This week I was given the opportunity to lead an adult Torah study class. This class meets weekly to go over the Torah portion of the week, and is usually led by a rabbi in the congregation, but every so often I’m asked to stand in for him. The group is made up predominantly of senior women, a few senior men, and a few middle-aged men and women. The rareness of my interaction with the senior crowd makes it pretty uncomfortable for me to lead the class sometimes, though, as it seems both impudent and imprudent to attempt to correct or guide people so obviously my superiors in age. It takes a certain finesse and a very light touch to reign conversations in or to focus the discussion back onto the text when it appears that the strand of discussion isn’t leading anywhere fruitful. This wasn’t needed at all when we got into the sotah ritual.
The sotah ritual is a strange, archaic and seemingly magic-based practice that is alien to the Torah. To boil it down into a sentence, if a husband is jealous and suspects his wife of cheating he can take his wife to the priests who will publicly shame her and make her drink a mixture of water and dirt from the Tabernacle floor as a trial by ordeal. According to the text if the woman is guilty she will become barren or possibly miscarry, and if she is innocent she will be made more fertile. I expected this topic to be wildly uncomfortable for me to discuss with a room of something like 20 women and two other men (the other men were conspicuously silent throughout), but instead it was just extremely interesting.
In particular, there was a dialogue going on between two of the women, one who must be in her 80s, and one who looked to be in her late 30s or early 40s. The woman in her 80s, a firebrand that always speaks very passionately about equality, individual rights and empowerment, and is always deeply concerned with empathy and morality, spoke about the nature of adultery. I’m still not quite certain that I fully understand what she was saying, but her point of view seemed to circle around the idea that individuals have a certain level of unrestrainable impulse that leads them to do things such as cheat, accuse each other of cheating, and punish each other for cheating. She appeared to be saying that humanity must accept these as realities, and deal with them as inevitable.
In a way, the middle-aged woman was agreeing with her. She described the ritual as being a sort of sublimation of male rage and desire to exert power over women. Although she was careful to say that the sotah was clearly not a positive practice (and the practice was done away with by the leadership of the Temple during the Second Temple Period) she believed that, similar to the older woman, there are certain men who cannot restrain their impulses, and that this ritual gave them an outlet to exercise their “power” rather than being openly violent towards their wives.
One of the other women pointed out that it seemed pretty insane that these ancient Israelite men would be so deeply concerned with such an issue when they were faced with so many other problems, like wandering in the desert without any kind of real stability. This apparent irony led us to one of the greatest points that can be drawn from this awful ritual. It is entirely clear why this would be such a popular issue in the community, and I believe it is for the same reason that domestic violence happens so often in socioeconomic areas where people have the least control over their lives.
To spin all of the reflections and reactions these women had to the ritual into one thread, the act of men exerting power over women has been a consistent outlet for anxieties related to individual disempowerment throughout human history. When people feel deeply that have little to no control over their lives, but do not recognize it for what it is, they tend to clamp down on whatever it is that they do have control over. Tyrannical bosses, abusive partners or parents, anyone with a modicum of power over others can be seen to exhibit these tendencies. As the older woman in the class pointed out, this is an almost universal tendency in humanity: passions cause us to act irrationally, and often cruelly, when we are put into tenuous and difficult situations. As the younger woman in the class pointed out as well, this ritual may very well have been an attempt at a pressure release valve for men who had the tendency to sublimate their power and control issues into something more devastating than causing the public humiliation of having to drink water and dirt.
I think the authors, priests, or whoever decided to include this ritual in the Torah included it for this reason. It shows that a person inflamed by jealousy is bound to do some kind of damage. In fact, jealousy is often used in the Torah and the Tanach to explain God’s angry reaction to the Israelites, which often led to violence against the Israelites. We all know that we have done regrettable things based on false assumptions and deep-seated control issues. I honestly believe most neuroses stem from a perceived or very real lack of control over our lives, and the incredibly anxiety caused by the lack. The sotah as a construct for ritual release of these powerful forces has been, and surely should have been, done away with. Regardless, the basis for it is still important to remember. There is a great lesson we can take from such an archaic and unsettling practice: As a moment of reflection, the next time you feel the need to knock someone else down a peg through any means, including but not limited to public humiliation as seen in the sotah, consider what is driving your desire. Is it jealousy? Or is it a need to exert what little control you have? Either way, I doubt that the mixture of dirty water you are attempting to force someone else to drink will have any real effect at all.