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Wednesday, November 4, 2009


If you have ever read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road you can appreciate the power of the editor. Kerouac wrote on a continuous strip of paper, 120 feet long, with no chapter or paragraph breaks. His work was rejected by several publishers until one brave editor took on the task. We enjoy what the editor culled from the mass of writing.

In our passage we see the power of the editor in a different way. I believe, as I will detail below, that the editor added one line to the teaching of Rabbi Hisda and turned the meaning of that teaching on head. While Rabbi Hisda intended to teach that both men and women bear responsibility in the relationship, the editor added one line that permanently exonerates the husband.

Sotah 3a offers a teaching by Rabbi Hisda, a student of Rav who later became the head of the academy at Sura in Babylonia until his death in 620. He is a powerful teacher and leader. His teaching here consists of three statements and argues that the husband and the wife may share blame when the situation in the house deteriorates and the charge of sotah is brought forward. There is a fourth line in the passage, in my view added by the editor, which subverts Rabbi Hisda’s understanding.

Rabbi Hisda uses a graphic image to suggest that both husband and wife may be suspect. R’ Hisda said: Unfaithfulness in the house is like a worm in a sesame plant. R’ Hisda said: Anger in the house is like a worm in a sesame plant. These seem to be paired statements. The destruction of the household may come as a result of her unfaithfulness or of his anger. It seems a reasonable argument since both unfaithfulness and anger can lead to or result from alienation in the relationship. Like a worm eating at the stalk of a plant, these behaviors destabilize the infrastructure of the relationship until it cannot stand on its own.

The next line, unattributed and so in my mind the work of the editor, places the blame unilaterally and completely on the woman: Each of these applies to a woman, but in a man there is no objection. For the moment I am not going to comment further on this line. It is important to read Rabbi Hisda’s third statement before returning to comment on the effect of this unattributed line.

Rabbi Hisda final statement teaches: In the beginning, before Israel sinned, the Divine Presence rested on every one of them, as it says, (Deuteronomy 23:15) For the Lord your God walks with you within the camp… Once they sinned, the Divine Presence separated from them, as it says, (Deuteronomy 23:15) Lest He see some unseemly thing in you and turn away from you. The key words are that the Divine Presence rested on every one of them – not on males alone, not on females alone, on every one of them. The Hebrew reads, kol echad v’echad, each and every one.

Take out the middle line – the one I disagree with – and the passage reads smoothly:
  • unfaithfulness brings on destruction of the marriage,
  • anger brings on destruction of the marriage,
  • once upon a time every single person was blessed by the Divine Presence,
  • sin caused the Divine Presence to depart from every one.
This is a complete teaching that expresses balance throughout. He can cause disruption in the marriage and she can cause disruption in the marriage. Once the Divine Presence rested on everyone – male and female – and since we sinned the Divine Presence departed from everyone – male and female. Rabbi Hisda recognizes that the sotah holds an indeterminate status – neither guilty nor innocent – that can only be resolved by undergoing an ordeal. Adding the anonymous line skews the balance. I don’t believe it fits.

We know that the editors of the Talmud worked to smooth out the arguments found in the gemara. We hear their unattributed voice in a variety of places. Sometimes it closes an argument by declaring that halakhah, Jewish practice, follows a particular position. Sometimes they insert material to reconcile conflicting positions by declaring that the two statements refer to different situations and therefore they are both right. I believe the editors insert this intermediate statement as a way of spinning Rabbi Hisda’s statement to match their own point of view.

What does that additional line do? By inserting the line, Each of these applies to a woman, but in a man there is no objection, the editor changes the story. The burden now rests solely on the shoulders of the wife. This change replaces uncertainty with certainty. Even if the woman is not guilty of adultery, she remains guilty of provoking anger or other behaviors that undermine the marriage. The editor exonerates the husband before the process has even begun. Worse still, this change allows the husband to act out with impunity – since neither his philandering nor his anger are objectionable – while she bears all the responsibility.

The editor subverts Rabbi Hisda’s teaching, but also skews our understanding of the precarious moment in which the husband and wife find themselves. Neither of them stands on solid ground. The sotah ritual is most unusual; the only instance in which God is asked to come judge a person directly, as Nachmanides explains in his comment on Numbers 5:20-21, “There is no other matter among all the laws of Torah that hangs on a miracle except for this one.” No human court can decide her guilt or innocence, so how can our editor declare that only the woman can be held liable and the man’s deeds are unobjectionable.

I always appreciate the advice of a good editor. In this instance I wish the editor had let Rabbi Hisda speak for himself.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser


Simcha said...

