Learning From Sotah

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This week’s Torah portion discusses the sotah, a woman suspected of adultery, who’s is forced to drink “bitter water” to have her fidelity tested. If she is guilty, the Torah tells us, the water will kill her. If she is innocent, she will survive.

A colleague recently asked me for some thoughts on sotah, for a view of it that is neither traditional apologetics, nor a liberal anti-Torah approach.

Indeed, when it comes to difficult or uncomfortable texts in Judaism, there are two general reactions. Traditionalists try to protect the text from their own ethical intuitions. The overt meaning of the text simply can’t be true and so they reinterpret them.

Liberals take the opposite response, turning “anti-Torah,” but for precisely the same reason. They know deep down that the text betrays their own ethical sensibilities. When they are hostile to Torah, they imagine these sensibilities come from their own autonomous moral selves and criticize the Torah for its moral ineptness.

Now here is the thing…both methods are escapes from very uncomfortable truths:  For millennia, stretching to this day, we have had serious problems between men and women that revolve around issues of suspicion, power, betrayal,  seduction, insecurity, exploitation, fear, humiliation, secrecy, and fantasy, etc. We all know this as we have all had these dark experiences and emotions. Traditionalists–because of the fear of these feelings–read the sotah narrative and escape addressing these painful realities in their own relationships by quickly doing apologetics–defining their interior anxiousness/textual problems out of the text and in the process avoiding the issues in their lives. Liberals–because they are politically correct and so imagine that because they/we are psychologically aware we don’t let these emotions damage our relationships–quickly attack the torah as being out of date and in the process avoid the anxiousness of the real issues in our lives.

The details of sotah that actually embarrass us as traditionalists or make us angry as liberals actually say very little about the Torah passage itself, but do shed light on our own fears. Both reactions are ways to mitigate our own discomfort and anxiety with the real issues at the heart that are as alive today as they were when this text was written.

The ultimate purpose of Torah is to help us evolve from a psycho/spiritual/ethical perspective. Apologetics defending the Torah and attacking of the Torah as unethical are both tactics to avoid the pain of growing in these “for mature audiences only” areas. Traditionalists do not have to deal with the real issues in the text because they can feel psychically and spiritually good about themselves having defended the text and thus themselves. Liberals do not have to grow because they can feel (self)righteous for having attacked the text and thereby repressed the very uncomfortable feelings the text tries to arouse.

The interesting part is not whether we agree with the particular process the Torah offers to deal with this case–trial by ordeal–but to get at the lived emotions that the text helps us recognize. These emotions are always lurking in our committed, intimate, and passionate sexual relations, whether we are the person who is jealous or the person suspected.
Sotah then, even in its ancient place, invites us to ask these sort of questions:

• When do we feel jealous (keenah) of our lovers?
• What secrets (veneelam v’neestarah) do we keep from our lovers?
• How do these secrets affect our relationships?
• What keeps us from sharing our secrets? What are we afraid of?
• What do the feelings of jealousy and suspicion do to us?
• How does it feel to be suspected of illicit behavior or of keeping secrets?
• What tests do we put our lovers through when we are suspicious?
• How do we maintain our honor/face when we find ourselves burning with jealousy?
• How can we help our lovers through their jealousies and suspicions?
• What is the relationship between passionate intimacy and jealousy? How are they connected?
•Does true passionate intimacy mean no jealousy and does jealousy and suspicion mean the lack of true passionate intimacy?
• How have we/can we purge from our consciousness and from our lovers consciousness the memory of our suspicion?

In other words the affective and emotional energies of this text are as ripe as when it was written. The proof is in the reactions that it brings out fierce apologetics on one side and fierce attacks on the Torah on the other. The fiercer the defense and the fiercer the attack the more we are hiding from the wisdom we need to learn and from which we can grow.

Rabbi Irwin KulaGuest blogger Rabbi Irwin Kula is the  the President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center.

Posted on June 5, 2009

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