We do not live in a time when women are freed from the nightmares and terror of jealous husbands. We read almost every day how women are killed in “honor” killings by male relatives, supported by an establishment who does not care enough (at best) to make sure women are safe. I suggest reading the Sotah ritual with this as background.
Given how awful and humiliating the Sotah ritual is for the accused woman, it is certainly not an emancipatory or modern text: the Bible does not tell the husband to see a secular authority or religious priest to work out his jealous fantasies. But significantly, underlying this law, the husband does not absolutely own his wife’s body—he cannot administer punishment directly based on his suspicions. The husband must bring his wife to the Tabernacle/Temple.
The Sotah ordeal is not a direct parallel to the treatment of other “suspect“ women in history. For instance, a woman suspected of witchcraft had a stone tied to her ankle, and was thrown in the water. If she miraculously swam free, she then must be a witch and was burned at the stake. The scarlet letter is removed almost immediately.
Don’t misunderstand me—I am not saying that this is an egalitarian law. Ancient Israel was a polygynous society, where men could have many legitimate concurrent sexual partners, and women could only have one; the jealous wife needed to live with her jealousy, as reflected in many biblical stories. In a culture that was, and still remains, dangerous for women from the people they are most vulnerable to, the ceremony was a welcome relief.
This law, which required earth form the Temple, was automatically abolished once the Temple was destroyed. In the Rabbinic interpretations of the biblical text they moved this law in new directions, and use it as a means to control women differently: not sexually, but in terms of women’s access to Jewish texts.
The Babylonian Talmud Sotah 21a discusses whether or not women may study Torah, and the famous opinion of R. Eliezer is that they may not, since if they study Torah, they will realize that good deeds defer the punishment of the Sota waters, even if they were adulterous, for according to the rabbis, if a woman sleeps around and then gives charity, and sleeps around and then gives charity, the waters will be ineffective! The rabbis here instead of being a little better than their surroundings as in the Bible, reflected back a prevalent fear of the relationship between women’s knowledge and their sexuality.
Prof. Tova Hartman is a scholar, author, and social entrepreneur. She currently serves as the Dean of Humanities at Ono Academic College.
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