Perashat Naso: Situating The Sotah

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 far out already). 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.

Already in the Toledot Yaakov Yosef, the earliest collection of Hasidic hermeneutics, there is a brief suggested rereading of this episode which reaches beyond a simple male: female gendering. The TYY suggests that the leader of the community, as we are taught in the episode of the Spies (perashat Shelach) is called “ish“, “man” and the masses, being under his sway are called “ishto“, that is, the wife. The sin being diagnosed and treated here, their “ma’al“, as the text calls it, is that they want to be “above” the true leader (ma’al means sin, and is also homonymous to the word “above”, “me’al”), and thus the masses choose to follow an inappropriate leadership who leads the people astray. A detailed reading of all the components of the ritual is not pursued, but it is a positive step in that the gender is more than biological, but on the other hand the power relationship inherent in the male: female dichotomy is still preserved, with “male” signifying leadership.

A very detailed and interesting reading is presented by the Or Pnei Moshe. It was clear to him that he was stepping far beyond the literal reading of the episode, as he actually apologizes to the readers at the end of the segment for rereading in a manner that is clearly not according to the “Truth”… He assigns the following definitions: The “man” discussed here, who starts up the entire episode, represents the soul, the “woman” is the body. Already we have a reversal from the usual template in Western thought, in which the strong, powerful body would be a male term. The tempting “man” with whom the body sins is the evil inclination, is also called “man”, but the soul doesn’t note this second “ish” as foreign, being too deeply enmeshed within it. So, essentially, blame is diffused across all parties, all sides are equally caught within, there is not the sharp definition between the innocent man and the guilty woman of the original text. The scene of confrontation is now entirely restructured. In the OPM’s reading, the Ruach Kin’ah, the “spirit of jealousy” which awakens the man to bring about the ordeal is not sexual jealousy, but a yearning for self improvement; derived from the teaching that “jealousy of the learned brings about more learning”. The “soul” is aroused with the yearning for betterment, and in the process invites the “body” as well to strive for holiness, the body itself realizing that it needs to purify itself. In this now non-confrontational manner they come together to the “kohen”, the priest who, as we’ve seen in previous shiurim, is read as the righteous scholar (the proof text being Malachi 4:7), not specifically related to any genetic lineage. The body and soul come together willingly before the wise to be brought closer to Gd (this is the OPM’s rereading of the term “korban”, the sacrifice brought in the text), willing to sacrifice the “a tenth of an epha”, with the epha meaning the human being, and the number “ten” corresponding to the ten limbs of the individual. However, at this point in the person’s development, this korban, coming forward is flawed, being driven by jealousy, thus not yet worthy to have oil (attainment in Torah study) or incense (good deeds) appended to it. Thus, there must be a corrective step, this corrective being symbolized by the sanctified water given by the Kohen to the penitent body and soul totality. This “holy water”, referring to Torah, is contained within a “kli cheres”, an earthen pot, symbolizing the human form, also formed of earth, but for this coming together of spirit and form to function there must be added the”dust of the Mishkan”, that is, true humility. The OPM explains that its not just a matter of humility being a lofty spiritual state, its just that one cannot learn unless humble, that is, willing to listen. The final ordeal, so terrifying as it narrated in the text, is now reread as a message of hopeĀ for the penitent- One might think that repentance, teshuva, this rectification of the body and spirit together is beyond the reach of fallen humanity-, but no, the Torah teaches us that a righteous teacher can indeed stand a person, both “male and female” aspects, before Gd, and remove their sins, symbolized by the revealing of the hair, as shaving of the hair is used in several places as a metaphor for the removal of sin, sin, like hair, being external to the individual. The shaving of the Levites prior to their commencing service is read in this manner. At this point, the “jealous offering” will be transformed into “minhat zikaron”, positive memory of the transformed individual’s journey towards spiritual attainment.

The Beer Mayim Hayim, as he does in the rape of Dinah episode, reads in both a gendered and non-gendered fashion. He begins with a statement that trouble is caused when women travel out of the home too much, but then presents a radical reading, congruent at some points with that presented by the OPM, but with several interesting embellishments. For example, the encounter of the misguided body and soul with the Kohen is not read as representing an encounter with some external figure, but rather the Kohen represents the individuals’ own projection of spiritual growth and attainment, the “inner Kohen”, if you will. That is, the individual is redeemed by his or her own imagined conception of a loftier, better state of being. The “sanctified water in the vessel” is a representation of this improved spiritual state connected to human existence (water=Torah, vessel=embodied existence). Thus, both the body and the soul, stand together before Gd, because neither can to be left behind if the complete individual sincerely wishes spiritual self-improvement. Furthermore, according to his reading, the punishment presented at the end of the trial represents not some supernatural smiting, rather, it relates the expected benefit of an integrated life versus that of the failed life- it is assumed that one who projects their mind: body complex towards the good, will leave behind positive impact on the world in both a spiritual and an environmental sense; whereas one who chooses to live in a sick manner, will beyond a doubt impact negatively also on their physical beings, spiritual space and upon their surroundings(as we suggested in Perashat Behukotai).

Perhaps these readings can provide an alternative approach to a problematic text, readings which subvert the initial difficulties in many positive ways, ways which may be critical for a contemporary re-encounter with Perashat Naso.

Mark H. Kirschbaum, MD, is a hematology and cancer specialist based in Duarte, CA.
tags: Torah Commentary   
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