On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Suspicious Minds: The “Errant” Woman -  Parashat Naso

What happens when the Me Too Movement meets Parashat Naso? This week’s complicated Torah portion about unfair trials and jealous men is a reminder that we must call out inequitable practices and right past wrongs – even (and especially) our own. Rabbi Rick Jacobs invokes Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as he reminds us that repairing that which is not whole or just isn’t always easy, but it is always right.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to On the Other Hand, 10 Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less.

This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about parashah Naso. He wonders who gets counted, when, and how, who have we missed, and how can we start asking the right questions.

[Rabbi Jacobs:] This week, we focus our attention on parashah Naso, the second Torah portion from the book of Numbers. And a lot of things in parashah Naso that we would quote or would be quoted to us-- the priestly blessing. It doesn't get any better than that. We have the laws of the Nazarite. We have some more counting that comes at the opening.

There is, however, also in chapter 5 a section that describes the Sotah, the errant woman or a woman accused of adultery. And a lot of times, it's one of those things that I remember as a pulpit rabbi, thinking, I probably don't want my b'not or b'nei mitzvah students to have this section, because they're going to get up and have to explain a really complex and very problematic part of ancient Judaism.

So it sometimes is deliberately avoided. But this week, we're going to deliberately lean right into it. And here is this ritual that comes to be because a man is jealous. And what happens if a man is jealous of his wife, thinking that she may have committed adultery?

Well, there is a ritual, a kind of trial by ordeal. And once the suspicion is kind of followed up upon, if she has defiled herself by breaking faith with her husband, there's a spell inducing water she'll enter into and bring her bitterness.

"And her belly shall distend, and her thigh shall sag. And the woman shall become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is pure, she shall be unharmed and be able to be fertile." That's Numbers chapter 5, versus 27 to 28.

Now, here's a ritual that is all brought on by a man's jealousy. And yet it all focuses on his wife. And on many levels, it's a really problematic passage for a million reasons. In this #MeToo moment, you don't need a lot of explanation as to why this is so problematic.

And if you actually think about the bitter water that she has to drink, it's pretty amazing, because part of what is put into the water is dust from the Earth. And it's a pretty toxic brew. But one of the things that we find in the whole ritual is that we're not sure it was ever practiced.

In fact, in the time of the Mishnah-- would codify in the year 200 of the common era-- there is a whole tractate, Sotah, which means an "errant woman." And in chapter 1, Mishnah 1 of Sotah, we find that it's incredibly difficult to even bring a woman to this ritual. In fact, there has to be a witness.

If one is going to bring this charge, one has to have warned his wife-- must warn her before two witnesses and make her drink on the testimony of one witness.

Basically, they're building in a lot of extra requirements that would make it very difficult to bring someone up on this charge. And in chapter 9, Mishnah 9 of Sotah, it basically says that this really wasn't a practice. And once the whole practice of infidelity in the time of the second temple was more common, they let go of this practice.

Well, there are a number of really amazing people who've written about it. Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, who is a rabbi in Montreal, a truly brilliant rabbi who leads a congregation brilliantly, actually wrote a book on the whole subject, Writing the Wayward Wife-- Rabbinic Interpretations of Sotah.

And she's intrigued by, why is this whole phenomenon a part of our tradition? And what do we make of it today? If it hasn't been ever implemented or if it was only barely implemented in antiquity but we're talking about it still today, what's to be learned from that?

And she gives us some wonderful examples of parts of our tradition that we focus attention on because they help us lead to positive change and make us think about our tradition in a new way-- makes us aware of how far we've come and why some things are objectionable to us. So it may in fact be that she has an example that's just phenomenal.

It's actually a classic midrashic commentary that goes like this. So the rabbis of the Talmud evoke this ritual of the Sotah in a midrash about a clever and demanding woman named Hannah. The rabbis imagine the biblical Hannah, who prayed fervently for a child in the Book of Samuel. Think Rosh HasHanah. Think Rosh HasHanah haftarah, a powerful model of prayer leading to a fulfillment.

So the midrash goes, said Rabbi Eliezer, Hannah said before the holy one, master of the universe, if you take note of my suffering and grant me a child, great. But if not, then you will see. I will go and seclude myself with another man in front of my husband, Elkanah.

And when I seclude myself, they will give me to drink the water of the Sotah, the bitter water. And you will not belie your Torah, for it is stated with regard to an innocent woman who drinks the Sotah waters, then she shall be proven innocent. And she shall bear seed.

