Sotah: Understanding Change

Confronting a troubling Biblical narrative.

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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.
The Torah A Women's Commentary
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 Modern readers have long taken solace in the fact that this practice is no longer in force-and thus is far from the purview of synagogue ritual committees.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.

Regarding the medieval period, a little-known fragment from the Cairo Geniza still gives instructions as to how to perform the ritual in one's neighborhood synagogue; but there too, no record has been found of anyone actually doing so. (For details, see Lisa Grushcow, Writing the Wayward Wife: Rabbinic Interpretations of Sotah, 2006, pp. 297-300.)

When we try to understand the sotah ritual in context, we can be relieved that it has not been implemented for at least 2000 years. But how can we wrest meaning from this difficult text? Interestingly, the very discontinuation of the ritual-and the rabbinic explanation of its abandonment-may give us a way to find meaning. The official suspension of the sotah ritual provides an example of how religious and legal change happens, and how such change is explained. For those of us who are committed to the Torah and also see Judaism as a path that embraces change, this is a crucial issue.

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Rabbi Grushcow serves as Associate Rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City. She was ordained by HUC and has a doctorate in Rabbinics at Oxford University where she studied as a Rhodes Scholar.