I would like to make few general remarks to both of you re. the previous posts;

It is interesting to note that after the sin of the calf, God told Moses to grind the calf, than mix the dust with water, and gave the sinner to drink these waters (Ex. 32). To me, the parallel between idolatry and adultery is very clear. Bracha Goetz wrote in the Baltimore Times –“10 Commandments: What Do They Mean Today”?
“… the seventh guideline, against engaging in illicit sexual activity, corresponds to the second guideline, to not go after other gods. In other words, engaging in idol worship involves surrendering one’s self to powerful destructive forces, just as engaging in illicit sexual activities does as well.
It is fascinating to note that both adultery and idolatry are considered capital offenses, according to the Torah, requiring a death penalty. Someone who betrays the marital relationship betrays G-d as well”.
2. It makes a lot of sense to assert that the ritual could be seen as a mechanism for social control. I think that there is much more to the story. What does it really tell us about how popular infidelity was at these days -- that the rabbis had to find a way to control it?? Perhaps it is a hint that domestic violence was common in these days?

3. Jealousy - You were correct to note that indeed, it is a toxic emotion that people have. It is so powerful that it can take over and make people crazy. But it sounds like it was a mass hysteria occurrence among Jewish population!! By the way, in the metaphor of our relationship with God, we are like a married couple. When we, the wife, go astray with idol worship, it is when God specifically becomes a Jealous God, who would punish the wife severely.

4. The assertion that the husband has a hard time on letting go of his wife because he still loves her does not make sense to me. I thought that marriages had nothing to do with romance and love, especially due to the fact that they were arranged. It was really all based on economics and familial relationship.

5. The idea of witnesses -- well... in such an intimate relationship, don't you think that the wife will be discrete enough not to be seen...? How is it even possible that someone can witness an affair...?
6. And how does the Rambam address this Sota issue?

Rabbi Louis Rieser said...

Welcome back, Simcha. I have missed your comments.

I will address only some of the many issues you raise here. Perhaps Rabbi Scheinerman will pick up some of the other points.

You are correct to note that there is a relationship between idolatry and adultery. There is a fascinating section on Sotah 4b which begins, “Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said Rabbi Yohanan: Whoever is arrogant will eventually stumble through adultery…” As the passage proceeds we learn they will commit idolatry, deny God, become an abomination to God and come to consider himself as if he were an altar [to himself]. It is the entrance to a downward moral and spiritual spiral.

I want to note, however, that the sotah is not yet an adulterer, but only one under suspicion. We do not know whether she is guilty or not. The fact that there are no witnesses moves the matter beyond the ability of humans to judge. So Nachmanides notes in his Torah commentary that this is the one matter that relies on the miracle of God’s intervention.

Hilchot Sotah is found in Order Nashim of the Mishneh Torah of Rambam. The first chapter deals with the particulars of the accusation, when she becomes forbidden to her husband, etc. I have only read it very quickly, but the bulk of the chapter seems to make it very hard for such an accusation to come into effect. Some examples:
Halacha 4: He said to her before two witnesses do not speak with so and so, this does not constitute a warning [for sotah]. ..
Halacha 5: If he said to her do not seclude yourself with so and so, and he saw her talking with him, this does not constitute seclusion…..
It is worth noting the very last halacha of Hilchot Sotah: 4:19: It is not proper to rush to warn her before witnesses at the outset, rather with care, in the way of purity and with concern between him and her to guide her in the straight way and to remove the stumbling block. And whoever is not diligent about his wife and his children and the members of his household to warn them and to guide their way always until he knows that they are clear of all sin, is called a sinner…
As I read this Rambam expects the husband to exert considerable effort to see that all is in good order in his house and in his relationships with his wife and family before he ever considers voicing the suspicions of Sotah.

Simcha said...

Rabbi Rieser -- Shavuah Tov;

Sorry for being away. I was traveling, but did read the blog. Now, I must say, there is much confusion that this masechet is causing for me. For some reason I can not see how we can find our contemporary examples. But, your clarifiacations are helpful.

"You are correct to note that there is a relationship between idolatry and adultery"

Indeed, I can see how arroancy can make us do the wrong things. So, here we have a buffet of human emotions that play a role in family life. The rabbis try to tell us that even jealousy needs to be controled. Yes, human emotions can take us far... Perhaps God was a powerful force for the rabbis as being feared, but who is the Break for us today...?


"the sotah is not yet an adulterer, but only one under suspicion"

Actually, the mishnah gives us a possibility that she is an adulterous --- How else can you understand the idea: "she enters with him [the other man] into a secret place and she stays with him till biyya [intercourse], she is forbidden to her husband..."?

Besides, it is interesting to note that the name Sota in Hebrew, as the maseckhet is called is already a condemnation - it is an adulterous! Nu?


There is something to say about the process of this ritual,as it may seem that the man will be very careful before he will go to this ritual. Nevertheless, it is very disturbing to think how women were treated. Even if there was a considerable amount of warning, they were still taken in public and get humiliated. I can not even imagine what the atmosphere was at a case like that.

Perhaps Rambam, dealing with the sotah, is trying to leave as much lee-way for privacy and reconciliation as possible so couples can work out their relationships and stay together. This sounds right.

With thanks,