One of the greatest points of confusion regarding Jewish law is the following:
The Torah is NOT Judaism.
More accurately, the religious tradition described in the Torah is not how we practice Judaism today. Yes, certain items in halakhah / Jewish law appear in the Torah, and you can make the case that Judaism is derived from the Torah. But Jewish practice today contains far more complexity and subtlety and detail than what is found between the two atzei hayyim (posts) of a Torah scroll.
This is especially important in understanding parashat Naso, which we read today, and in particular, one of the most disturbing passages in the Torah, found therein: the description of the ancient ritual for the Sotah, the woman who is suspected by her husband of being unfaithful.
In short, the Torah’s description is like this: the Kohen (priest) writes a curse on a scroll, and then pours water over the scroll to dissolve the ink. The inky water is collected and the suspected wife is given some to drink. If she dies (or suffers greatly, or miscarries; it’s not exactly clear; the text says “latzbot beten velanpil yarekh,” causing her “belly to distend and her thigh to sag”), she was guilty. If she survives the ordeal, she is innocent.
Now, you probably did not hear about that in Hebrew school. And for sure you have never heard of such a thing practiced by Jews, and there is a good reason for that: it’s barbaric. Nonetheless, the rabbis of the Talmudic period thought it interesting enough that they put together a tractate on it: Massekhet Sotah, in which they detail the process. However, toward the end we discover that the practice had been discontinued some time in the past, although of course they do not know how far back. (Scholars cannot confirm whether or not the ritual was actually ever practiced.) BT Sotah 47a:
משרבו המנאפים פסקו המים המרים
From the time when adulterers proliferated, [the performance of the ritual of] the bitter waters was nullified; [they would not administer the bitter waters to the sotah.]
This is, it seems to me, a rabbinic cop-out. They can’t say, “When they realized that the ritual was cruel and unjust, they stopped performing it.” Rather, they cite the proliferation of adultery as the reason – i.e. there were just too many adulterers for us always to be performing this ceremony. But this is not really a logical conclusion; it is, rather, in line with the traditional rabbinic attempt to mitigate the harsh punishments encoded in Torah law. The Talmud often seeks to lessen the severity of the Torah’s harshest decrees. We do not put people to death for violating Shabbat in public, or for being disobedient children, both of which appear in the Torah as commandments. Likewise, we do not perform cruel punishments like the ritual of the bitter waters. And we likely never have.
But what do we do about passages in the Torah that make us uncomfortable? After all, there are many: the tale of Noah’s drinking and his son Ham’s apparent misbehavior; Lot and his daughters; Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar; the Torah’s apparent condoning of slavery, concubinage, prostitution, etc.*
When I was working on my first master’s degree at Texas A&M University, a very traditional, conservative campus, I would occasionally hear very serious Christians talk about living according to the Bible. My (thought, not spoken) response was, “Aha. So do you check your garments for sha’atnez (mixture of wool and linen forbidden by the Torah)? Do you plan on marrying multiple wives? Should you kill the entire family of somebody who raped your sister?”
The writer AJ Jacobs seized on this idea a few years back in his book, The Year of Living Biblically, in which he describes his attempt to live according to the Torah, literally. What results is an often hilarious series of episodes. But his overarching point is clear: neither Judaism nor Christianity takes the Bible at its word. And we should acknowledge this.
We do not live according to the Torah. We live according to rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, which is colored by centuries of societal development and modifications to account for how we live today.
So what on Earth could be the reason that we still read about the sotah ritual? Can’t we just edit it out? Doesn’t it make us look bad?
I mentioned earlier that Massekhet Sotah (the Talmudic tractate) covers many of the details of the sotah ritual, as if the rabbis discussing it, long after the practice had been abandoned, was meant to be preserved, as if some day, like the Temple sacrifices, it would be reinstated (has veshalom / God forbid!). But the Talmud is not necessarily a linear book, and, as a text devoted to argument, you find within it pieces that comport well with contemporary sensibilities, even when the subject matter is arcane and/or obsolete. Elsewhere in Massekhet Sotah, we read the following (17a):
דריש ר”ע איש ואשה זכו שכינה ביניהן לא זכו אש אוכלתן
Rabbi Akiva taught: When a man and a woman merit it [through their appropriate behavior], the Divine presence stands between them; when they do not, fire consumes them.
I have often used this piece of wisdom at weddings. It plays on the fact that “ish” (man) and “ishah” (woman) share the letters for esh (fire), and the additional letters between them are yod and heh, which spell out Yah, a short name for God. So when you take God out, when you remove the qedushah, the holiness from a sexual relationship, all you have left is fire – empty passion – which will not last, which will consume itself.
So one advantage to studying and re-reading passages that make us uncomfortable is that we might in fact uncover gems of wisdom when we dig deeper. But in order to find those gems, we have to keep reading.
Another lesson we might glean is that our understanding of what it means to be Jewish and to practice Judaism changes. Just as the Talmudic rabbis, living around Baghdad in the 3rd century or so, could not stomach the ritual of the bitter waters (!), so too can we look back on Jewish practices historically and make judgments based on who we are and how we live today. Halakhah, Jewish law, evolves. The world changes, and Judaism changes with it. We treat women and men equally under Jewish law (i.e. egalitarianism). We uphold the values of Shabbat, even as we encourage people to drive to synagogue if they live too far away from the synagogue. We ordain gay men and women as rabbis, and join them in marriage under the huppah (wedding canopy).
At the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (late-night study session on the first night of the festival of Shavuot) last Saturday night, we read the words of Rabbi Neil Gillman, who taught that our understanding of God, the Torah, and halakhah changes as we change, and these things are shaped by our cultural context. “Halakhah is indispensible,” he wrote, “‘because it is what the Jewish community understands God’s will to be.” Not God’s will, but rather our understanding of God’s will. And that changes.
The final message we might glean here is, you might say, related to the current “#MeToo” moment. The sotah tale sits there in Bemidbar / Numbers to remind us that horrible things have been done by people to other people, and in particular by men to women, throughout history, and that these historical wrongs must be righted. Even if it was never performed, even if the tale found herein is merely to scare women and men away from adultery, the descriptions in the Torah and the Talmud are there as a caution: this is the kind of thing that can happen when we do not count women as equals.
Why is this here? As a reminder that we need to struggle to overcome it. We do not edit the Torah; on the contrary, we edit our behavior to reflect the holiness in all of us.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/26/2018.)
* Given the death of Philip Roth this week, one might ask the same question about Portnoy’s Complaint, and other works in his oeuvre that do not necessarily make the Jews look so good.