Friday, November 27, 2009


The sotah ritual determining the guilt or innocence of a suspected adulteress (see Numbers 5:11-31) took place at the Temple in Jerusalem before the great Sanhedrin of 71 judges. If, after questioning by the court, the accused woman maintained her innocence and said, “I am clean”, they brought her to Nicanor’s Gate to administer the bitter waters required by the ritual. The Mishnah (Sotah 1:5) notes that this is also the place where women would come to be purified after childbirth and where lepers would come to be purified.

Nicanor’s Gate was a central site in the Jerusalem Temple. There is a great deal written about this gate into the Temple. In part it has to do with how these doors came to be and, in part, with where they were located in the Temple itself. The location of this gate made it the prime site for many rituals.

In M. Yoma 4:10 we learn that “As to Nicanor, miracles were associated with his doors. And they remembered him with honor.” The mishnah only tells us that miracles were associated with these gates. That same mishnah tells of about various donations that were made to the Temple: by Ben Qatin, King Munbaz, Queen Helene, and Nicanor. The mishnah offers some details about the other gifts, but of the doors of Nicanor we learn only that miracles happened there and that he was honored.

The full story of these doors is found at B. Yoma 38a (a slightly different version is found at T. Yoma 2:4).
When Nicanor was bringing the doors from Alexandria, Egypt, a storm blew up and threatened to capsize the boat. They took one of the doors and threw it overboard, but the seas did not calm down. They wanted to throw the 2nd door over as well, but he grabbed hold of it and said, “Throw me overboard with it.” The seas clamed down. He remained distressed over the lost door. When they arrived at the port of Acco the other door bubbled up and came out from under the boat. And there are those who say that a sea monster swallowed it and then regurgitated it onto the shore.

Very special doors, indeed. And they were treated with extra respect. At some point the doors of the Temple were all changed to be covered with gold, with the exception of Nikanor’s gate, because of the miracle associated with them. Others say that it was because their bronze shone like gold. (B. Yoma 38a)

According to M. Middot 1:4 there were seven gates to the courtyard….on the west was Nicanor’s gate. The doors stood between the Court of the women and the court of the Israelites. It must have been a magnificent place. M. Middot 1:5 says fifteen steps led to the court of the Israelites, corresponding to the fifteen PsalmsText Color, the Songs of Ascent, and the Levites would sing on those steps. One source suggests the doors were so large it took 20 priests to open them each morning.
Tosefta Kelim 1:12 places this all into a mythical geography. Just as there were three camps in the wilderness: the camp of the Shekhina, the camp of the Levites and the camp of the Israelites, so to in Jerusalem. From the entrance to Jerusalem to the entrance to the Temple Mount paralleled the camp of the Israelites. From the entrance of the Temple Mount to Nicanor’s gate paralleled the camp of the Levites. From Nicanor’s Gate inward represented the camp of the Shekhina.

Nicanor’s gate marked liminal space. It stood between the outer and inner court. It was the dividing line between the area that was open to all and the area that required ritual purity. The opening at Nicanor’s gate offered a space that stood between the holy and the profane. The Mishnah notes that the sotah is brought to Nicanor’s gate for the ordeal and that the leper and the woman following childbirth bring their offerings to that same gate. In each case the reason is the same – they need a place that was neither holy nor profane from which to present their offering, see it offered, but not threaten the ritual status of the inner courtyard.

These rituals share one other common element. After a birth there is a period of purification. At the end of that period the woman brings an offering to the priest “at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.” (Leviticus 12:6) When the leper completes his period of isolation he presents an offering “at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.” (Leviticus 14:11) The sotah also brings an offering which “the priest shall present before the Lord” (Numbers 5:16). In the mythic geography of the Temple, Nicanor’s Gate parallels the door of the Tent of Meeting.

As I said in a previous post, 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, her fate is literally in God’s hands. Nicanor’s Gate places her at just the right spot, perhaps the only spot on earth, where God can judge her guilt of innocence.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser

Monday, November 23, 2009

Expecting the worst usually results in fulfilled expectations (Sotah 7a)

So often what you expect is what you get. Do we expect people to be at their best, or do we assume that they’ll behave immorally and get away with as much as possible? And how do our expectations influence their choices?

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].

[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.
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.

