Let’s admit it from the outset. The very idea of the Sotah ritual is repugnant. Here is the summary from The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, commentary by Jacob Milgrom, 2004:
An irate husband suspects that his wife has been unfaithful. Having no proof, his only recourse is to bring her to the sanctuary where she undergoes an ordeal. The priest makes her drink a potion consisting of sacred water to which dust from the sanctuary floor and a parchment containing a curse have been added. The curse spells out the consequences. If she is guilty, her genital area will distend and she will no longer be able to conceive. If, however, the water has no effect on her, she is declared innocent and she will be blessed with seed.
The Torah text (Numbers 5:11-31) is yet more graphic. I cannot imagine it.
It is hard for me to envision the moment when the Sotah ritual is invoked. The couple has a married life together. The husband could simply ask for a divorce – the laws of divorce are reasonably simple. But this husband is caught between a desire to preserve the marriage (presumably) and a fear or suspicion that his wife has been unfaithful. What must he be feeling toward her to make her drink these “bitter waters” that will cause her genitals to fall out if she is guilty? What must she think of him, especially if she is innocent? How could they possibly reconcile? But I am getting ahead of myself.
As we begin our study of this tractate I am aware that the sages had choices in how to present this material. In the next tractate – Gittin, on divorce – the sages jump right in to the details. The opening mishnah is concerned with a Get (bill of divorce) brought from overseas and the discussion immediately asks what makes such a document valid or invalid. When the Jerusalem Talmud opens our tractate they set the stage from the first words:
One should not make such accusations of jealousy toward her jokingly, or casually, or in a light moment, or in the midst of harsh arguments, but with solemn conversation. (Y. Sotah 1:1)
The sages who compiled the Yerushalmi understood that the issue is serious and they set the tone for the subsequent discussions from the first. That is exactly what I would have expected, but in the Babylonian Talmud the sages choose a different approach.
About half way down the first page of the tractate we find a discourse on marriage. The sages acknowledge that marriage is a mysterious and difficult proposition, perhaps best left to One with Divine powers. Rabbi Bar Bar Hannah said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: Making matches is as difficult as splitting the Red Sea. Finding the right match, he suggests, is miraculous. It is no surprise that marriage requires constant work to keep the two partners in balance. A different approach is offered: Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rav: Forty days before the creation of a fetus a Divine Voice goes forth and declares that this child is designated for that one. Truly, these marriages are made in heaven. The Gemara places this teaching in opposition to the statement of Rabbi Bar Bar Hannah, as if to say marriages aren’t so hard since they are Divinely decreed even before birth. Hah! No one I know pretends that it comes so easily. I believe it adds to the mystery. Whether it is God splitting the Red Sea or making Divine decrees before we are conscious, finding your bashert (intended) is hard.
In the wedding blessings we affirm that this couple is indeed unique in all the world. We ask the Holy Blessing One to “grant perfect joy to these loving companions” as if they were the first humans in the Garden of Eden. The wedding blessings depict an idyllic scene; just these two lovers enthralled in a moment of perfection. Implicitly the wedding ceremony suggests that God brought this man and woman together, just as Adam and Eve were Divinely paired.
But why should the sages be reminding us of the good times now, at this moment, when the suspicious husband is about to go public with his accusations? This moment seems to be as far from Eden as one could be.
I believe the sages take note of the husband’s decision not to pursue divorce. It could be that he doesn’t pursue divorce out of anger. He is so sure of his claim that he wants to exact a terrible price from his wife by making her undergo this cruel ordeal and suffer the consequences. But it could also be that the husband is truly unsure. Caught between his desire for his wife and his desire for certainty regarding her behavior, he opts for this middle ground. The sages seem to view the glass as half full – his desire for her offers some hope of preserving their marriage.
The sages recognize we are at a fragile crossroads. The couple who once stood under a huppa, marriage canopy, as if they were the blessed couple in the heart of Eden now stands at the brink of disaster. Before entering into the sad, but necessary deliberation about the legal processes of the Sotah ritual they pause to remind themselves and us of the holy bond with which we are tampering.
What do the sages gain by this approach? It is, I believe, too easy to become a technocrat, caught up in the details. One could follow all of the procedures – cross all the t’s and dot all the I’s -- and forget about the two people at the heart of matter. A marriage hangs in the balance, and if you do not honor the holy bond that once drew this man and this woman together it will snap. The sages focus first on the holiness of the marriage as a counterweight to the technical details. As long as you recall the love that once drew these two together you will not act too rashly to at this tense moment. Perhaps love might stir once again.
© Rabbi Louis Rieser