This week’s portion, Nasso – literally, an order to count (as in “go and count the people of Israel”) – is the longest of all portions of the week. Then again, it is also a great example of the rule that quantity does not necessarily yield quality. But enough about me.
The portion’s main issue – other than the continuing last week’s discussion of the census and its importance (see last week’s post) – is infidelity. More accurately, a married woman’s alleged infidelity and its consequences. In looking at this issue I will venture, almost for the first time in this blog, to the very muddy waters (more in a second on this choice of words) of the Torah’s view of women. While aware of how dangerous this terrain may be, I would still like to offer my two cents. I begin with what – thankfully – has by now become a standard criticism of the text. I then move to suggest a surprising twist, a possible justification for the seemingly humiliating ancient practice described in the text. I conclude with some general thoughts of the text and its relation to women.
I. The Water of Bitterness
To summarize – while strongly recommending that you read the entire passage (Numbers 5:11-31) – this week’s portion deals with adultery; more specifically, with a proposed solution to a situation where a woman has committed adultery, or, more accurately is alleged to have committed adultery (since no witnesses are available). The proposed solution, in a nutshell, is a test; it is the test of the “water of bitterness:” Here, the alleged adulterous woman has to drink some extremely bitter water. Should she (physically) respond well to it – she’s safe; if she’s ill (as most people would be), then she’s guilty of being unfaithful to her husband.
At first glance, the entire ceremony of the “the water of bitterness and curse” may be viewed as a typical (and unfavorable) biblical treatment of women. To begin with, the text does not even mention, let alone discusses, a situation in which the husband – not the wife – is suspected of cheating while the wife is “fraught with jealousy” (as the husband is described). Not here. Instead, all we have is a situation where the wife is suspected of being disloyal to her husband, to “have gone astray and broken faith” with another man (elegant, creative translation by JPS here) (Numbers 5:12). What would a husband to do in this situation?
According to this week’s portion, the husband has to go to the priest - the religious authority (which, coincidently, comprises of all men – then and now, more than 2,000 years later). In a description reminiscent of the later “Salem witchcraft trials” and the famous “drowning test” –if the accused woman has drowned, she was innocent, but had she lived she was guilty of witchcraft – the text goes in great detail through what the poor suspected woman has to go through:
“And the priest made the woman stand before God, making her hair undone, and then he gave unto her hands [holy water (mixed with) the soil of the Tabernacle… this water shall be known as] … the bitter, cursing water. And the Priest swore that woman in, and told her: If no man has slept with you, and if you have not gone sinfully astray under you man, you shall be cleared by this water of bitterness and curse . . . [but if not,] your stomach would distend and your thighs will sag . . . and the woman would say: Amen and Amen.” (The full description, which is heavily edited here, may be found in Numbers 5:16-31).
Importantly, the text provides a nice alternative to the likely physical response the woman may have to the bitter water: if her stomach would not “distend,” then the suspected woman would be cleared of all suspicion, declared as “pure,” and even be “planted a seed” (become pregnant) (Numbers 5:28). [Loyal readers of this blog may look back at the discussion we had on the first verse of Parashat Tazri’a (Levit. 12:1), where, again, our sages has shown clear preference against naming a portion “A Woman”; there, too, the verse deals with the planted seed in the woman’ womb.]
While the text provides no data, one may only venture to guess how many poor women could actually survive the test – which their husbands, again, had no need to take under similar circumstances – and be declared “pure.” To reiterate, this ritual is not dealing with the case of well-proved infidelity cases. Rather, we are dealing here with mere suspicions, rumors, and innuendoes; all we have in fact is “the wind of jealousy” by the husbands.
When I first read this text, I was appalled. To me, it represented everything that was wrong with the Torah’s treatment of women. It reminded me of my first class of Jewish Law in my final year at the Hebrew University Law School. By then, we were no longer viewing our professors with the same awe and revere that were the staple of our first year. So when the Instructor opened the class by announcing that the Israeli Law of Equality of Women’s Rights – a mainly declaratory, though still important, act of legislation passed by Israeli Knesset very early in the life of the Jewish State – that this Act has “violated a delicate balance struck over thousands of years by Jewish sages with regards to women’s rights” I could no longer remain silent. “It is quite the opposite” – I told the instructor, shortly before leaving the class for good – “The State of Israel has corrected an imbalance that lasted through thousands of years with regards to the rights of Jewish women, due mostly to sages of Jewish thought who intentionally and creatively discriminated against women.”
That is precisely how I felt when I read the text initially.
II. Later Developments – in Halacha and Within Me
In part, it seems that my sense of reprehension was at least justified in part. During the Mishna period, the “Water of Bitterness” test was abolished. (3 Mishna, Sotah, Chapter 9 mishna 9). The reason behind this surprising turn may be more telling than the actual act of abolition itself: “Mi’she’rabu Ha’me’na’a’fim” – when cases of infidelities became so many, too many in fact, there was no longer need for the test. In other words, the deterring effect of the test was lost in the “sea” of infidelity. But a careful reading of the text shows an even more interesting feature: The Mishna does not say: “Mi’she’rabu Ha’me’na’a’fot” – when the women infidelity cases became too many; but rather “when the infidelity cases [by all!] became too many” then the test was abolished. Here we have an initial recognition – very implicit, very hesitant, almost secret – in the fact that perhaps the initial test was wrong, as it applied to women alone. Perhaps not only women should have been accused of such an act. Perhaps men, too, are fallible.
But not only have our sages changed their mind. I did, too. I came to view the test in a different light. I realized that – at the time, and within that context – women required a great degree of protection from their jealous husbands. In fact, in some instances these women were in a state of “clear and present danger” to their very lives, just by virtue of being suspected of committing adultery. (Hmm… Is that really so different today in some parts?) And that by providing the test – horrible as it may seem to us today – the Jewish religion has stepped forward to end this situation and to protect those women (clearly in a manner less than satisfactory, but still). To be more specific, the notion that a priest – the prime religious authority – may absolve a woman of that cloud, in a final manner and with the blessings of God, is a huge step towards the protection of women’s right. [Moreover, as I was pouring some sugar into my baby son’s bitter medicine – he was sick this week – I was thinking that maybe some thoughtful Priests pored some sugar into those bitter waters back then, to make it easier on the women.]
Again, I don’t know if any of this is true. I don’t know how many women, if any, were absolved by this test. But the very option granted by our religion to clear a woman from any unfaithful suspicion – with the authority of God, no less – should, in my mind, be looked upon favorably, even if the actual means used to effectuate this thought were inhumane by today’s standards. At least for that thought, the Torah’s text should be absolved.