How Clothing Conveys Value, Rebuke, and Resurrection in the Bible

Naso, Numbers 4:21−7:89

D'Var Torah By: Dr. Ruhama Weiss, Ph.D.

woman shopping for clothesThe Torah portion, Naso, refers extensively to laws regarding the unfaithful wife:

"If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with her husband … and there is no witness against her … the husband shall bring his wife to the priest. And he shall bring as an offering for her … The priest shall take sacral water in an earthen vessel and, taking some of the earth that is on the floor of the Tabernacle, the priest shall put it into the water. … the priest shall bare the woman’s head … The priest shall adjure the woman, saying to her: … if you have not gone astray in defilement while married to your husband, be immune to harm from this water of bitterness ... But if you have gone astray while married to your husband … may this water that induces the spell enter your body, causing the belly to distend and the thigh to sag.” (Num. 5:12-22)

It is hard to say anything positive about this law, and I'm not motivated to try to do so. I want to focus my critical reading of this law on one detail that may, at first read, look marginal: the part in the ceremony when "the priest shall bare the woman’s head "(Num. 5:18).

The importance of this detail is that it is not part of the “test” but rather part of the punishment. This public humiliation of the wife takes place even though, according to the Bible, the examination has not yet happened.

The Sages of the Mishnah understood this as a major component of the punishment. Unfortunately, they chose to describe the "ritual" in a way that increases this element of physical humiliation to a level that seems to me like a public rape. We read:  

"If there were golden jewels on her, necklaces, nose-rings and finger-rings, they remove them from her so as to disgrace her. And after that he takes a twisted rope and ties it above her breasts. And all those who wish to see, come to see… And all the women are permitted to see her, as it says "And all the women will be warned not to act according to your lewdness." (Eze. 23:48) (Mishnah Sotah 1:6)

What is so important about clothes and why is nudity considered humiliating?

At the point in time when these laws were formulated, a person had one, maybe two, sets of clothing. if any at all. A woman brought her clothes with her from her father's house to her husband's house, and they were counted as value in her ketubah. A loss or absence of clothing indicated a loss of worth and stature. Thick, quality cloth was the only protection people had from winter weather. When worn thin by the summer sun, when made threadbare from years of use, the remnants of a garment were so precious, they were repurposed for some other use.

The Bible of clothing

It's possible to read the entire Bible through the prism of clothing, starting with the fig leaf garments of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:7) through the coat of many colors Jacob makes for Joseph (Gen. 37:3) to Potiphar's wife’s deceptive use of that very same garment (Gen. 39:12-18). Torah bids us to remember each night the obligation to return to the poor their clothing taken as collateral "for that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin; in what shall he sleep!?" (Ex. 22:25-26). 

The theme continues in Prophets, beginning with the small jackets that Hannah brings to her growing son Samuel each year (I Samuel 2:19) to the cloaks of prophets and kings that are torn during their disagreements and on to the multicolored coats that virgin daughters of the king wear. Specifically, there is the coat that Tamar tore off her body after being raped by Amnon (II Sam. 13:18-19), resonating with the priest’s similar act in the ritual of the unfaithful wife — only in this case, the woman, Tamar, uncovers herself. 

How will we wake up after the resurrection?

Maybe you haven't considered this question, but the ancient Queen Cleopatra did, as we read: 

"Queen Cleopatra asked Rabbi Meir: 'I know that the dead will be resurrected as it is written 'they blossom out of the city like grass of the earth' (Psalms 72:16), but will they be revived naked or clothed?' He (Rabbi Meir) said to her (Queen Cleopatra): 'I offer you a fortiori answer from wheat. Wheat is planted naked yet sprouts with several layers of clothing. All the more so the righteous who are buried dressed, will be revived (fully) clothed' " (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 90b). 

Now we can relax, knowing that if we awake with the resurrection of the dead, we will not need to suffer the sight of streets full of confused, naked people!

I’m putting aside the amusing thought that the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra (the famous seventh one, who lived from 51 BCE to 12 BCE) could have conversed with Rabbi Meir (who lived in the second century CE). To do so, she herself would have had to have been resurrected from the dead! Instead,  I will try to understand if there is some greater cultural or theological significance to this fabricated dialogue before them.

Reflections on nakedness and shame

Rabbi Meir rules that we will be reborn clothed, just like wheat. He is trying to say that covering our bodies will transform from a cultural activity to a biological reality. It seems likely that Rabbi Meir is proposing that God will be more alert to the need and wisely skip over the belief in the possibility of innocence by creating us fully dressed.

