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.

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 gender is read as a construct other than the merely biological, but on the other hand the power relationship inherent in the male: female dichotomy of gender roles is still preserved, with “male” still 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 to the usual gender terms- “man” as discussed here, who initiates the inquiry, represents the soul, “woman” signifies the body. Here we have a reversal from the usual gender template in Western thought, in which a strong, powerful body would be a male desiderium.

In the OPM’s reading, the tempting “man” with whom the female signified body is entrapped, is the evil inclination, also called “man”, deeply enmeshed within the male soul from the start. So, essentially, responsibility is diffused across all parties, all sides are equally caught within this turmoil, there is not the sharp definition between an innocent man and a guilty woman as would appear from a literal reading 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 that emerges as a result of the struggle between the components of the soul, the purer soul and the sinning desire; the Hebrew word (kin’ah)that allows this reading comes from the talmudic teaching that “jealousy of the learned brings one to greater learning (kin’at sofrim tarbeh chochma)”. The soul is aroused from its confusion with a yearning for betterment, and in the process invites the body as well to join in the striving for holiness, the body coming to realize that it too needs to purify itself. In this non-confrontational manner they come together to the “kohen”, the priest who, as we’ve seen in previous essays, is often read as referring to a righteous scholar (the proof text being Malachi 4:7), not specifically related to any priesthood based on genetic lineage.

The body and soul come together willingly before the wise to be brought closer to God (this is the OPM’s rereading of the term korban, the ‘sacrifice’ referred to in the text), willing to sacrifice the “a tenth of an epha”, with the term for a measure of weight, epha, signifying the human being, and the number “ten” corresponding to the ten limbs of the individual. However, at this point in the individual’s development, this korban, this coming together is still flawed, being motivated by jealousy, thus not yet worthy to merit ‘oil’ (attainment in Torah study) or ‘incense’ (good deeds) being appended to it. Thus, there must be a corrective step, this corrective being symbolized by the ‘sanctified water’ presented by the Kohen to the penitent body-and-soul unity.

This ‘holy water’, Torah, is contained within a kli cheres, literally an earthen pot, thus 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 one is not capable of learning unless one is ‘humble’, meaning, open to instruction and willing to listen.

The final ordeal, so terrifying as it narrated in the text, is now reread by the OPM as a message of hopefor the spiritual pilgrim. One might think that repentance, teshuva, this rectification of the body and spirit together is beyond the reach of fallen humanity, that the mind or body is incapable of positive transformation, but no, the Torah teaches us that the will to come forward in spiritual advancement can unify an individual, in both “male and female” aspects, before God, and lead to a shedding 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 often read in this manner by the mystics). The OPM concludes that as a result of this process, the “jealous offering” can be transformed into a minhat zikaron, an offering of remembrance, a 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 more classical type of 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 signifies an individuals’ own projection of spiritual growth and attainment, an “inner Kohen”. 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 must stand together in the spiritual quest, because they are inseparable as elements of a complete individual progressing towards spiritual self-improvement.

Furthermore, according to the Beer Mayim Hayim, 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 unified mind: body complex towards the good, will impact positively upon 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 (cf. the readings of the ‘curses’ in Perashat Behukotai).

Perhaps a shift in our views of what gender constructs actually signify can equally impact positively upon our world. The frightening move to undo progress in gender equality seen in multiple circles lately makes a revision in our thinking more urgent and necessary.

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