Parshat Naso 2017
A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one!
She thanked men—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one,
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop.
This is from Robert Browning’s famous poem, My Last Duchess, and it comes to mind when we read about the sotah, the suspected adulterous wife in today’s parsha. A man suspects that his wife has become pregnant from another man and he wants the priest to test her. He doesn’t need proof, suspicion is enough. Like the Duke in the poem, not liking how his wife behaves toward him and others is reason enough. Perhaps too friendly. Perhaps not enough admiration and fawning over her husband. No, she must be seeing someone else.
So he says, let’s put her through this god-awful disgusting degrading procedure of being brought before the priest and the people and be made to drink the bitter waters which contain dirt from the floor of the sanctuary. And if she is impure, whatever seed has taken root in her will be uprooted and her belly will distend and her thighs will fall! And she can be stoned for adultery! That’s a lesson she won’t forget!
But if she’s not guilty, she hasn’t slept with another, she doesn’t have another’s seed in her, the water will go through her and she will be unharmed and she will be able to go back to her husband who will be satisfied that she was faithful. At least until the next attack of jealousy overcomes him.
This is the chapter about the sotah, the woman who is thought to have been unfaithful. It is misogynistic in content and approach and patriarchal in its protection of the oh-so-sensitive male ego. About the only good thing we can say about it is that in its official form – the treatment of the suspected sotah is null and void. To be sure, the rabbis today have other ways make women’s lives hell, but this form, which is similar to the laws of other Middle Eastern countries of the time, has been laid to rest.
And what about the man? Is he punished for falsely accusing his wife of adultery? No, of course not. He’s the boss man, he has the right to challenge the purity of his wife whenever he wants. It’s almost as much fun as watching a hanging or a stoning.
Then comes the next chapter, also a one-off description of a case without antecedent, without a specific event leading up to it. This is the nazir, the person who takes a vow for X amount of time to not cut his hair, not to partake of any product of the grape and not to come in contact with dead bodies. Why here?
Now the nazir described here is evidently trying to atone for some sin or some character flaw. The rabbis say that a man who sees a sotah, a woman in her disheveled state, should take a nazirite vow. But what if the man we are talking about is the one who with cavalier abandon had accused his wife of being unfaithful and then after she was found to be faithful, he is attacked by pangs of conscience for having been so callous toward her.
It is likely that such feelings of guilt did not develop spontaneously. Imagine if you will the home life after a woman has been falsely accused by her husband and has been acquitted. What kind of a life can that man expect to have? “I told you so, I told you I was faithful to you. But no, you had to make this big fuss. What a fool you made of yourself.” Etc.
Enough to drive a person to drink, or better yet to repentance. And so I would like to think – even though I know it is far-fetched and implausible – that the nazirite has betaken himself from hearth and home to live the life of a recluse somewhere in the Judean desert – just to get some peace and quiet. Giving up haircuts, wine and dead bodies is not an excessive price to pay for getting away from a vindictive wife.
It is interesting to note that one of the reasons given by the rabbis for the abolition of the sotah ritual was not a recoil from its misogyny but rather the fact that women had become more lewd and the ceremony would have had to be performed too many times and thus lose its deterrent power (others of course say it was never actually carried out).
This sounds eerily like today’s society where foul language and provocative scenes are so commonplace as to barely raise an eyebrow. However, their effect on children and on adults can be seen in the daily news reports.
Perhaps the sotah ceremony was necessary as a deterrent to promiscuity way back when and the nazirite vows were necessary for people who felt that the usual forms of atonement were insufficient for what they perceived as their moral shortcomings. Today, extreme beliefs and practices may be a way for individuals to shut out modern society and its pitfalls. But we should all remember that extremism is fraught with its own inherent dangers and the golden mean is the best policy.