It's an amazing midrash about a woman who outsmarts the tradition. Don't you love it? So here's a wonderful example of an aggressive and shrewd woman-- this is Rabbi Grushcow's interpretation, brilliantly-- who uses the Sotah ritual, a ritual often associated with women's subjugation, as a means for taking control of her own destiny. Hannah forces God's hand through a clever application of God's own words.

According to the Torah, a woman suspected but innocent of adultery will become pregnant upon drinking the bitter waters. The barren Hannah threatens God with a fail-safe plan. She will arouse jealousy in her husband by secluding herself with another man. However, she will not actually commit adultery.

She will then be subject to the Sotah ordeal. With an outcome predetermined by God's own laws, she will become pregnant-- an amazing, an amazing internal dialogue with a tradition, explaining how this ancient and objectionable ritual could actually be turned to a very positive result.

I also just quote-- one of my favorite commentaries in the Bible is one written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, our famous suffragette. Remember, we just observed the 100th anniversary of women's right to vote here in the United States. And she has a book called The Women's Bible.

And in her commentary on this Sotah, Elizabeth Cady Stanton says, "As men make and execute the laws, prescribe and administer the punishment, trials by a jury or ordeal for women, though seemingly fair, are never based on principles of equity. The one remarkable fact," she says, "in all these social transgressions in the early periods, as well as in our modern civilization, is that the penalties, whether moral or material, all fall on women. Verily," she concludes, "the darkest page in human history is the slavery of women."

Well, here's Elizabeth Cady Stanton probably agreeing with our own initial sense of, why is this part of our tradition? And if it ever was, it is objectionable and once again focusing in a society where there probably is plenty of jealousy-- certainly, adultery is a phenomenon-- and yet focusing on the women. And by the way, a trial by ordeal is not your most rational way to investigate and decide a question of moral behavior.

So here, we have our tradition, a part of our tradition that you said, gosh, I didn't know that. Thank you so much, Rabbi Jacobs. I'm going along today, and I learned something that's making my hair stand on end.

I'm really upset about this. Well, I think we're all upset that this was not only part of our ancient tradition and it's part of our sacred narrative called the Torah, but it was also part of the larger societies in which our people found their voice. The question is what do we do about it today when we read it today, which we will.

In parashah Naso, we will be reading it. And some of our young people will become b'nei mitzvah and read this very section. How do we make sense of it?

Well, I think one of the ways we make sense of it is to call it out for what it was and to say that it doesn't define our Jewish community today. It doesn't define the roles of men and women. It doesn't define the whole transgression of adultery and unfortunately is part of a larger narrative that subjugates women in our tradition, which we have largely-- not completely-- been able to right that wrong.

And we'll continue doing that work to make our community one that doesn't have gender bias, that doesn't have the lack of pay equity when we pay our women. And we have this ritual relic of antiquity.

And yet we also have ways to defeat it through this wonderful midrash and our wonderful Elizabeth Cady Stanton reminding us through the Bible, fighting for women's full equality, including the right to vote, the right to lead our political leadership, to lead our religious communities, to lead our families, to be fully a part of God's circle and our wider community of purpose and value.

So parashah Naso-- we have the wonderful priestly blessing. And there's a blessing throughout. But we also have hard things to think about. That's also what it means to be a person of questing religious faith and spiritual seriousness. We're willing to think about the hard questions.

We're also willing and committed to repair that which is not whole in our tradition. And hopefully, in the act of making whole, we'll also shape a more whole, a more inclusive, a more gender-equal society for us and for our children and grandchildren.

And in that regard, I hope the Sotah will be long remembered as a distant relic, one that has been corrected, healed, addressed, and in a society where women still struggle for that prominence and that rightful place, that we will have a tradition that will be even that much more committed to it, because we have been truthful and honest and deeply committed to making the community it is meant to be, not the one that is implied in outmoded, distant, long, outmoded practices, but so that we do the best that we can in this moment, shaping it the way it ought to be as we go forward.

Sotah-- an errant woman, a man overcome by jealousy, a ritual of ordeal, a completely, in some ways, atypical place for us. This is part of our inheritance. We accept it. We at the same time accept it, we spiritually reject it. And we heal it, and we go forward together.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- 10 Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at reformjudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit reformjudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more.

On the Other Hand-- 10 Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l’hitraot!