Culture, Identity, Justice, Mishegas, Religion, Sex & Gender

The Vort: Nasso – Biblical Waterboarding

If you are a facebook user, you’ve likely received some sort of hack invitation recently to join or ‘like’ a page entitled Fact, all girls tell these 10 lies to men when they are cheating. (Note: the males are men while the females are girls.)  Even if you have not seen this page on the internet, you still have an opportunity to engage in cultural myth-making vis-à-vis women’s chastity with this week’s Torah portion.
In biblical times, there was a different kind of over-the-top forum for humiliating public disclosure, equally intrusive, but with much higher stakes: the Temple in Jerusalem.  Indeed, if you skip ahead to Chapter 5 of Numbers, you can read first-hand of the kind invasive intimidation tactics routinely used to “deal with” women whose husband’s suspected them of marital infidelity.
Because such a spectacle is better seen than described, I have taken the liberty to sketch out this rather involved procedure (see below).  Interestingly, the text does not include any kind of formal questioning about the suspected woman’s partner(s).  Considering how terrifying and demeaning this whole ritual must have been to the accused woman, one can rather safely assume that the desired effect was that she buckled under pressure and disclosed her tawdry secrets, if, indeed, such secrets existed.
The isha sota (or ‘deviant woman’) episode is disturbing on so many counts; one barely knows where to start working through these issues.  If the woman proves innocent, she must resume her marital life with a man who has caused her such shame (if this is the case, the man is expected to give an offering as well—but this is only a gesture to God, not to his wife whom he falsely accused).  If she is guilty of the charges, her “stomach distends and her thighs sag.”
Fast-forwarding to the Haftorah (Judges 13:2-25) which accompanies this week’s Torah portion, where we read of Manoach who, interestingly, appears suspicious of his wife when she comes to him and reports that an unnamed man appeared before her when she was out in the field all by herself and announced that she would soon become pregnant.  While Manoah’s suspicions do not appear to reach the level of jealousy described in the Torah portion, he does insist on seeing the “man” himself.  Particularly interesting with regard to this tale is that the son born to this couple as a result of the aforementioned annunciation is a strapping young fellow whose thunderous passion for the wrong woman leads him to his undoing.
What is to be learned here? One should exercise restrain not only in one’s actions, but also in one’s judgments of others.
Click on thumbnails for full-sized images, a step-by-step instruction on testing your woman:

12 thoughts on “The Vort: Nasso – Biblical Waterboarding

  1. OTOH, given the time and society, a procedure in which a woman drinks some dust, and if she doesn’t die of it, her husband must never divorce her, and she is supposed to be rewarded with a child, strikes me as a rather ingenious way for men who are a bit too jealous to be told to go home and quit it already, rather than an intimidation tactic aimed at the woman.
    Especially given that the man who cheated with her is supposed to also die when she drinks the special dust. How likely is that?
    Given that a wife at the time is essentially chattel, this strikes me as protective in a time when men were unable to think of changing the society to make women equal (something we still haven’t really achieved). I.e. Not ideal, but better than letting jealous men kill their wives themselves, which is what happens in most patriarchal cultures.

  2. Of course these measures were moderate (if even protective of the woman, as you suggest) ‘for the times,’ but you must admit, living with someone who unjustly casts such grave doubts on your integrity isn’t exactly a walk in the park.
    Then again, there’s the other extreme: after knowing full well that his wife Mathilde was cheating on him, Arnold Schoenberg not only stayed with her, but dedicated his Second String Quartet “to my wife”–all this while she was having her affair with painter Richard Gerstl! It is also at around this time when Schoenberg started painting what he calls “gazes” or “visions,” all of which assume a very abstract and eerie aesthetic…one can only imagine Schoenberg festooning the walls of their home with these creepy eye images. That is his version of the kohen ‘checking in.’

  3. Tradition makes 5:31a “The man shall be clear of guilt” a condition for the man to initiate this procedure. It is the exact analog of “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

  4. >> Indeed, if you skip ahead to Chapter 5 of Numbers, you can read first-hand of the kind invasive intimidation tactics routinely used to “deal with” women whose husband’s suspected them of marital infidelity.<<
    Do you have any authority for the statement that the ritual was used “routinely”, if ever? Seems like your painting with a rather broad brush, just because you don’t like the way things were in the wayback.

  5. Where did you get that if a woman is put through this process she must remain with her husband? Indeed, HE is forbidden to divorce her, and essentially becomes her lifetime bitch from then on, but she is free to do as she wishes. Can you imagine the abuse he will have to bear for the rest of his life?
    Furthermore, there’s no need to assume that the ordeal is performed to force a woman to admit to infidelity, since we are told that this is the purpose of the ritual. The woman is progressively compelled, through increasing disgrace, to admit to her adultery and perform teshuvah. The minute she does so she will be disgraced as an adulteress, but the process will end.
    While the penalty for adultery is death, practically speaking, unless there were two witnesses to her act of adultery, and they warned her immediately before the act not to do it, she cannot be executed for such an offense by a Jewish court. Her punishment may be divorce, social ostracism and punishment at the “hand of heaven”. At worst, she may receive lashes. I’m not married yet, but if a man or woman cheats on their partner, all that sounds about right to me.
    She is only forced to drink the potion if she refuses to admit to adultery – whether because she is stubborn or because she really didn’t commit adultery.
    The contemporary exposition of “stomach distends and her thighs sag” is that her womb explodes, is expelled from her body, and she dies a gruesome death in front of many many people. But if she’s not guilty, she need not fear, and if she is guilty, she should confess and do teshuvah, to save her own life if not out of love and fear of G-d.
    What’s disconcerting is not that a woman would be forced through this ritual, but that it’s not an option for a man! In Jewish tradition, punishment is not an act of vengeance, but correction. The sotah ritual allows a woman who made a mistake to do teshuvah that she might not otherwise do, thus saving her life.
    A man is not given such a luxury. There’s no such thing as “getting away” with adultery. There’s “an eye that sees and an ear that hears,” etc. If punishment is not administered by an earthly court, it may be administered by a heavenly court. Bridges can collapse. Strong currents can drown people crossing rivers. Oxes can suddenly gore people. Donkeys can kick people in the head without warning.
    A man under suspicion of adultery is not given the option to go through with such a ritual. If he is unable to do teshuvah out of stubbornness or for whatever reason, that’s it, he has no other recourse. The real question is, what is so special about a woman that she is given an extra chance for teshuvah?
    I actually think you didn’t touch on a more interesting part of the sotah ritual – the onlookers.