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 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 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 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

Thursday, November 19, 2009


An American proverb teaches, “Arrogance is a kingdom without a crown.” We all know the type. They come with an attitude of superiority and an air of haughtiness. They are overbearing and filled with pride. In their own eyes, they can do no wrong. The order of the world is up-ended; as George Eliot wrote, “He was like a cock who thought the sun had risen to hear him crow.”

The Hebrew term for such arrogance is gasut ruach, someone with an inflated spirit. Beginning on B. Sotah 4a ff. we find the Talmudic catalog on arrogance. It is not a pretty picture.

The catalog begins with this statement. R. Hiyya bar Abba in the name of R. Yohanan teaches, “Whoever is arrogant will eventually stumble by committing adultery with a married woman.” (Sotah 4b) Note that it is not adultery that leads to his arrogance. Long before he approached the woman, this man believed he could seduce her and get away with it. It all begins with his attitude, and this is only the first step down a slippery slope.

This Talmudic presentation moves through several different stages. The first stage details where the attitude of arrogance will lead. The second considers the consequences. A third reflects on the inner psychology of the arrogant person. A fourth flips the scales to suggest that students may require a small touch of arrogance to succeed. In presenting the breadth of this catalog I have skipped most proof-texts and some other material that accompanies these brief descriptions. Nonetheless, this review gives the flavor of the section.

Rabbi Yohanan first says in the name of Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai, "Whoever is arrogant is as if he worships idolatry." He then speaks in his own name to add that it is as if "he denied the core principle [of the world]." And Ulla extends that to say “It is as if he built a high place.”

Where is the boundary of arrogance? If you can lord it over your neighbor's wife, can't you also lord it over other people? If you can break the rules in one realm, why not another? Where will it end? Rabbi Yohanan suggests that it won't end until you deny the very foundations of the universe. Ulla goes further; you won't stop until you make the world over in your own image. Beyond worshiping idols, you will become one yourself.

In a sense Rabbi Eleazar’s teaching follows smoothly on the heels of Rabbi Yohanan and Ulla. He focuses on what will happen to one who is so full of themselves. He teaches on B. Sotah 5a, “Whoever is arrogant is worthy of being cut down like an asherah [a tree that is worshiped].” Arrogance has consequences. One who believes he is a god deserves to be treated as an idol and cut down.

Rabbi Eleazar teaches that the effects reach beyond one’s death. “Whoever is arrogant — his dust will not be stirred up [when the dead are resurrected],” meaning that they will not be resurrected in the time-to-come and no dust will stir over their grave-site. The arrogant person forfeits their place in the world-to-come. As a result he notes that “the Shekhina laments for whoever is arrogant.” While every soul is precious, not every soul merits life in the world-to-come, and the Shekhina grieves for every lost soul.

Rabbi Alexandri shifts the focus to consider the inner psychology of the arrogant person. “Whoever is arrogant — even the slightest breeze shakes him, “as it is said, ‘But the wicked are like the troubled sea [which cannot rest, whose waters toss up mire and mud. There is no safety, said my God, for the wicked]’ (Isaiah 57:20-21).” They may appear as over-bearing brutes, but on the inside they are quite insecure – even the slightest breeze shakes them. Rabbi Alexandri offers a striking image. The sea is huge and powerful, but let a wind blow across the surface of the water and you see the water quiver. The strength of the sea is an illusion. The same is true of the arrogant. They may seem strong, but ultimately they cannot stand up in the face of a breeze. Their insecurity shows through.

Rabbi Hiyya bar Ashi, citing Rab offers a surprising reflection. “A disciple of a sage should have one eighth of an eighth [of pride].” Said Rabbi Huna son of Rabbi Joshua, “And it serves as his crown, like the fan of a grain.” An eighth of an eighth, one sixty-fourth, is a very small measure. Perhaps it is just enough to stir a reluctant student to offer a new insight, to take pride in his work or to challenge his fellow students to dig deeper into the meaning of the text. But it is a delicate and precarious balance. Said Raba, “He is subject to excommunication if there is [arrogance] in him, and he is subject to excommunication if there is no [arrogance] in him.” It reminds me of homeopathic cures; small doses of substances, often poisons, that induce effects similar to the symptoms one suffers as a way to counteract disease. A little arrogance may stimulate the student while inoculating him against greater arrogance in the future.

