Redeeming the Sotah

Naso By :  Lauren Eichler Berkun Posted On May 25, 2002 / 5762 | Gender

This week we read about the disturbing ordeal of the sotah, a woman suspected of adultery by her husband. The elaborate account of the sotah procedure is at once magical and horrifying. The priest concocts a potion, chants a curse, and forces the woman to drink the spell-inducing water which will testify to her guilt or innocence:

Once he has made her drink the water–if she has defiled herself by breaking faith with her husband, the spell-inducing water shall enter into her to bring on bitterness, so that her belly shall distend and her thigh shall sag; and the woman shall become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is pure, she shall be unharmed and able to retain seed(Numbers 5:27-8).

While it is certainly distressing to imagine biblical women inflicted with this humiliation and physical threat, I like to imagine this ordeal as one of the examples of biblical ingenuity. Let us note that the effects of the bitter waters are somewhat paradoxical. If the woman is guilty of adultery, she will become barren. If she is innocent, she will be fertile. Some interpret this verse to mean that she will get pregnant. In other words, the sotah trial will enable a jealous, suspicious husband to be assured that his wife’s pregnancy is a sign of her faithfulness to him. Surely this bit of biblical “magic” was a way of maintaining shalom-bayit (a peaceful home) and a means for ascertaining clear lineage. The woman’s pregnancy would be attributed solely to her husband.

The rabbis of the Talmud evoke this ritual in a midrash about a clever and demanding woman, Hannah. The rabbis imagined the biblical Hannah, who prayed fervently for a child in the book of Samuel, as a powerful role model for our prayers. In one of the midrashim about Hannah, the sotah ritual becomes a tool for obtaining her goal:

Said Rabbi Elazar: Hannah said before the Holy One, “Master of the Universe, if You take note of my suffering and grant me a child, great. But if not, then You will see! I will go and seclude myself with another man in front of my husband Elkanah. And when I seclude myself, they will give me to drink the water of the sotah. And You will not belie Your Torah, for it is stated [with regard to an innocent woman who drinks the sotah waters]: then she shall be proven innocent and she shall bear seed” (Num. 5:28) [Berachot 31b].

Here is a wonderful example of an aggressive and shrewd woman who uses the sotah ritual, a ritual often associated with women’s subjugation, as a means for taking control of her own destiny. Hannah forces God’s hand though a clever application of God’s own words. According to the Torah, a woman suspected but innocent of adultery will become pregnant upon drinking the bitter waters. The barren Hannah threatens God with a fail-safe plan. She will arouse jealousy in her husband by secluding herself with another man. However, she will not actually commit adultery. She will then be subject to the sotah ordeal with an outcome predetermined by God’s own laws. She will become pregnant.

This midrash is a fascinating example of rabbinic creativity. In addition to the portrayal of a strong and resourceful woman who is not afraid to challenge God, the midrash may reflect a rabbinic attempt to redeem the sotah ritual. Rather than an ordeal for controlling and punishing women, the sotah ritual becomes an opportunity for barren women to achieve fertility!

The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.