by: Mark Kirschbaum on May 31st, 2012 | Comments Off
The transition to a new age in turn necessitates a new perception and a new conception of space-time, the inhabiting of places, and of containers, or envelopes of identity… (Irigaray , An Ethics of Sexual Difference)
This perasha contains within it a series of commandments which have been largely unrelated to normative practice for the last few thousand years. At least regarding one of these episodes, this is probably a positive thing; I’m referring of course to the Sotah text, the depiction of the ritual trial of the woman accused by her jealous husband of adultery. This ritual trial is devised for a husband, who suspects his wife of sleeping with another man, but has no objective evidence for this, rather, being seized by a jealous spirit, has recourse to a trial by ordeal, that is, he brings his wife to the Kohen, the priest, with a sacrifice of flour sans oil, sans incense. Then, the Kohen takes sanctified water, some dust from the floor of the Mishkan, reveals the woman’s hair, makes her swear to accept a series of curses which are written down and then erased into the sanctified water. If she is guilty, there is an immediate physiological reaction of no small nastiness, and if not, she bears a child. How are we to approach this text, if we can at all?
A good deal of contemporary feminist theory centers around the geographical-spatial metaphors, such as the margin, the boundary, the closet, etc., all of these which situate issues relating to the definitions of power and identity. To cite examples which relate to our project dealing with the Sotah text, Harvey, in the Condition of Postmodernity, presents a dichotomy between “real space”, or “material space”, which is concrete, fixed, and stable, and the “non-real” or “metaphorical” space, which is fluid, fertile, unstable, and obscuring. Needless to say, in general “real space” is masculine, and empowered, whereas “non-real” space, connected to the image, is situated lower in the hierarchical space, female, and determined largely by the desires of the masculine real space.
It seems to me that this might suggest an approach to the Sotah episode if one wants to maintain the literal sense of the text; we could assert the importance of the male gaze in initiating the chain of events, a purported hiddeness of feminine activity, brought under the male gaze, as symbolized in the revealing of her hair, the ordeal itself with the liquid test, where the male fixity of text is physically erased, made amorphous once internalized by the female; the outcome of the ordeal resulting in either a deterritorialization of the womb or its recentralizing in the realm of childbirth, and so on. However, this reading remains mired in an essentialist conception of male and female as man and wife, with the same unequal power structure still maintained. (Parenthetically, I would add that this inadequately-radical essentialist propagation of male: female power structures is a weakness to my mind of Rav Soloveitchik’s approach to these matters, as in the “Family Redeemed” collection, though I suppose I ought not be too harsh- for his time, in his milieu, and to his credit, he was viewed as pretty progressive). What I would like to do in this essay is present a Hassidic approach to these texts, in which the approach to gender is one transcendent of the essentialist and the biological.