Author’s Note: I’d like to dedicate this series to the memory of my father, David Berkowitz, who was always an early and eagle-eyed reader. I like to imagine he is reading this in the heavenly beit midrash, and I hope that he’ll figure out a way to reach me with his follow-up questions.
“The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”
— Anne Lamott, “Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith”
When I began writing this series of Torah commentaries for ReformJudaism.org I forgot that, because the Reform movement celebrates only one day of Shavuot, we read Parashat Naso over two weeks to align with the traditional calendar of Torah readings. I therefore thought I could skip writing about the sotah ritual—a trial by ordeal for a woman suspected of infidelity.
In this ritual, the husband brings his wife—known throughout Rabbinic literature as the sotah—to the priest, along with a “meal offering of jealousy.” The priest uncovers the woman’s hair and makes her drink water containing dirt from the floor of the Mishkan and the ink from a written curse containing the four-letter name of God. If the woman is innocent, the ritual should have no effect on her. But if she has been unfaithful, the priest warns: “May the Eternal make you a curse and an imprecation among your people, as the Eternal causes your thigh to sag and your belly to distend” (Numbers 5:21-22).
Many elements of this ritual might disturb a modern reader, particularly one concerned with the bodily autonomy of women. But for me, what is most troubling is that this ordeal is driven entirely by the husband’s jealousy. We read elsewhere that adultery is punishable by death (Leviticus 20:10). This ritual only occurs when there is no proof that adultery has taken place:
“But a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself—or if a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself—” (Numbers 5:14).
The purpose of this ritual is to reassure the husband of his wife’s fidelity—and the paternity of any subsequent children. Even if the ritual serves to exonerate the woman, it is difficult to imagine the woman emerging from the public humiliation of this ordeal with her reputation and marriage completely unscathed.
So, what do we do with a problematic text? Do we skip over it (as I originally tried to)? Surround it with caveats, disclaimers, and asterisks? Write it off as a product of its time? Citing Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, Rabbi Lisa Gruschow offers two choices: “We can … try to wrest new meaning from them, or we can simply acknowledge the pain that they have caused—and continue to cause” (“The Torah: A Women’s Commentary”).
The Rabbis devoted an entire tractate of Talmud to the sotah ordeal, much of which serves to limit and dismantle the problematic ritual. By the end of the tractate, we learn that the ritual was completely abolished following the destruction of the Second Temple (Sotah 47b).
Rabbi Lisa Gruschow writes that “the sotah ritual is most powerful as a teacher of change…. Just as the Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud used the best conceptual tools of their time to understand change, so must we—with the tools of our own time. Such an approach is not abandoning our tradition; it is being true to it” (“The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,”).
One way we might be true to such difficult texts is to peel back the layers and seek out the deeper human truths hidden underneath. One truth we might find buried in the sotah ritual is how often we grasp at certainty in challenging times.
Uncertainty is a recurring theme during our people’s time in the wilderness. We often act with carelessness, impatience, and haste, rather than sit in the discomfort of not knowing. Building the Golden Calf, sending scouts into the Promised Land, begging to go back to Egypt—all of these are more easily understood when we read them as responses to a deep feeling of uncertainty.
This need for certainty can also color our own choices. We probably cannot imagine needing anything resembling the sotah ritual today. But we need to only look at our polarized political scene, the flourishing of fundamentalist groups, and the prevalence of modern-day cults of personality and “get-rich-quick” schemes to see that we still gravitate towards whatever provides us with certainty. We’d rather have the wrong answers than no answers at all.
Dr. Aviva Zornberg writes that, while the ideal outcome of the sotah ritual is that “all ambiguity will be resolved,” the reality is quite different: “Total certainty can never be achieved in human affairs…. the sotah ordeal may seek to heal the world of its fractures, its lusts and jealousies. But it remains, nevertheless, an imperfect solution to the human need for certainty” (“Bewilderments”).
In seeking certainty, we might choose the path of least resistance: turning around and heading backwards, rushing recklessly towards the nearest destination, and clinging to false promises and false prophets. We would do anything to not have to try something new, to not have to deal with the discomfort of not knowing where we are going
But sometimes there is no easy answer. Our human relationships and our relationship with God are defined by the trust that we place in each other. And in any relationship—divine or human—there will be moments when that trust is broken. We may wish there were some magical litmus test to tell us whether to stay or go, fight or surrender, believe or question. But often, we are required to sit with the uncertainty for longer than we think we can bear.
We often make the mistake of seeking certainty when the situation calls us to have faith. But writer Anne Lamott suggests: “Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns” (“Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith”).