One of the laws discussed in Parshat Naso is known as the law of the sotah, which describes how a Jewish court is meant to deal with an adulterous woman. (Numbers 5:12-31)
If a woman is accused of adultery by her husband, and there are serious grounds for suspicion, she is given a choice: accept a divorce or stand up to a strange test. The test, if she opts for it, requires her to drink "bitter waters" into which the name of God had been dissolved. If she is guilty, she dies instantaneously.
If we could hold a contest to determine the most misunderstood commandment in the Torah, then the law of the sotah would have to be declared the hands-down winner.
The chief problem lies in the mistaken idea that this law is meant to put down women. But this is far from the case. As in everything else, the truth is in the details.
First let's set the record straight as to the facts:
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
While it is the accused woman who must actually drink the bitter waters, the waters affect her male partner in adultery identically. Just as the waters examine her, they also examine him. (Talmud, Sotah 27b)
What is more, the Torah awards the power of decision to the woman rather than to the man who must share her fate. She is not forced to drink the bitter waters at all. She can admit to adultery and accept a divorce. The truth is she doesn't even have to admit to anything. She just has to refuse to drink the bitter waters on any grounds at all. She can say she has too much anxiety; she can say she would rather lose money than cause the holy name of God to be rubbed out; she can say she can't live with such a suspicious husband anyway etc. All she loses if she chooses not to drink is her ketubah, her marriage settlement, merely a monetary loss. She is free to marry anyone, and walk away from the entire mess totally unencumbered.
The man is at the woman's mercy in this situation.
The man, on the other hand, is at her mercy. If she professes her innocence and insists on drinking the waters it will avail him naught to admit to his guilt. As long as she decides to drink, if the water kills her, it will kill him too.
In general Jewish law treats both parties to adultery in precisely the same fashion. Whatever is a punishable offense for the female is the same for the male.
Nachmanides points out that of all the 613 commandments, it is only the sotah law that requires God's specific co-operation to make it work. The bitter waters can only be effective miraculously. The Torah assures guilty adulterers that their horrible deaths will follow the drinking of the waters instantaneously, and it promises the innocent woman who was wrongfully accused and elected to go through the humiliating sotah experience to demonstrate her innocence that she will conceive a child even if she is barren.
In fact, the Talmud says that Chana, the prophet Samuel's mother, and a prophetess in her own right, who was barren, threatened God that if He would not help her to conceive through her prayers she would make herself into a sotah and force Him into helping her anyway. (Brochot, 31b)
The sotah law is also the only commandment whose fulfillment requires the erasure of God's name, an act that is ordinarily forbidden and punishable by the administration of lashes. The commentators all explain that the stakes involved in Jewish family purity and the preservation of marital trust that serves as its foundation are so high, that God is willing to tolerate the erasure of His own name, as well as to depart from His ordinary policy of conducting the world according to the rules of nature in order to restore domestic trust and marital peace.
Every miracle is an outright violation of the Divine policy to remain hidden.
Thus, anyone who is skeptical about the existence of God or about the fact that He intervenes in human lives can safely assume that the entire sotah story as it is described in the Talmud never happened at all. On the other hand, anyone who accepts the truth of Torah as interpreted by the sages cannot fail to be moved by God's obvious concern for the sanctity of a Jewish marriage.
Every miracle is an outright violation of the Divine policy to remain hidden behind natural phenomena and stay out of man's way, so as not to disturb the unhampered exercise of free will. Yet, whereas the holiest rabbis or the greatest tragedies cannot persuade God to alter this policy of concealment, every Jewish sotah had the power to force God to come right out into the open.
The sotah law is the diametric opposite of discrimination against the Jewish woman. It emphasizes her supremacy in the all important area of family purity. When it comes to these issues the Jewish male is a mere appendage.
THE AGUNAH PROBLEM
In the modern mind, the sotah phenomenon is one chapter in what is known as the agunah problem, which is also sadly misunderstood.
Stating it as briefly as possible, the agunah problem arises from the fact that under Jewish law a divorce is not complete until the husband hands his wife the get, the bill of divorce. This allows the husband to hold his wife's freedom up for ransom when the marriage turns sour. The woman cannot remarry without obtaining a get. But to obtain the get she must obtain her husband's willing co-operation, a requirement that opens the door to all sorts of blackmail and cruel abuse.
The feeling among progressive Jews is that the rabbis could come up with a halachic solution to this problem if they so chose, and therefore the fact that they have not done so is indicative of their patronizing attitude toward women. It is this feeling -- that the rabbis are callously ignoring the suffering of the bound women -- that is chiefly responsible for the lack of esteem for the orthodox rabbinate that is typical of progressive Jews.
