Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, June 10, 2022

Sally, the Sotah, and Roe

Last week, while we were celebrating Pride, there was also another beautiful commemoration happening in the Jewish world. On June 3, 1972, Sally Priesand was ordained a rabbi by the Hebrew Union College. She is the first woman in history to be publicly ordained a rabbi by a seminary.

50 years ago, Sally made it possible for me to be standing up here with all of you.

You don’t need me to tell you the timeline of women’s liberation in our tradition. Put simply, it begins with women as male property and bumps its way along to today. At some moments it feels like we have exceeded our grandmother’s wildest dreams for us, and at other times it feels like 2,000 years have gone by and we’re still having the same struggles. To be a woman today, let alone a Jewish woman, is to feel both liberated and controlled, accepted and set apart. Frankly, it can make your head spin.

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, feels familiar to the modern woman in this way. At first it presents as a bygone relic of its time, but there is something oddly familiar and relevant about it. 

Naso contains laws having to do with vows, theft, betrayal, and adultery. A serious procedure known as the “Sotah Ritual” is tucked into the discussion.

What is the ordeal of the sotah? In short, if a man suspects his wife of adultery, but there are no witnesses who can attest to it, the woman is put through a public and physical ordeal to assess her innocence. Specifically, the text says that if a man is overcome with a “fit of jealousy” and has the suspicion his wife might have cheated, he is to bring her to the Tabernacle and bare her hair. (Married women in ancient times would have had their hair covered for modesty, so uncovering her hair is a shaming gesture that puts her on public, vulnerable display). The priest then creates a magical potion of water from the Tabernacle’s basins mixed with earth from its floor. The woman is made to drink the mucky concoction. If her body, particularly her inner and outer reproductive organs, have a physical reaction to the drink, then she is deemed guilty of adultery. If there is no reaction, she is blameless. The text states that a positive reaction will render her infertile. If she is blameless, she will remain fertile.

We are not the first, nor will we be the last, people to ponder, probe and rail against this perplexing and misogynistic ritual. Many things set it apart and demand our questioning.

Firstly, it is the only “trial by ordeal” in the Torah. There is no other place where guilt or innocence is determined by subjecting a person to such an unpleasant or dangerous exercise.

Secondly, it is astoundingly one-sided - this ritual does not apply to a woman who thinks her husband may have cheated, even though the laws of adultery seem to be applicable to both sexes.

You’ll find fantastic research on this and parallels to other rituals in the Torah. You can find apologetics and alternative readings; many of which I do find compelling.

For example, it is highly likely that because of the physical ramifications and the special note about fertility, this ritual was probably intended to induce miscarriage. To suspect adultery means the paternity is in question, which impacts the status of whatever child is born and throws tribal lines into disarray. The Sotah ritual was an ancient abortion, if you will, that addresses the social concerns of the day.

Scholar Jacob Milgrom believes that this ritual was enacted to save women from public lynching or being forced to throw herself into a river - both of which are well documented punishments for suspected adultresses in other ancient cultures (see Hammurabi’s Code, for example).

The Torah: a Women’s Commentary takes a different approach. The feminist commentary notes that administering the Sotah test ended early in our people’s history. The early rabbis who outright outlaw it wonder if it was even practiced at all. The editors of the Women’s Commentary offer that perhaps the meaning we can find in the ritual is not so much in the ritual itself but in the fact that it was discontinued. You could say that in a bold move, the rabbis discontinued the practice because they understood the deep misogyny and pain inflicted upon the woman and they sought to rectify the situation.

Scholar Lisa Grushcow reads the rabbinic texts closely to expose a somewhat different rationale, though. The rabbis seem to indicate that the ritual changed over time because it simply didn’t work. Meaning: people were still committing adultery and the trust it was looking to establish between partners and in society wasn’t manifesting. It wasn’t worth it to put women through such a weird and terrible ordeal if the things it sought to prevent were still going on.

Whatever scholarly route we choose, I think it is clear that Jewish tradition, no matter how misogynistic in its approach, understands that the way we approach relationships, sexuality and pregnancy can have a tremendous physical, emotional and social impact on a woman.

Using Grushcow’s research, we can even argue that Jewish tradition learned over time that policing women’s bodies and putting them through physical and emotional ordeals to prove their purity and value was not an effective policy.

But we have to center in on one thing in particular: the key reason the Sotah ordeal existed (or didn’t exist) was because there were no witnesses to her assumed crime. The anxiety here is around what happens in private and how a woman uses her body, particularly sexually. The Torah text seeks to police what it cannot control.

And just like that, it feels like we have been transported today. The more things change, the more they stay the same, right?

As we stare down the barrel of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, it is hard as a modern woman not to feel like the Sotah. While an abortion is not being forced upon us, a section of the Court does want to take away a women’s right to privacy - to bare our heads and put our bodies through ordeals we did not ask for or deserve. By allowing individual states to make health assessments and decisions for women based on politics and reactionary traditions - not medicine and science - our nation seeks to yet again control women’s bodies and behavior.

Without access to abortion, birth control and the ability to make safe, private medical decisions, women simply cannot progress in society. The tie between female body autonomy and our achievements in professional spaces are indisputably linked. Without guaranteeing this right, the Supreme Court calls for a return of ancient purity laws - keeping women under lock and key in order to keep them abstinent, chaste, and eventually, when they say it’s ok, baby-makers. Women will be property of the state, whose worth is simply the space available in their wombs.

This flies in the face of our Jewish values. This week, the Sotah ordeal and its eventual abolition teaches that Judaism believes that social mores can change…and that is acceptable when those more move in the direction of inclusion and ensuring dignity for all. Our tradition also believes that women should not bear the brunt of society’s suspicion. Our bodies should not be policed and exploited in an attempt to appease the chauvinistic anxieties of other traditions and political agendas.

Maimonides comments on the trial of the Sotah, saying “this ordeal would only work if the husband never sinned…” Maimonides exposes the double standard, the dangerous emphasis put on women’s bodies and behavior that detracts us from exposing the true sins of our society - the sins of inequality and subjugation, the sins of hubris and superiority.

I pray the next 50 years will be a charge forward rather than a leap back. I pray that the legacy of the people who fought for a seat at the table or a place at the pulpit, will be heralded as inspirational building blocks, not anomalous apparitions in time.

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