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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Oh the web that jealousy weaves! (Sotah 2b)

We have begun studying masechet Sotah, which concerns the ordeal imposed by a husband on his wife when he suspects her of having committed adultery but lacks evidence or witnesses. It is described in graphic detail in Numbers 5:11-31. (You may find this article on the subject interesting and helpful.)

This is uncomfortable material for a great many people. Our Rabbis are uncomfortable with it, as well, but seemingly for different reasons than we might have.

For me, a preliminary question is: how did we get to this dangerous juncture in the marital relationship? Torah is explicit: there are no witnesses to testify that the wife has committed adultery but nonetheless the husband is overcome by a fit of jealousy and accuses her of unfaithfulness. Jealousy is both a deeply human emotion (I cannot imagine any other species experiencing jealousy) and also a highly dangerous and destructive emotion.

In the opening misnah, the Rabbis attempt to impose a legal structure on the situation to place limits on the husband’s behavior and perhaps contain the potential volcanic eruption of his emotions. Torah tells us that if the man has a fit of jealous rage (ruach kin’ah v’kinei et ishto – Num. 5:14) he brings her to a priest to undergo the ordeal. The Rabbis immediately read kin’ah v’kinei to mean that he issues her a formal warning, and they proceed to discuss how many witnesses are required to be present to attest to the warning.
If one warns his wife [not to associate with a particular man]. R. Eliezer says: he warns her on the testimony of two witnesses, and he makes her drink [the bitter waters] on the testimony of one witness or his own personal testimony. R. Yehoshua says: he warns her on the testimony of two witnesses and makes her drink on the testimony of two.
In this way, the Rabbis attempt to impose order in a potentially dangerous situation, lest it get out of control. In requiring witnesses, there is at least a modicum of assurance that the husband’s anger will not boil over into physical violence. The witnesses can either mitigate the intensity of his emotion or, if need be, physically restrain him, should he become overwrought and attack his wife. Reigning in strong emotions is not small feat.

Yet the gemara immediately becomes entangled in the complexity of trying to legislate behavior when the root cause is jealousy, suspicion, and anger, rather than evidence.
IF ONE WARNS HIS WIFE. Only after the fact, but not in the first place. Hence our tanna holds that it is forbidden to warn [her that she may not seclude herself with another man].
The gemara will eventually conclude that the husband may warn his wife only after he has witnesses to her seclusion. But prior to that, it is inappropriate to warn her because after all, what is he warning about? There is no foundation to his suspicion.

This inspires mention of a teaching attributed to Resh Lakish that addresses my preliminary question concerning how the relationship reached this volatile juncture:
R. Shmuel b. R. Yitzhak said: When Resh Lakish began to expound on the Sotah, he said: They only pair a woman with a man according to his deeds, as it is said: For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest upon the lot of the righteous (Psalm 125:3). Rabbah b. bar Hanah said in the name of R. Yochanan: It is as difficult to pair [a husband and a wife] as was dividing the Reed Sea; as it is said: God sets the solitary in families: God brings out the prisoners into prosperity (Psalm 68:7). But it is not so, for Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rab: Forty days before the creation of a child, a Bath Kol (heavenly voice) issues forth and proclaims: the daughter of So-and-So is intended for So-and-So; the house of So-and-So is for So-and-So; the field of So-and-So is for So-and-So! There is no contradiction; the latter point refers to a first marriage, and the former to a second marriage.
Three comments are offered. First, Resh Lakish suggests that a man whose deeds are worthy is rewarded with a faithful wife. (Confession: the image that comes to mind is, “Good, Fido. Sit, Fido.”) Is this to say that a man who is unrighteous deserves a wife who is unfaithful? or that a man who is unrighteous drives his wife to adultery by his deeds? This is a claim riddled with moral problems and questions about Resh Lakish’s understanding of human free will.

Second, we are introduced to a teaching of R. Yochanan: making a good match is an exceptionally difficult achievement. It can be a key to the riches of life and a source of personal redemption. Is all the effort on God’s part, or ours?

Rav Yehudah answer that question. God stands behind the chupah, having planned the match prior to conception. Given how much hard work and effort go into a successful marriage, and further that even good people who make sincere efforts often see their marriages end, we might wonder: does this mean that a successful marriage is not dependent upon human behavior? How could that possibly be?

The Rabbis seem aware that whatever theory they proffer, they’re boxing themselves in. So they conclude that God pre-ordains first marriages, but the second time round, we’re on our own. (I cannot help but wonder if, since many of the Rabbis at this time were probably arranging matches for their own children – which their children had to affirm or could negate – if they were putting God’s imprimatur on their own choices.)

How did we get to this dangerous juncture in the marital relationship? It seems to me that the answer is not found in the opinions of Resh Lakish or Rav Yehudah, but rather embedded in the words of R. Yochanan: It is as difficult to pair [a husband and a wife] as was dividing the Reed Sea. Both the husband and wife must make the effort, and if they allow God into their marriage, so much the better, but no extraordinarily difficult task is guaranteed success.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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