Parsha Naso is very long; one hundred and seventy-six verses. It records a number of very distinct subjects. Some now obscure; other still relevant to the conduct of our daily lives. Some unsophisticated and others unrefined, meant for a time now long passed. An exemplar of the latter is the law dealing with a “wayward wife”, the Sotah. While the Torah speaks of an anachronistic ceremony, it does for some, serve to demonstrate the, at times, egregious treatment of women in the Torah.
Parsha Naso describes a barbaric ritual which a wife would have to endure, at her husband’s demand, simply upon his untested suspicions. Briefly, the wife was forced to ingest a “magical” potion; bitter waters laced with noxious ingredients. If the husband’s suspicions were validated and she had indeed cuckolded him, the wayward wife would suffer in kind from a grotesque physical malformation; “her thighs would fall away and her belly would swell”, presumably rendering her sterile. She was forever marked as “a curse among her people” a biblical equivalent of the notorious scarlet letter of Puritan England. Conversely, should her husband’s suspicions be off base, the potion would not harm her; rather her fertility would be enhanced.
Shockingly, the husband would suffer no consequences for his making the false accusation; presumably, the couple, now that the air had been cleared away, would enjoy the fruits of her innocence and the reward of fecundity, and be blessed with a large family. During the time of the Second Temple Period (circa 530 B.C.E – 70 C.E.) the ritual became obsolete. The Talmud suggests that it had to come to an end out of an abundance of caution, “since adulterers have proliferated”, probably more rhetorical flourish than social description. Subsequently it was formally abolished by rabbinical edict.
However repugnant, sexist or grossly unfair you view the ritual, it reflected the mores of ancient societies, or perhaps more precisely, the lack thereof. What sets it apart is that the husband’s whim would not trigger “punishment”; rather, it was God who would make the determination. What makes it unique amongst the laws of the Torah was that its reliance on the supernatural for its performance. Also, while in form, it had the trappings of the notorious “trial by ordeal”, innocence was not proven by death; rather, it was rewarded with life.
Interestingly, and in spite of its obsolescence, the Talmud devoted an entire tractate to the Sotah, about one hundred pages of text. Essentially, the Mishnah rewrote the biblical ritual, devising in its stead a process requiring proof, and not mere conjecture and turning a veiled trial by ordeal into a public ceremony meant to publicly humiliate a convicted adulteress, a theme subsequently taken up by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his magnum opus, The Scarlet Letter.
In order to provide for the rule of law prior to conviction and punishment, the Talmud reframed the investigatory and accusatory process. A formal warning was needed, an awkward conversation in itself, to be given in the presence of two competent witnesses. Two people were then needed to observe the wife “secluding” herself with the purported adulterer, and another one was needed to attest to her defilement.
Simply, the imposition of legal standards, required proof and not mere conjecture, the very nature and the intent of the ritual changed from one depending on divine judgment into a legal process that determined whether the wife had in fact been unfaithful. Similarly, the punishment for guilt was not merely the forced ingestion of a noxious potion somehow imbued with magical powers. There was a corresponding increase in the severity of the treatment meted out the Sotah. The Mishnah describes a punitive ritual, specifically designed to publicly humiliate the transgressor. While the Torah describes the results of the test, if the woman was guilty, as harm to her fertility, the Mishnah describes a theatrical death that occurred in the Temple before members of the public.
There remains a glaring deficit in the process. No punishment was described for the wife’s co-respondent, nor was there a similar pathway for the wayward husband, ignoring entirely the concept of reciprocity. Rabbi Akiva attempted to fill this rather large gaping hole in the procedure. He asserted that the potion, though forced only on the woman, would somehow cause her partner in crime to suffer the same debilitating symptoms as his paramour.
The passage is a stark reminder that the Torah’s first audiences were members of an ancient society beholden to the supernatural, still centuries away from a society that sought proof, not merely truth.