Only one trial by ordeal appears in the Torah, and it occurs in this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift”). Halfway through the Torah portion, we read instructions for a bizarre ordeal for a priest to conduct when a jealous husband suspects his wife of adultery, but cannot prove it.
The Hebrew Bible rejects almost all efforts to force God to act through magical means. One exception is that the high priest can consult the urim and tummim in the pocket of his breast-piece to get God’s one-word answer to a question posed by a king. The other exception is the ordeal for a wife suspected of adultery. Going through this ritual guarantees that God will give a clear sign of the woman’s guilt or innocence. If she is guilty, God will afflict her with a miscarriage or worse. If she is innocent, God will leave her healthy and make her fertile.
Why was the question of adultery so important that a ritual was designed to force God’s hand? In the Torah, correct behavior in marriage and sexual relations is an essential part of being holy for God. The Torah provides many rules on the subject. The sexism and homophobia of some of these rules do not sit well with many of us Jews today. But when the Torah was first written down, it addressed the society of the ancient Israelites, which was as deeply sexist as most cultures of the time. The Torah calls for justice and a measure of compassion within that culture, but it does not call for radical culture change–except in one vital area: the people must worship only one god. That change was radical enough, three thousand years ago.
So it is no surprise that the Torah prescribes an ordeal when a husband suspects his wife of adultery, but offers no help when a wife suspects her husband. The magical symbolism of the ordeal is remarkable, and I hope to explore that topic when we reach the Torah portion Naso again next year. This week, I will examine the other remarkable thing about this passage: how it reveals the holiness of marriage.
Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: Any man, if his wife tisteh and she betrays him with a betrayal— (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:12)
tisteh = the feminine form of satah = turn aside, stray, leave the path. (A noun from the same root is sotah, “straying woman”, the title of a Talmud tractate.)
This verse sets out the first condition before the ordeal can take place. The wife may or may not be guilty of adultery. So far, all we know is that she strayed from the true path and betrayed her husband in some way. Perhaps the correct behavior for a wife is to give her husband no cause to doubt her or feel jealousy. The Talmud tractate Sotah states that this verse means that the wife behaved suspiciously, and the husband warned her not to meet secretly with another man, but she betrayed her husband by having another secret meeting anyway. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that the word tisteh in this passage means the wife veered away from the ways of modesty, and many subsequent commentators emphasized the suspected wife’s lack of modesty.
The word “modesty” in the English translation of Rashi is a red flag for me. The English word “modesty” has two meanings: 1) being humble and unassuming, and 2) observing propriety in dress and behavior, so as to appear unprovocative. This second form is almost always used only for girls and women. Even today, some traditional societies are notorious for encumbering women with garments that conceal far more than men must conceal, and limiting their movements, in the name of “modesty”.
But in the Torah itself, tisteh does not necessarily refer to this kind of imposed feminine modesty. The verb satah (שׂטה) appears only six times in the entire Hebrew Bible: four times in this portion, and twice in the book of Proverbs, a collection of advice from a father to a son. Proverbs 4:15 advises the son to “turn aside” from the path of the wicked. Proverbs 7:25 urges him not to “turn aside” to the paths of prostitutes. In both cases, the word satah refers to succumbing to temptation oneself, rather than looking tempting to someone else.
In this week’s Torah portion, the wife succumbs to the temptation to betray her husband. This betrayal is not adultery per se, but her concealment of what happened.
—and a man might have lain with her, a lying-down with insemination, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband,and she is nistar, and she is made tamei, and there is no witness against her, and she was not caught; and a rush of kinah goes through him [her husband], and he is kina about his wife—whether she is tamei or she is not tamei—then the man shall bring his wife to the priest. He shall bring her offering for her … a grain-offering of kinot, a reminder of guilt. (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:13-5:15)
nistar = concealed, secret (often translated as “secluded” in this passage)
tamei = contaminated, defiled, ritually impure, unfit to enter God’s sanctuary, unfit for marriage
kina = zeal, passionate possessiveness, jealousy. (The plural form is kinot.)
A husband who suspects his wife of adultery could, according to Torah law, simply divorce her without proving anything. Alternatively, he could decide he wants to continue the marriage no matter what she did or did not do. The Talmud tractate Sotah says Rabbi Akiva insisted that the husband has a moral duty to bring his wife to the priest to undergo the ordeal, even though the ordeal will result in bodily harm to the wife if she is guilty, and will shame her in public regardless.
(Briefly, in the ordeal the Torah describes in verses 5:16-28, the priest unties the woman’s hair, and makes her swear she will accept the evidence God provides as to her innocence or guilt. He writes the oath on a scroll, then dissolves the ink from the scroll into “holy” water containing dust from the floor of the sanctuary. Then the priest makes the woman drink. If she is guilty, she suffers a malady the Torah coyly refers to as “belly swelling and thigh falling”, a miscarriage or worse. If she is innocent, she remains healthy and bears a child to her husband.)
My first impulse was to agree with Rabbi Akiva that the husband in that position should do whatever it takes to determine whether his wife committed adultery. If she is innocent, he might get over his jealousy and want to stay with her instead of divorcing her. If she is guilty, the marriage is automatically annulled. But if the pair continue to live with uncertainty and jealousy on his side, and either resentment or secret guilt on her side, their marriage will degrade beyond repair.
Then I realized that if the husband suspects his wife of adultery, and she has neither confessed nor convinced him she did not do it, the marriage is already doomed. (Of course the same thing applies if a wife suspects her husband, or if one partner in a same-sex marriage suspects the other.) Any marriage is a commitment between two people to be lifelong companions, and to stay on the path of their own covenant, whatever it may be. In order for two people to be contented lifelong companions, mutual trust is essential. That means each partner must be honest, and trust the other partner to be honest.
A marriage is doomed if one partner strays (satah) from the path of commitment, and betrays the other—either by concealing (nistar) a violation of their mutual covenant, or by becoming obsessed with a jealousy (kinah) rooted in possessiveness and lack of trust.
I think marriage is the hardest of human relationships, but it can be the most rewarding. My first marriage did not have enough trust and commitment to survive. Now I am grateful for a long, rewarding marriage with a man I can trust. And our marriage is more important to me than any temptation to conceal misbehavior from him. I pray that many more couples may be blessed with the ability to stay on the path of their own covenant, rising to meet every need for honesty and trust, placing their partnership above all mundane matters. That is what makes a marriage holy.