The last word goes to Rabbi Nahman bar Isaac who disagrees strongly with those who find even an iota of redeeming virtue in arrogance. He teaches “[A student should have] no part of it [arrogance], nor even of part of part of it. Is it a small thing that it is written in connection [with arrogance], ‘Every haughty person is an abomination to the Lord [assuredly he will not go unpunished]’ (Proverbs 16: 5)?” His proof text asserts that there is no measure small enough to be safe or helpful. He points back to the opening teachings by Rabbi Yohanan and Ulla – arrogance is a slippery slope that will inevitably lead one astray.

In all the Talmud this is the longest discussion of the concept of gasut ruach, arrogance. I believe our ancient sages could easily agree with our American proverb: “Arrogance is a kingdom without a crown.”

© Rabbi Louis Rieser, 2009

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Inflation: when it hits souls, not shekels (Sotah 4b)

The Talmud’s discussion of the Sotah and adultery in marriage, has thus far assumed that blame for a failed marriage lies primarily with the wife. While the Rabbis acknowledge that, at least in theory, it’s as difficult to make a good match as it is to part the Reed Sea (Sotah 2a), the prevailing assumption on the first two dapim is that women are responsible for the quality of the marriage. The turning point comes on 4b where the Sages explore the meaning of a verse from Proverbs:
What is the meaning of the verse, and a married woman ensnares a precious soul (nefesh y’karah) (Proverbs 6:26)? R. Chiyya bar Abba said in the name of R. Yochanan: Any person who possesses a haughty spirit in the end will stumble [into the sin of committing adultery with] a married woman, as it is said, and a married woman ensnares a nefesh y’karah (Proverbs 6:26).
R. Chiyya conveys R. Yochanan’s teaching that the “precious soul” of the lover that is ensnared by a married woman may be understood as the “haughty soul” of the lover that ensnares him, and as a result he becomes involved with a married woman. In reading nefesh yekarah as “haughty soul” rather than “precious soul” he opens the door to recognizing that the lover shares responsibility. Rava makes this point more explicitly:
Rava said: [but it reads] nefesh y’karah (“precious soul”); it should have said nefesh g’voha (“haughty soul, or spirit”); and also it should have said “it ensnares” [rather than “ensnares [the married woman]”]. Rather, Rava said, anyone who has sexual intercourse with a married woman, even if he has studied Torah, about which it is written, it is more precious than pearls (peninim) (Proverbs 3:5) – [that is] more precious than the Kohen Gadol who enters the innermost sanctum (lifnai v’livnim) – she ensnares him into the judgment of Gehinnom (purgatory).
Rava holds that it is the lover’s own arrogance (his haughty soul) that ensnares him, not the woman. The “she” in Proverbs 6:26 is understood by Rava as the nefesh gevoha (haughty soul).

Jungian psychologist James Hollis, in his book Why Good People Do Bad Things: Understanding Our Darker Selves asks: why do otherwise good, decent people, do unexpected bad things? Drawing on Jung’s concept of the Shadow, Hollis points out that we think our egos reign over our psyches, but in fact our psyches are driven by discrete energies and an agenda we are barely aware of, and need to bring out into the open, into the light of day, so we can deal with the pain fueling them.

In a sense, the gemara says something similar when the passage continues, comparing arrogance to idolatry:
R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Shimon b. Yochai: Any person who possesses a haughty spirit is like an idol worshiper, because here it is written, Every haughty person is an abomination to the Lord… (Proverbs 16:5) and there it is written, And you shall not bring an abomination to your house (Deuteronomy 7:26).

R. Yochanan himself said: It is as if he denied God’s existence altogether, as it is written, And your heart will become haughty and you will forget Adonai your God… (Deuteronomy 8:14).
Robert L. Moore (author of Facing the Dragon: Confronting Personal and Spiritual Grandiosity) argues that the deep structures of our minds harbor narcissism and spiritual grandiosity that can erupt to cause havoc and wreak destruction. Moore writes, “There is a healthy narcissism that results in self-esteem and a healthy exhibitionism, in contrast to pathological narcissism, which results in an oscillation between arrogance and terrible self-hate” (p. 100). Destructive narcissism is arrogance on steroids. For the Rabbis, as in Torah, idolatry is uniquely dangerous and always destructive of human life – spiritually and physically. Moore, who promotes a healthy spirituality and recognition that we are not God, would agree.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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