Parashat Naso

Pushing the Law Forward

Halakhah and social equality today.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

"Is that the law? Now?" 

These were the words of Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf when he learned, six years ago, that a woman named Zafran Bibi had been sentenced to death by stoning. Under the Hudood ordinances, fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law, a woman convicted of adultery can be executed with only circumstantial evidence against her--in Bibi's case, the birth of a baby while her husband was in jail, despite the fact that months earlier she had gone to the police to report that she had been raped.

american jewish world serviceThe charges brought against her were eventually dropped, largely due to international pressure and the intervention of the President. Her brother-in-law, who had raped her, was never brought to justice. Cases of injustice such as this are far from rare today. 

Jewish Ritual & Adultery

Jewish law sought to prevent arbitrary retribution for adultery (or suspected adultery) with a ritual that was perhaps progressive in its time (though it seems barbaric when taken out of its historical context). Consider this scenario from Parashat Naso:

"If a spirit of jealousy comes over [a man] and he is jealous of his wife when she has defiled herself [through adultery], or if a spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife when she has not defiled herself, the man shall then bring his wife to the priest…(Numbers 5:14-15)"

The priest then administers a sacred procedure called mei sotah, in which the woman ingests a liquid solution containing dust from the Temple floor and the ink from a parchment bearing God's name. According to tradition, if she is guilty, her body ruptures and she dies. If not, her name is cleared and she may bear her husband a child.

Though this ritual may strike us as a humiliating magical rite with no possible positive outcome for the woman, it was a step forward for its time. Mei sotah placed the fate of the accused woman in the hands of the only true judge--God--and withdrew from the husband the power to arbitrarily judge and punish his wife.

By codifying a civil procedure to regulate "suspicion of adultery," the rabbis were constraining indiscriminate vengefulness that might arise from male paranoia. While the practice was abandoned after the destruction of the Temple, in its time, it represented a form of increased legal protection for women. 

Laws of Protection?

The Rabbis innovated other laws in an effort to protect women. The laws of ketubah (marriage contracts), for example, were designed to protect a woman's economic standing in the case of divorce. Ketubah limited the freedom of men to marry and divorce at will and played a role in further ensuring women's legal rights.

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Evan Wolkenstein is the Director of Experiential Education and a Tanach teacher at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco.