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 canâ€™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 thingâ€¦both methods are escapes from very uncomfortable truths:Â For millennia, stretching to this day, we have had serious problems between men and women that revolve around issues of suspicion, power, betrayal,Â 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are psychologically aware we donâ€™t let these emotions damage our relationships–quickly attack the torah as being out of date and in the process avoid the anxiousness of the real issues in our lives.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.