To set the record straight, it is worthwhile to state the dictates of Jewish law as they apply to the agunah situation as well:
According to Jewish law (Sulchan Aruch, Even Hoezer Ch. 77) every Jewish woman has the right to force her husband to give her a divorce. If she comes to court and declares that she can no longer endure cohabitation with her husband for no reason whatsoever other than the simple fact that she simply doesn't like him any more, and she is willing to forego her ketubah, he must give her a divorce.
If he refuses to give her a divorce, the court makes him give it to her by force.
If he refuses to give her a divorce, the court makes him give it to her by force.
In such a situation the woman takes her dowry and all the property she brought into the marriage with her, and only foregoes alimony payments, the lump sum of 200 zuz, plus whatever the husband has undertaken voluntarily to pay her in their prenuptial agreement in the eventuality of divorce.
No Jewish woman ever, under any circumstances, has an obligation to make any sort of monetary payment to her husband as part of a divorce under Jewish law.
Thus, if rabbinic courts had any temporal power the agunah problem would simply not exist. Because they are not given such power in the modern world, they are unable to enforce any Torah law and hence the rise of the agunah problem.
But there is much spiritual treasure buried here waiting to be uncovered.
Just as the sotah has the power to demonstrate the existence of God by forcing Him into the open, a Jewish court can make use of the agunah situation to demonstrate the residual holiness that resides in every Jewish soul.
Let us consider a passage on this subject in Maimonides' "Yad."
If Jewish law demands that a man give his wife a divorce and he does not wish to comply, it is the duty of the Jewish court in any venue and at any time to apply physical coercion until the husband openly expresses his willingness to give the divorce and then the court writes the divorce which is kosher under these circumstances.
But why isn't such a get invalid if it's obtained by coercion?
The reason is that we only consider a person to be acting under the influence of coercion if he is pressured or forced to do something that the Torah does not command him to do. But someone whose evil inclination overpowers him and forces him to violate a positive commandment or to transgress against a negative commandment is not deemed to be coerced; on the contrary, he had coerced himself into doing wrong through his evil inclination.
Thus, the husband in question who does not want to give his wife a get, as he does want to remain a Jew, he really wants to perform all the positive commandments and avoid transgressing against the negative commandments; it is only his evil inclination that is overpowering him. Therefore, when he is pressured until the grip of his evil inclination weakens and he declares his willingness to fulfill his Jewish duty he is considered to be giving the get of his own free will. (Maimonides, Yad Hachazaka, Laws of Divorce, 2,20)
There is a very poignant message in these laws that takes your breath away.
The skeptic who was left unmoved by the inspiring demonstration of Divine concern that the believer perceived in the sotah law will regard these words of Maimonides with the same skepticism. But for someone who accepts the Laws of the Torah as Divine, these words of Maimonides demonstrate the ever-present inextinguishable holy spark in the Jewish soul.
There is a very poignant message in these laws that takes your breath away.
The entire phenomenon of holiness in our world rests on the dual pillars of Divine Providence and the human soul. Remarkably, these pillars can only be exposed to public view by the processes that bear on the dissolution of a Jewish marriage. Apparently such a marriage contains such a great abundance of holiness that holiness positively leaks out in all directions when the container is shattered.
Is a Jewish marriage indeed such a holy phenomenon? How can we relate to this?
TWO TYPES OF MARRIAGE
It turns out that there are two types of marriage recognized by the Torah.
Before the Torah was given, a man met a woman in the market place. If they arrived at mutual agreement to marry each other he took her to his house, had relations with her in private and she became his wife. (Maimonides, Women 1,1)
Addressing the dissolution of such a marriage Maimonides continues:
When does his colleague's wife become the equivalent of being divorced in terms of Jewish law? When he puts her out of his house and sends her to fend for herself, or when she elects to leave him and goes away. They have no need of a document of divorce, nor does the decision depend on him -- whenever he or she decide to separate, they do so. (Maimonides, Kings 9,8)
Under this system which predates Torah – and which is still practiced in the non-Jewish world today – all aspects of marriage are entirely mutual. Marriage is initiated by consensual cohabitation, and is dissolved by the decision of either party to end the state of cohabitation. Adultery is only considered adultery when it is concealed from the husband. If a woman openly decides to have relations with another man without concealing the matter from her husband, it is not considered adultery; in effect, she is telling him she wants to be free which is her absolute right. If he chooses to go along with her, she can have relations with the second man, and then return to her previous husband and resume their married life.
Let us contrast the rules of this type of marriage to the rules in the Torah which govern a Jewish marriage:
Once the Torah was given Jews were commanded that when a man wants to marry a woman, he should first make a formal marriage contract in front of witnesses and only after such an act should she be considered his wife ... Once such a formal marriage contract has taken place and the woman becomes sanctified, although he never had relations with her, and although she never entered his house, she is a married woman. Whoever has relations with her is liable to the death penalty, and if he wants to divorce her, she needs a document of divorce. (Maimonides, Women 1,3)
In other words, the Torah introduced for Jews an entirely new concept of marriage that is separate and apart from the decision to share life and cohabit with another individual.