    1. Anonymouse writes:
      Where did you get that if a woman is put through this process she must remain with her husband? Indeed, HE is forbidden to divorce her, … but she is free to do as she wishes.
      How, under pre-egalitarian Jewish law, can she “do as she wishes” (including remarry) without a divorce from her husband?

  6. As an aside, I don’t know if the people reading about the sotah today are sensitive to this process. We Jews INVENTED modesty. Real modesty, not the “show your wrist and get honor killed” modesty of our cousins.
    Publicly, forcibly uncovering a Jewish woman’s hair is a gross invasion of her privacy. Stripping her down to the waist (you seem to have missed that part in your drawings) before a crowd of onlookers, in the TEMPLE, was a major event. Only a woman sure of her valor, with steely determination to prove her innocence could face these violations of her dignity, knowing that she would be rewarded, not by men, but by G-d.
    Now THAT is an aishes chayil, which is why no man lucky enough to be married to one is permitted to divorce her, why G-d will bless her with many children and painless childbirth, and why she becomes a heroine that baby girls throughout the land are named after.

  7. I don’t accept your premise, BZ, that there is a pre- and post- egalitarian Jewish law. Furthermore, the basis on which you pose the question – that a woman is not permitted to divorce – is dubious.
    A Jewish marriage is a legal contract. It requires paperwork from both parties to enter into, and certain conditions have to be met before both parties are allowed to exit out of it. If one party refuses to participate amicably, the case is taken to a court, which can make a judgment. If the court finds that the marriage should be annulled, then it is. If the man does not wish to comply, then he is forced to comply. The court can compel a man to give a get, even to the extent of sending people to beat it out of him. This is recorded.
    As an aside, do you think for a second that a woman who went through this process and proved her valor, who became a heroine in the land, could not get a court order to force a get out of her husband? Whether she would want to, thus relinquishing a lifetime of telling her husband “I told you so”, is another issue.
    More specifically, however, Raysh Weiss has no source for such a statement, which is why I challenged it. We can discuss the likelihood of certain outcomes, but the statement on its own has no support in the text.

    1. I don’t accept your premise, BZ, that there is a pre- and post- egalitarian Jewish law.
      Ok, then kal vachomer!
      Whether she would want to, thus relinquishing a lifetime of telling her husband “I told you so”, is another issue.
      Do you know any women who aren’t cartoons?
      More specifically, however, Raysh Weiss has no source for such a statement, which is why I challenged it. We can discuss the likelihood of certain outcomes, but the statement on its own has no support in the text.
      The source is Deuteronomy 22:19, which refers to the motzi sheim ra, not the sotah (which I know is not the same situation, but it’s similar enough that I didn’t remember that the Torah didn’t also say this about the sotah until I looked it up just now), and all the same criticisms apply in that case.

  8. Do you know any women who aren’t cartoons?
    Not as many as I would like. Think of this, however… if a woman exonerated through a sotah ritual wishes to then divorce her husband, perhaps she may, but will she keep her kesubah? Probably not. So, she might get the divorce, and end up without any financial support, living back at her parent’s home. Sure, she can remarry, but the real, non-cartoonish women that I DO know take their kesubah very seriously.
    This is the problem with taking one point of Jewish law out of its legal and cultural context and juxtaposing it against modern norms, which are different, but not necessarily better.
    Consider the following. This is my own shpiel, freshly paved, so mind the potholes. The flip side of your claim is that a husband also cannot divorce his wife on demand, without losing the kesubah he owes her. If she were guilty of adultery, he would have grounds to divorce her without giving her a kesubah, but for her to be proven guilty of this, one would need two witnesses as described above, which is unlikely. Let’s say he doesn’t have the money to pay her kesubah. Now that’s a pickle!
    So, what is a husband to do when he suspects that his wife is cheating on him, but it cannot be proven in a court of law? He can’t afford to divorce her on suspicion alone. Or, let’s make it more interesting. Even if HE HIMSELF had witnessed the adultery, it would technically not be enough to earn him a divorce! He is trapped by the law.
    Into this morass steps the sotah ritual. If the woman is guilty of adultery, she will confess rather than die by drinking the potion. By doing so, she gives him grounds for divorce that a court will accept, without granting her a kesubah.
    Like I said, this is just a thought that came to me, but it’s worth considering. The only problem with this scenario is that a witness can’t incriminate themselves in a Jewish court – even their confession is inadmissible as proof of guilt. I don’t know how that would work out.
    Obviously, Raysch hasn’t had a chance to respond. My point wasn’t to criticize her, but to note that we should try to not make loaded conjectures without a source in the text.

  9. P.S. I don’t know how motzi sheim ra – purposefully slanderous speech – relates to this, so I’ll have to do some reading and get back to you.

    1. It’s a parallel scenario: husband claims that wife has been cheating, public spectacle is held to determine the truth of the claims, wife dies iff claims are found to be true.

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