Double Mitzvah – Naso

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Tamar Fox. Check out last week’s post in this series, Double Mitzvah – Bamidbar. [Note: This is a re-post from our May 2013 Double Mitzvah column on Parashat Naso.]

Rated PG-13In this week’s parashah, God describes the service of the Gershon family of Levites, gives Moses and Aaron the priestly blessing, and the heads of the twelve tribes bring gifts to the Tabernacle. But the headline of Parashat Naso is a troubling story of sexuality–the story of the Sotah, the woman suspected of being an adulteress.

The peshat, or literal reading of the text, is quite disturbing. A man who is jealous of his wife, and suspects her of adultery, brings her to a priest to stand before. He brings a grain offering, which is mixed with dirt, and her hair is uncovered, or unfurled. The priest then tells her that if she is guilty, she will be become a curse amid her people, her stomach will explode and her thigh will sag. The woman answers, “Amen,” and then drinks bitter waters, water mixed with the dirty grain offering. If she is guilty, her stomach will distend, and her thigh sag. If she is innocent, she will become pregnant.

If this upsetting ritual reminds me of anything, it’s the Salem witch trials, where women were scapegoats, forced into a situation where they would be hurt and shamed no matter what.

The saving grace of the Sotah ritual is that the rabbis found it disturbing, too, and do not seem to have ever enforced the ritual. Though an entire tractate of the Talmud is dedicated to the Sotah, there is no evidence it was ever carried out.

There is a lesson here about jealousy, and about healthy expressions of anger. Though the text does suggest a severe punishment for a woman who was not faithful to her husband, the husband does not get away free–his jealous mistrusting nature was displayed for all to see.

The magical elements of the ceremony remind us that though we may sometimes fantasize about taking our anger or jealousy out on our partners, these fantasies should remain in our heads. When brought to reality, they can bring only shame and grief.

Author of Jewrotica's Double Mitzvah column, Tamar Fox is a writer and editor in Philadelphia. She will try anything once, including open relationships, dating someone who is chalav yisrael, and going to Suriname.