MARRIAGE AS KIDDUSHIN
These common aspects of marriage are also recognized by Jewish law under the heading called nesuin. But the creation of the marriage bond has nothing to do with cohabitation and stems from a purely symbolic act. Married status is something separate and apart from its outward manifestation in the real world, and is primarily a spiritual bond.
Indeed the very word for this act of marriage is kidushin, meaning "holiness." Under the canopy, as the groom puts the ring on the bride's finger, he says to her, "Behold, you are consecrated to me by means of this ring, according to the ritual of Moses and Israel." The wife is consecrated – and being consecrated, she cannot be touched by another. It is in order to break this sanctity that the document of divorce is required. And the husband, being the one who consecrated her, must be the one to undo his act of consecration.
The Jewish marriage is a spiritual phenomenon.
In other words, the Jewish marriage is a spiritual phenomenon, and the rules that govern its initiation and dissolution are to be regarded and studied in the light of the proper way to deal with spiritual phenomena and not in terms of the management of physical arrangements. For all the rules of a Jewish marriage fall into place without cohabitation, and without the wife even entering the husband's house. Spiritual phenomena belong to the realm of souls not bodies.
To appreciate the thinking behind this approach to the marriage relationship let us study the spiritual nature of men and women and the essence of the connection they form through marriage. A man is an ish in Hebrew, spelled aleph-yud-shin; a woman an ishah, spelled aleph-shin-heh. When they marry he contributes a yud to the union, she a heh, forming between them the holy name of God.
We are told that this world was created with the letter heh, whereas the next world was created with the letter yud (Talmud, Menachos 39b). In the commandment to reproduce and multiply, the Jewish male, who contributes the yud, brings the new Jewish soul from the next world, and implants it in the Jewish female, who supplies the heh that gives it expression in this one.
Souls, being holy can enter this world only if they have a holy place in which to reside. But this is not a holy world. In this world all holiness is a result of consecration, dedication and hard work. The Jewish man must place his treasure -- the soul he brings down from the next world -- in a consecrated place. The only location in this world sufficiently sacred is the womb of a Jewish woman.
For this reason Jewish law dictates, that Jewish status is entirely dependent on the Jewishness of the mother. Only the tribe and family of the Jewish child are determined by his father. A good way to bring this down to earth is through our patriarchs and matriarchs. We have four matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, but only three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Is this mere coincidence or does it have a symbolic message?
The world is laid out in four directions -- the Torah speaks of the fringes on a four-cornered item of clothing. A chain must have at least three links. The space in which Israel lives is symbolized by the matriarchs who are therefore four. They are the ground on which we tread and it is they who delineate the limits beyond which we may not step. Within these secure confines we must construct the spiritual chain that binds us to the Almighty and this is the contribution of the patriarchs who are therefore three.
The object of the Jewish marriage is to create a spiritual union between the yud and the heh, between the holiness of this world and the holiness of the next that is so powerful, that even the yud of the next world can find its physical expression in the heh of this one. The yud alone cannot be expressed without the help of the heh.
Spiritual unions require acts of spiritual dedication. A Jewish marriage is primarily a spiritual entity and is created by a process of sanctification. The yud provides the extra degree of sanctity required to complete the full name of God in the heh. Dedication requires self-sacrifice. The way God created the world in His wisdom, the heh cannot be placed inside the yud. To find our way to the next world we must first pass through this world, the realm of the heh. Men do not bear children; the yud must be placed in the heh.
The sacrifice that is the prerequisite of spiritual dedication is thus required of the Jewish woman. But she is also the one who gains. Through her dedication, she is able to contain both the yud and the heh in her own person, the full name of God, whereas the Jewish male can only be attached to the heh when he is in actual union with her.
The idea of the laws of the Torah is to set up the proper framework in which to express the spiritual aspects of life in the physical world. Whenever possible, the ways of the Torah always conform to the maxim Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are sweet. (Proverbs 3) But spiritual reality has its own parameters just as physical reality does.
When the world is more filled with spirituality there is a balance and harmony between the spiritual and the physical aspects of reality. As we have shown when the religious court of Jewish law has temporal power neither the law of sotah nor the laws of divorce inflict any suffering or humiliation on Jewish women.
But, whenever the physical and spiritual aspects of reality are torn asunder there is bound to be pain. Both must continue to exist within their spheres of reality which now grate against each other. The ultimate example of the sort of pain that results when the physical and spiritual are forcibly separated is death itself. The suffering caused in the modern world by the application of the Torah laws is the same sort of pain. May it be God's will that we should all live to witness the end of this sort of suffering.