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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, Cut vs. Uncut, The Silence of Bitterness, Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year, Shifting Beds and Sex in the Sukkah,Sex…In the Beginning, A Sexual Reboot, She’s My Beautiful Sister,Kosher Incest?, How They Met, Male-Female Intercourse, The First Kiss, The Power to Transform, Onanism, Daughters-in-Law and Moshiach, Issues with the In-Laws?, The Undoing of Captivity, Shift Beds – Part II, Pharaoh’s Assimilation Policy, Passion vs. Pleasure, Loving in Reverse, Music is Female, Fecund Fluids and Revelation, Sexism in the Commandments, Divine Lust, Name Calling, Mismatched Lovers, Sex and Mirrors, The Challenge of Real Loving,Getting Undressed, The Strangers Among Us, Wet, Moist Matzah, The Anatomy of an Anchor,Blood and Birth, Menstruation and Circumcision,Incest, and Adultery, and Homosexuality, Oh My!, and Beauty is in the Eye of…?,Does G-d Have a Vagina?, and Divine Orgasm.
Adultery, from a biblical and halachic perspective, is a decidedly uneven proposition. Whereas a married woman is forbidden to all but her husband, there are virtually no direct restrictions on a married man’s extramarital activities – unless they are with a married woman. Oh, there are the general commandments to be holy, to not engage in the immorality of the Egyptians or the Ammorites. There are also the more recent halachic developments, such as Rabbeinu Gershom’s ban on bigamy, and the laws against touching or even being alone with a woman outside the context of marriage. Biblically, however, a married man can only commit adultery if his partner is a married woman. A married woman, on the other hand, commits adultery if she is with any male other than her husband.
At its roots, this is surely connected to the notion that, under Torah law, a man acquires his wife, and he possesses her. She is therefore consecrated to him. Even today, a Jewish man betroths a woman by putting a ring on her finger and saying “Now you are consecrated to me.” If the ritual is reversed, if the bride puts a ring on the groom’s finger and says “Now you are consecrated to me,” it is considered as having no legal effect. She does not occupy the same possessive position as her husband, and therefore does not have the same prerogative. As she does not possess her husband, his extramarital activities – as hurtful and emotionally destructive as they might be – do not challenge or offend the legal nature of their relationship. Her extramarital activities, on the other hand, are considered a grievous affront to her husband to whom she is consecrated.
The biblical laws of Sotah present a fascinating illustration of these dynamics.
If a husband believes that his wife has been promiscuous with a particular male, “and is overcome by a spirit of jealousy,” he may ultimately warn her – in the presence of two witnesses – not to seclude herself with that man. But then witnesses testify that, after she had been warned, they saw her secluded with the forbidden male – and secluded for long enough that they just might have “done it.”
At that moment, she becomes a “Sotah,” and is forbidden to her husband until that status is removed by her drinking the “Sotah Waters,” discussed in a bit. She is escorted to the Temple by two Torah scholars – whose purpose is to ensure that she does not have sex with her husband on the way(!). When she arrives, she is forced to undergo a very arduous and humiliating ritual: she is intimidated, her hair is uncovered, her clothes are torn, she is shepherded from spot to spot within the Temple, and she is denied the comfort of familiar faces. She is encouraged to confess to her infidelity. If she does, then her husband simply divorces her and they part ways. If there was even one witness that she actually committed adultery, she would similarly be divorced without drinking the Sotah Waters. Moreover, if she refused to drink the Sotah Waters, even while proclaiming her innocence, she wouldn’t be forced to drink the water – she would simply be divorced.
If, however, she insists upon her innocence and doesn’t refuse to drink the Sotah Waters, then G-d’s name is inscribed with ink on a piece of parchment, and then the ink is scraped off into a mixture of water and earth. Then, before a large crowd, she drinks the mixture, and the water tests her. If she had indeed committed adultery after she was warned by her husband, then her insides would hemorrhage and rupture, and she would die – as would her adulterer, wherever he might be at that moment. On the other hand, if she had not, then not only would she not die, but she would bear seed, and be restored to her husband.
There are so many elements of this story that seem bizarre, including the suspension of the burden of proof (she is made to go through this ordeal despite the absence of evidence that she actually committed adultery), and the fact that, if she was proved innocent, she would return to her husband – despite the ordeal that he had put her through!
Moreover, the Talmud‘s understanding also reveal many exceptions that ultimately swallowed the rule. For example: (1) if the Sotah had the merit of Torah study, the waters would not have immediate effect, but would take two to three years to kill her; (2) if there existed – anywhere in the world – witnesses that the Sotah had in fact committed adultery after her husband’s warning, the waters would not test her at all; and (3) if her husband had ever in his life engaged in forbidden sexual intercourse, the water would similarly have no effect upon her. It was this latter exception that led the Sanhedrin during the Second Temple era to abolish the test of the Sotah Waters; there was simply so much rampant immorality that the waters would frequently have no effect – even on a woman who was in fact guilty of adultery. People were unaware, however, that it was her husband’s sexual guilt that rendered the Sotah waters inoperative, and so they began to ridicule the ritual’s apparent ineffectiveness. Thus, the Sanhedrin put a stop to the practice.
What is clear throughout the Sotah episode, however, is that it is the husband’s righteous jealousy and possessiveness that is the driving factor. Righteous, in that if he himself had sexual guilt, then his judgment and expectations of her were not righteous, and the waters would not test her. Jealous, in that the laws of Sotah are triggered only by the husband’s formal warning. If he doesn’t warn her at all, then none of the laws of Sotah apply, even if she is openly promiscuous.
