold jewelry or necklaces, ear-rings and finger-rings, they remove them from her in order to make her repulsive. After that [the priest] takes a rope made of twigs and binds it over her breasts. Whoever wishes to look upon her comes to look with the exception of her male and female slaves, since she has no shame in front of them. All of the women are permitted to look upon her, as it is said, “That all women may be taught not to do after your lewdness” (Ezekiel 23:48)."

According to this passage from the Mishnah, not only did the priest strip the Sotah half-naked, he tortured her, and she was displayed to other women as a threat--you, too, will be tortured if you make your husband jealous.

In other words, the rabbis took a humiliating ritual and added sadism.  If this actually ever happened, it was a literal horror show.  If this text was just a product of the rabbis' vivid imaginations, it certainly doesn't say much for their opinion of women.

It's no wonder that Rabbi Dr. Sarra Lev described Sotah this way:

"Sotah: Rabbinic Pornography?
Even while the average woman may understand herself to be watched, particularly by the
anonymous masses who may relate her seclusion with the other man to her husband, this watching
alone is not enough for the Rabbis to ensure her proper conduct and normative behavior. The Rabbis,
in their vision of the entire project, introduce corporal punishment into the picture as well as stripping
her and making her drink, thereby inscribing the crime on her (not yet guilty) body. One marvels at the rabbinic mind in this particular tractate, which seems so extreme in its treatment of the woman who may or may not have strayed. But perhaps these Rabbis are perfectly aware of the power of being watched, and fully understand that the ritual will not take place. Perhaps it is this very matter — the fact that they already exert complete control on her watched body —- that explains just how far they allow themselves to wander in writing this ritual."
Sotah: Rabbinic Pornography? by Rabbi Sarra Lev, Ph.D. from The Passionate Torah

The source texts that we read indicated that the Sotah ritual was already not being performed while the Bet HaMikdash/Holy Temple in Jerusalem still stood.  Apparently, some of the rabbis came to their senses.

Mishnah Sotah (190-230 CE)
When adulterers multiplied, the ceremony of the bitter waters ceased and it was
Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai who discontinued it, as it is said, “I will not punish their
daughters for fornicating, nor their daughters-in-law for committing adultery, for they
themselves [turn aside with whores and sacrifice with prostitutes]” (Hosea 4:14).

But that doesn't mean that the ancient rabbinic imagination doesn't still harm some Jewish women to this day.

See my next post.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "Rabbis" had nothing to do with it. The Sotah ritual was a priestly function related to the operation of the Temple. While some Kohanim of later generations may also have been rabbis of the talmudic era or later, I don't think there are any sources associating the Sotah ritual with rabbinic judaism.

There's no way to make the sotah ritual palatable. But read the commentary on the section in the Etz Chaim chumash for a very different view.

Sun Jun 23, 05:25:00 PM 2019  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"The Sotah ritual was a priestly function related to the operation of the Temple." True, but obviously the rabbis wrote about it.

"There's no way to make the sotah ritual palatable." We certainly agree on that point.

". . . read the commentary on the section in the Etz Chaim chumash for a very different view." Oy. We use the Hertz at synagogue and a number of Hebrew and/or English versions of both Torah and Tanach at home, but we don't own an Etz Chaim chumash. I'll have to see whether I can borrow one or find something online.

Sun Jun 23, 07:02:00 PM 2019  

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