The Torah’s account of the Sotah ritual is confusing. It’s difficult to imagine how it would take place, what it would look like. The Rabbis wonder too. In the Mishnah on daf 7a they present a disagreement: The Rabbis assign two escorts to accompany the man and his wife to Jerusalem; R. Yehudah says this is not the case.
How does [the husband] deal with her? He brings her to the court where he lives and they assign him two disciples of the Sages [to accompany him and his wife to Jerusalem] lest he cohabit with her along the way. R. Yehudah says: her husband is trusted with her.Torah says nothing about chaperones. Numbers 5:11-15 tells us only that if a man is overcome by a fit of jealousy and believes his wife to be unfaithful, but there are no witnesses to support his suspicion, the man shall bring his wife to the priest (verse 15).
How, then, does the Gemara explain Mishnah’s assertion that escorts are required? Gemara quotes R. Yehudah in the name of Rav as teaching that escorts are assigned only if the husband does not live in Jerusalem and must travel a distance to the Temple with his wife.
But what is the purpose of the escorts? Two suggestions are offered:
… on a journey there must be three, in case one of them should have need to relieve himself and consequently one of them will be left alone with [the possibility of] immorality! No. Here the reason is that they should be witnesses against him.The Gemara first suggests that two disciples of the Sages accompany the man and his wife so that there will be two men in her presence at all times, because were there one escort, when the husband excused himself, the single escort might engage in inappropriate sexual activity with the wife. The Gemara next suggests that the escorts are there to supervise the husband, so he will not cohabit with his wife. But in the first case, two men alone with a woman is no guarantee against sexual activity – even ten escorts is no guarantee – and the Rabbis realize this. Therefore the escorts are there to patrol the husband.
[The Rabbis] did not teach [that a woman may be in the company of two men] except in the case of pure men. In the case of dissolute men not even with ten. It once happened that ten men carried a [live] woman [out of the city] in on a bed [to violate her]. No. Here the reason is that they will know to warn him.The circle of high level of suspicion surrounding sexual behavior has broadened to encompass the husband himself. It’s a curious thing to imagine that this husband, who has accused his wife of adultery and is about to impose on her a humiliating ordeal, would be interested in intimacy. We might imagine his sexual intentions rather more dangerous than intimate, thought the Rabbis do not voice this concern.
The Rabbis next turn to the claim that R. Yehudah makes in the Mishnah that escorts are unnecessary because the husband can be trusted not to cohabit with his wife – who is in a state of tum’ah (ritual impurity) – on the way to Jerusalem. What follows is a fascinating back-and-forth concerning a kal va’chomer (a fortiori) argument offered by R. Yehudah to prove that the husband can be trusted to bring his wife to the Temple without escorts. The discussion that ensues both establishes the inherent weakness of many kal va’chomer arguments – they can be argued as effectively backward as forward – and the fact that the entire matter rests on a foundation of presumptions concerning the psychology of the husband.
R. Yehudah says: By kal va’chomer (from minor to major, a fortiori) reasoning [we deduce] that a husband is trusted. If a husband is trusted in the matter of his wife during menstruation where the penalty [for sexual contact] is karet (excision, which the Rabbis generally understand as an early and untimely death brought about by heaven), how much more so in the matter of his wife under suspicion in connection with which there is merely a prohibition [but no penalty].Having turned R. Yehudah’s kal va’chomer around, they now offer an entirely different justification from R. Yehudah: in fact, they tell us, he bases it on Scripture (Numbers 5:15) which makes no mention of escorts, and the Rabbis simply declare on their authority that chaperones are assigned.
[How do] the Rabbis [respond]? The same reasoning establishes [their viewpoint, which is that the husband is not to be trusted to be alone with his wife on the trip to Jerusalem]: in the case of a wife during menstruation where the penalty is karet (excision), since it is so severe, the husband is trusted; but in the case of a wife under suspicion where [cohabitation] is a mere prohibition, since there is no severe [penalty] for him, he is not trusted.
Gemara offers another round of kal va’chomer arguments. The first is attributed to R. Yosi and as we shall see, it is identical to R. Yehudah’s kal va’chomer. However, when the Rabbis unravel it, they reverse it in a new and inventive manner.
R. Yosi says: By kal va’chomer (a fortiori) reasoning [we deduce] that a husband is trusted with her. If a husband is trusted in the matter of his wife during menstruation where the penalty is karet (excision), how much more so in the matter of his wife while under suspicion in connection with which there is a mere prohibition.The proof text cited by the Rabbis deserves to be quoted in its entirety and its context considered. Chapter 9 of Proverbs speaks of Wisdom personified as a woman inviting wayfarers to a grand feast of understanding and insight, the first course of which is yirat Adonai (awe or fear of God – verse 10). The author of Proverbs (presumptively King Solomon) then compares her with a stupid woman who sits in her doorway beckoning to travelers and saying, “Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten furtively is tasty.” The Rabbis, in assuming that the husband will cohabit with his wife on the way to Jerusalem, presume he will sip stolen waters and eat bread furtively.
[The Sages] replied to him: No. If you argue [that the husband is trusted] in the case of his wife during menstruation who will be permitted [to him when she is no longer a menstruant], will you argue so in the case of his wife under suspicion when he might never have a right to her! It further states: Stolen waters are sweet, etc. (Proverbs 9:17).
The Rabbis often seem to presume the worst in human behavior. The Sotah is treated as guilty until proven innocent. The husband cannot be trusted to escort her to Jerusalem alone. There is a presumption that only fear of punishment motivates self-control. Parents who expect the worst from their children make poor choices and bad behavior a self-fulfilling prophecy. I always found that expecting the best from my children worked beautifully and powerfully to elicit good behavior and appropriate choices. Would it not work with adults, with ourselves? I wonder if focus on presumption of bad behavior doesn’t miss an opportunity to encourage people to look for the best within themselves.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman