This week’s Torah portion contains one of the most troubling stories. In it, the Torah recounts the procedures a jealous husband who suspects his wife of having committed adultery may bring her before the priests to submit to a trial by ordeal—a procedure for judging an individual’s innocence or guilt by subjecting her to a physical test. In this trial, the accused woman is forced to drink a potion made from sacred water, dirt from the Tabernacle floor, and the written curses containing God’s name (which are dissolved in the water itself). It’s a strange portion to read during this season of weddings and romance, but this takes us right to the heart of a troubled marriage. Here we have a furious husband who suspects his wife of adultery, and a public ordeal designed to bring light to the truth. The suspect, (of course, it’s the woman) drinks the “bitter waters”.
In theory, her guilt is established if her belly distends and her thighs sag “but if the woman has not defiled herself and is pure, she shall be unharmed and able to retain seed.” Wow!
Do you wonder why her paranoid husband isn’t forced to take such a test? Why is it the woman is the only one who must endure the humiliation and public trauma of this ridiculous ritual? What of the men involved: her husband and the possibility of another lover? No, it’s only the woman!
The Rabbis explain that the reason a woman is put through a process as difficult as the Sotah ritual is to restore trust in the marriage. Since the husband suspects his wife, there is no longer trust between them, and a marriage without trust cannot stand. To prove this assertion, The Rabbis point out that if the husband dies before the woman drinks the bitter waters, she no longer has to go through the process! That shows, according to them, that the Sotah ordeal has less to do with determining her guilt or lack of guilt, and more to do with restoring the trust and peace between the husband and wife. So, if the wife died through the ordeal, the witness saw the gravity of breaking the bond between husband and wife. And if the wife survived the bitter waters, the witness likewise saw the seriousness with which the Torah treats an adulteress, even a suspected one.
Still, many of us cannot overcome a sense of unfairness concerning which partner in the marriage undergoes the ordeal: The woman, already under stress from her husband's jealousy, is subjected to the test. But, apparently, in its time, it provided a sacred and orderly structure to resolve this type of crisis, and help manage the explosive emotions that were evoked when marital trust was tested.
Though grateful that the bitter waters are no longer drunk, and women no longer subjected to the “sotah”, just reading about it still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.