Indeed, what happens when the husband approves his wife’s infidelity; a willing cuckold? In that case, the waters will not test her, either because she won’t drink them in the first instance, or they will simply have no effect. In other words, even if the husband is sufficiently jealous and possessive of his wife so as to formally warn her in front of two witnesses not to seclude herself with another man – he may yet demonstrate sufficient approval of her actions that the laws of Sotah will no longer apply.
Consider, for example, the strange requirement that the Sotah be accompanied to the Temple on by two Torah scholars who are there to keep guard to prevent her husband from having sex with her on the way. Think of what this means! Two witnesses have seen this woman alone with another man in an intimate setting – the same man that her husband expressly warned her not to be alone with. As a consequence of her husband’s jealousy and her own disregard for his feelings, she is now journeying to Jerusalem to endure a particularly grueling and humiliating ordeal that could potentially result in her death. Her husband, however, is so aroused by his “hotwife,” that he may not be able to resist her, even on the path to her possible doom. If he does manage to get past the scholarly guards, and consummates his arousal with his wife, the journey ends there. She does not drink the Sotah Waters.
Another example: if a man’s wife committed adultery in front of him, but he ignored it or did not object, then even if she somehow ends up drinking the Sotah Waters, they will not test her.
And then of course, in Judaism, it almost always comes down to penetration. Consider the following:
Assume that Holy Temple still stands, and the test of the Sotah Waters is still being administered.
A jealous and possessive husband, who has never before been guilty of sexual wrongdoing, discovers his wife’s flirtation with a particular man. On her cellphone, he discovered her exchanging risque photographs with the other, and exchanging steamy promises of what they will someday do to each other. He confronts her, and she does not deny it. He realizes that, despite his feelings of anger and betrayal, he loves her, and wants to make their marriage work. But he doesn’t trust her. So he calls in two of his friends, and in front of them, forbids his wife from ever being alone with her flirt-interest.
However, because he is still very distrusting, he sets up a nanny-cam in the living room and bedroom. One day, he checks the day’s footage and sees his wife sitting on the living room couch with the same man. Her eyes are closed,as their mouths are locked on to each other’s in a passionate kiss. Her arms tenderly encircle her lover’s neck; one of his arms is wrapped around her waist. The husband notices that his wife’s skirt is hiked up, with her legs spread, and her lover’s other hand is trapped inside of her lace panties. The light bucking of her hips leaves no question as to what his fingers are doing there, and her open blouse suggests that her panties were not his hand’s first stop. His heart pounding, the husband fast-forwards the video. Towards the end, he sees his wife kneel on the floor between her lover’s legs, as she frees his member and takes it into her mouth. A minute later, he sees the man shudder, his wife’s mouth still fastened around him. Then, after a long pause, she releases him and stands, smiling shyly. He stands too, and the two come together for one last kiss. He then adjusts himself, says goodbye, and departs.
Later, two neighbors drop by, and, with great discomfort and apology, report to the husband that they saw his wife’s lover arrive at the house, glance about the street furtively, and then knock on the door. They saw his wife come to the door, grab him by the hand and pull him inside, closing the door firmly behind him.
She is now a Sotah, having secluded herself, before witnesses, with the very man that her husband warned her not to. Hurt and enraged, her husband takes her to the Bet Din, and tells them the whole story. They summon the witnesses, who confirm the husband’s account. The husband and wife, chaperoned by two Torah scholars, now make their way to the Temple in Jerusalem. There, the wife undergoes the Sotah ritual, and drinks the Sotah Waters.
Because she did not have actual, Bill Clinton sex with her lover, the water has no effect on her. Not only that, but she is blessed with fertility, with ease in her future labor and with cute children, and she is restored to her husband. Perhaps they will work it out. Perhaps they will divorce. But the Sotah Waters, which test only one who had actual sexual intercourse, have publicly endorsed her.
It is thus only a very specific adulterous woman who is affected by the Sotah Waters.
Thus, despite the Torah’s stern prohibitions against adultery, there appears to be somewhat of a softer approach towards a cuckoldress in a committed and loving relationship. In fact, even whilst the Sotah is being intimidated by the Sanhedrin, as they encourage her to confess, they deemphasize the gravity of her sin. As Maimonides states, “They tell her: ‘My daughter, we know that wine has a powerful influence, frivolity has a powerful influence, immaturity has a powerful influence, bad neighbors have a powerful influence’… and they tell her ‘There are many who preceded you and were swept away; men of greater and more honorable stature have been overcome by their natural inclination and have faltered.’ And they remind her of the story of Judah and Tamar, his daughter-in-law; and the literal understanding of episode with Reuben and Bilhah, his father’s concubine; and the story of Amnon and his sister.” Thus was the Sotah encouraged to simply confess to her sexual misdeeds, which are common and understandable, and not cause the name of G-d to be unnecessarily obliterated in the Sotah Waters.
Perhaps this is best illustrated by the story alluded to in last week’s Haftorah, of the cuckolded prophet Hosea. In Hosea’s initial dialogue with G-d, he speaks of the Jewish people harshly, suggesting that their idolatrous practices have made them unworthy of remaining G-d’s chosen nation. In response, G-d commands Hosea to take as his wife a promiscuous woman named Gomer, the daughter of Diblataim, Yet, even though Gomer makes Hosea her cuckold, sleeping with other men and bearing their children, he find that he loves her anyway and forgives her indiscretions. Then, when G-d commands Hosea to cast away Gomer and her bastard children, Hosea tells G-d that he simply cannot – for is she not his wife and the mother of his(?) children.
And using Hosea’s marriage with Gomer as a parallel, G-d taught Hosea that, even though the His people may cheat on Him with the worship of false gods, G-d continues to love them and would not consider abandoning them.