** Have you listened to Episode 3, yet? Download on iTunes or listen here **
I mentioned some troubling things about Jewish law in our last episode. We were talking about the Muslim legal concept of Diyyat (monetary remuneration for killing someone), and I expressed some information about Jewish law that doesn’t usually get included in one’s typical Hebrew school classroom when growing up. It has to do with the laws of Sotah, which literally means “the wife whom you expect of committing adultery.” (I suppose this type of conversation could possibly make Hebrew School that much more interesting, right?)
The rules concerning the Sotah are spelled out in the Torah, the earliest portion of Hebrew Scripture. The Torah (or “Five Books of Moses”) appear in both the Hebrew Bible (called the TaNaCH for reasons I won’t get into here) as well as the Christian one. The verses pertaining to Sotah can be found in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 5, verses 11-31. You can read one translation here if you’d like.
Let me give you a bit of a rundown, section by section:
Verses 11-14: Heard it from a friend who / heard it from a friend who / heard it from a friend you’ve been messin’ around…
Verses 15-16: If a man suspects his [pregnant?] wife of cheating on him, he brings her to the priest and makes a sacrifice-offering towards God.
Verses 17-18: The priest mixes together a concoction of special water and dust in an earthenware vessel. The water gets really nasty. And, apparently cursed.
Verses 19-22: The priest tells the woman: “I want you to swear that you’ve remained faithful to your husband and are not looking for heightened drama on Maury Povich’s talk show. After that, you’ll drink this nasty concoction. If you’re telling the truth, no problem — everything will be fine. But if you’re not? Your pregnancy will end in a most horrible way.”
Verses 23-31: Pretty much a repetition of exactly what the priest explained would happen. If she was unfaithful? Nastiness. Swelling in the belly. Miscarriage. Part of her thigh falls away. (Ew.) If she’s been faithful? No harm at all. But here’s the clincher: this is all to placate the jealous husband! So he’ll know. And he’ll feel better knowing the truth. The end.
How can anyone follow a religion in 2011 which encompasses savage rules like this in its Holy Scripture?
It’s a valid question. One which I’ve wrestled with myself. And one that has made people of all religions challenge themselves to the belief systems of today as they intersect with traditions of the past. It brings up even more questions: As a Jew, does this mean I need to believe in these outrageous rules? Do I need to follow all of them to the letter of the law? Can I simply ignore them as part of an antiquated system that no longer applies?
I can’t speak for members of other religions. I can’t even speak for all Jews. I can only speak for myself — and the way I understand the rules and customs of my tradition — which allow me to intersect my so-called modern life with the traditions as outlined in the Torah. Here’s how I do so:
I believe that Traditional Judaism as we know it today does not adhere to the Torah in a vacuum. Whether one is of the belief that the Torah was handed to Moses atop Mount Sinai a la The Ten Commandments or whether it was a divinely inspired collaboration stitched together of different manuscripts centuries later, it’s still an important source. But the conversations about the Torah are just as crucial.
Which is why you’ll find that traditional Jewish law holds the many discussions, arguments and debates about the words of the Torah in high regard. We’re talking about arguments between scholars who are interpreting the messages of God. These are not prophets; these are people. Humans. And what they have to add to the conversation becomes part of the tradition — and has its own sense of holiness.
Which is precisely why I’m proud of the scholars generations ago taking a look at this outrageous and barbaric set of laws concerning Sotah and trying to figure out why something so awful would appear in the Torah in the first place. What was the message? When was it really supposed to be used? What is the symbolism of the sacrifice offered by the jealous husband? Was there really a special potion used? Or was this, in fact, a simple scare tactic used to get adulterous women to confess?
It’s nice to see that our generation isn’t the first to wrestle with these issues. And that, generations ago, people were thinking about the consequences. Which is why the practice of Sotah was abolished about 2000 years ago. Yes — even though it’s mentioned right there in the Torah. Our tradition allows people to be a part of the law process.
And frankly? That’s kind of neat. Because it allows for us to connect not with a static set of rules, but a dynamic set of traditions. It allows us to ask questions about how we can discuss modern day issues within the framework of the Torah and its commentaries. It makes my Judaism more of a living, breathing animal rather than something old and non-evolving.
Sotah has evolved out of practice. But we’ve learned from it — even if it has simply been replaced by a cheesy REO Speedwagon lyric.