Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
The sotah ritual (5:11-31), in which a man suspects his wife of adultery and subjects her to an ordeal, has been notoriously difficult for contemporary readers, especially from a feminist perspective. The unequal application of the ritual to women and not men, the lack of due process, the physical and emotional humiliation–all of these combine to make this passage a challenging place in which to find meaning. As such, this passage keeps company with a number of other biblical texts that are problematic, even painful, to read.
Rabbi Rebecca Alpert offers a valuable model for confronting such troubling teachings. In her book Like Bread on a Seder Plate: Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition (1997), Alpert presents a number of approaches for dealing with traditional texts on homosexuality. She suggests that we can understand these texts by interpreting them in the context of their own time and place. We also can try to wrest new meaning from them, or we can simply acknowledge the pain that they have caused–and continue to cause. These approaches are not, of course, mutually exclusive, and they can apply also to this parashah.
Taking the Ritual in Context
Certainly in the case of the sotah, we can analyze it in light of its historical context. Comparing this passage with other ancient Near Eastern texts reveals it to be in keeping with other laws contemporary to Torah times.
In terms of the pain the passage has caused, we can easily imagine its effect on women thousands of years ago, but we ourselves are spared direct impact. Modern readers have long taken solace in the fact that this practice is no longer in force-and thus is far from the purview of synagogue ritual committees. In fact, it is unclear whether this ritual ever took place. Even in the Torah, the law is given without a connection to any particular incident. The Mishnah states that an early rabbinic leader discontinued the ritual of the sotah (Sotah 9:9). The entire body of rabbinic literature cites only one example of its implementation.