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Sunday, January 3, 2010


Happy New Year – 2010!! May 2010 bring many blessings to you and to our world. With this posting we complete Chapter 1 of Tractate Sotah

It's time to offer a summary and some reflections on our chapter, which comprises roughly one-quarter of tractate Sotah. Opening chapters of Talmud, as of other literature, point us in the direction of what is to follow. The discussion in this chapter frames what we will encounter in the remaining chapters of the tractate.

My most basic question is: why does this tractate exist? Not every mitzvah of the Torah rates its own tractate; most don't. While the Sotah ritual was no longer possible by the time of the Mishnah, nonetheless it is unique in asking God to intervene directly in human affairs. In other cases human courts are competent to judge, but here where guilt or innocence cannot be determined, we ask God's intervention. The last chapters of this tractate deal with similar instances where our interaction with God is particularly direct: where we can use the common language to address God, the preparations for going to battle, and the eglah arufa, the ritual performed by community leaders in the case of an unsolved homicide.

Viewed from that perspective the entire first chapter can be read as a preparation for inviting God's intervention. Three topics form the outline of the chapter: the warning given by the suspicious husband to his wife which assures there is proper cause to call forth God's intervention, the preparation of the woman for the ordeal which preserves the proper protocol, and a reflection on God's eminently fair justice. This last section reassures us that God’s intervention into human affairs will be appropriate and fair.

The opening mishnahs focus on the warning given by the husband to his wife: what witnesses are required, what constitutes a proper warning. Before diving into the procedural details the sages reminds us how precious marriage is. They teach that making a marriage is harder than splitting the Reed Sea. They speculate that marriages are divinely ordained matches, made in heaven even before one's birth. It is as if the sages want to warn the husband to think long and hard before invoking Divine participation in this ordeal.

What would motivate a husband to resort to this humiliating ritual? It is not his only option. Divorce is possible. If the infidelity is certain, there are normative legal avenues to pursue. The Sotah ritual places the woman in limbo: neither permitted nor free, neither guilty nor innocent. Does the husband choose this option based on his psyche or on his wife's actions? Does he act from pure or base motives? The mishnah opens with neutral language, ““He who expresses jealousy to his wife concerning her relations with another man”, but the sages understand that it is a moment filled with emotional angst. I believe the question of motivation lies behind the extended reflections on jealousy, faithfulness, arrogance and humility found in this chapter.

The third mishnah and beyond set the stage for the ordeal itself. This discussion recognizes the indeterminate status of the woman. If she were otherwise eligible to eat trumah, the part of the Temple offerings reserved for the priestly families, she is not permitted to do so for the interim. While she is not divorced from her husband, she is also not permitted to have sexual relations with him. It is as if she were temporarily in suspended animation. She does not have the privileges which she had prior to the accusation, but she is not yet free to adopt a new status. It is an uncomfortable limbo, characterized by a strange discussion of whether her husband can be trusted to escort her to the site of the ordeal, or whether he would now be suspected of having marital relations with her along the way.

When she arrives at the Temple, the site of the ordeal, the priests urge her to speak. They tip their hat to the idea that she is within her rights. They tell the tale of Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38), with its dramatic ending when Judah declares that Tamar is more righteous than he. But the bulk of this section moves in the opposite direction with the priests urging her to confess her guilt. It feels heavy-handed, and it is. It runs contrary to our contemporary notion that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty. It defies our sense of fairness.

The priests, however, have a different understanding of that moment. There is more at stake here than the guilt or innocence of one woman. There is more at stake than the survival of one marriage vow. The accused woman will stand at Nicanor's Gate, on the liminal edge between the holy and the profane, and she will be tested by God. While one hopes that God's intervention will be limited to the case at hand, how can one know? What if God's action set in motion ripples that extended far beyond the question of one woman's guilt or innocence? Is the world as we know it safe?

The Mishnah reassures us that Divine justice is measured and precise. The mishnah states: By that same measure by which a man metes out [to others], do they mete out to him. God's justice, the Sages insist, maintains an exquisite balance. The punishment or reward precisely matches the individual's behavior. In the case of the Sotah it is the woman's own presumed behavior that defines the treatment she receives: She primped herself for sin, the Omnipresent made her repulsive. She exposed herself for sin, the Omnipresent exposed her.

What is true in the case of the Sotah is generally true. The last third of the chapter is devoted to long midrashic passages illustrating the principle of “measure for measure”. Those who do wrong are punished in appropriate measure and style, and those who do good are similarly rewarded. “Samson followed his eyes, so the Philistines blinded him.” Absalom's hair did him in. But Miriam, Joseph and Moses were all rewarded even beyond the measure of their deeds. In each case God's intervention addressed the particular need of the moment – reward or punishment – and no more.

These midrashic justifications are clever and engaging, but raise troubling issues. One concerns our understanding of justice. Do we seek pure black and white justice? Is there no gray area of doubt that clouds our certainty? Particularly in the case of the Sotah aren't we concerned to know what led to the disintegration of the marriage; to understand what led these “two loving friends” [from the marriage ceremony] to become such adversaries? Isn't there room for mercy and compassion in the process of judgment?

When do we invoke God's intervention? Here we do so with some care, cautious to see that God addresses only the guilt or innocence of this one woman. The invitation is not a request for God to judge the world as a whole. Indeed Mishnah Berachot (9:3) warns against crying out to God for what is past, condemning it as a prayer offered in vain. If God can discern guilt or innocence that is indiscernible to human eyes, why should God be unable to affect the gender of a child or protect a home from danger? Similarly in the oft-cited story of the Oven of Achnai (Baba Metzia 59b) the sages rebuff the attempts of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus who calls on the Bat Kol, the Divine Voice, to prove his halakhic position correct. The Sages are wary of invoking God's intervention in the course of human events.

On one level this tractate provides the details for an ordeal prescribed by Torah. On a deeper level this allows us the opportunity to reflect on what it means for God to intervene directly in our lives. This opening chapter sets the stage for a broader discussion on God's Presence in the world.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser

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