May it be God's will that we won’t be like wheat

On the culture of honor and shame that may be contained in Rabbi Meir's answer to Cleopatra, 15th century Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, better known as the Maharal of Prague and associated with the legend of creating the Golem, explains: 

"But the resurrection will be entirely honorable for humanity, as they will revive fully dressed and will not be naked, and this teaches of complete honor. And he said, because he is 'all the more so than wheat'. That is to say, a person is born naked and disgraceful because the body is created from a putrid drop (of semen), and therefore contains disgrace and is born naked. But the wheat does not come from a putrid drop (of semen), only from clean wheat. Therefore it emerges 'with several layers of clothing', and does not emerge disgracefully." (the Maharal of Prague, Ner Mitzvah [on Hanukkah])

With the resurrection of the dead, God will free us of our nakedness, we will not have sex, we will not be ashamed, and with that our bodies will be redeemed.

I love the idea of the resurrection of the dead (even while I choose not to believe in it), because I understand it as expressing an appreciative, even religious relationship to the human body; because it is an important foundational pillar in the Talmudic endeavor to worship God by means of our bodies; because it seriously suggests a bold and material commentary on the term "image of God."

Back to the ceremony of the unfaithful wife

In a world where the sexual urges, at least those of women, cause anger and embarrassment, we should not be surprised to find such an amount of aggression toward a woman who dared to give freedom to her sexual desires. Therefore, humiliation would take place in the cultural language of the community, exposing the body of the woman who listened to her body. Let us hope we do no need to wait for the resurrection of the dead to feel safe.

Let us know no more sorrow… Shabbat Shalom!

(This article was translated with the help of Uzi Bar Pinchas.)

Dr. Ruhama Weiss, Ph.D. is the director of the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem.

Using the Text to Create Protections for Women

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader

Circle of women's handsI agree with Dr. Weiss about the deeply troubling nature of this text in Parashat Naso, and appreciate these insights.

I also find the sotah ritual deeply problematic and misogynistic. If a husband suspects his wife has been unfaithful, he can accuse her of being an adulterer and subject her to a humiliating ordeal. During this demeaning ritual, the wife is stripped of control over her body and lacks agency over her own life. She becomes a passive recipient of decisions made by the men around her without any active role in the process. The accused wife has no opportunity to speak, deny the charges, or defend herself. This is especially troubling because the ritual impacts her body and can result in the termination of a pregnancy. According to Numbers 5:12-28, if a woman miscarries as a result of it, instead of supporting her, this confirms her guilt of infidelity.

In the context of the text, through marriage a husband acquires exclusive sexual rights to his wife. The converse was not true, since husbands could have more than one wife (Tirzah Meacham, “Legal-Religious Status of the Suspected Adulteress (Sotah),” Jewish Women’s Archive), While the sotah ritual is included in the Torah, it is unclear if it ever took place. (Lisa Grushcow, The Torah: A Women’s Torah Commentary, p. 839). It is described without referencing a particular incident in contrast to other the laws in the Torah (ibid.). It was abolished towards the end of Second Temple Period by Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai (Judith Hauptman, The Torah: A Women’s Torah Commentary, p. 837).

I hope the sotah ritual was never used, but I believe that within these disturbing lines are important messages for us. I argue it is cautioning us against creating situations that impact a women’s body without her consent. In Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 90a:13-14 we read: “if he [one who] uncovers the head of a woman he must give the injured party four hundred dinars” (see David Polsky, “#timesup or Behind the Times? #metoo Meets the Talmud,” About the same incident in Bava Kama 90b:1-5, Rabbi Akiva rendered the assailant liable to give her four hundred dinars.”  Here, the text sides with the woman who suffered because control over her body was taken away from her. On empowering women to make choices for themselves a recent statement from the CCAR reads: “We believe … each person (is entitled) to follow her own inner compass when making decisions about her (reproductive) health free from constraints or impediments” (“Faith Groups Express Concern on Kavanaugh Nomination,” CCAR).

There are efforts underway in our in our time to reduce women’s agency and ability to make decisions about their bodies. I believe the message of the sotah ritual encourages us to do better for women. It teaches us not to harm to women as the sotah ritual did, but to ensure women have the power to make their own choices. The Torah passage about the sotah ritual is our text as its worst, but it is challenges us to create protections for women so we can all live at our best.

Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader is the rabbi educator at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, OH.

Reference Materials

Naso, Numbers 4:21−7:89
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,043−1,075; Revised Edition, pp. 921−945
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 815–842
Haftarah, Judges 13:2−25
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,256−1,258; Revised Edition, pp. pp. 947−949

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