There’s little doubt that the sotah ritual is not just a divine test to verify whether a married woman has committed adultery, but a form of public shaming. On today’s daf, the rabbis consider whether this shaming is merely a natural result of the sotah ritual, or whether this should be its goal. In answer to this question, we are taught:
Rav Nahman said that Rabba bar Avuha said: The verse states: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), meaning, select a good death for someone.
Rabba bar Avuha’s quoting of the famous verse in Leviticus comes to teach that even in a situation where a woman is proven to have committed adultery — which, at that time, was punishable by death — we are nevertheless required to treat her with respect, to in effect give her a “good death.” As a result, we must not let her suffer additional indignities.
Numerous commentaries question the application of the Torah’s golden rule to an adulterer. Instead, they believe someone who has deliberately acted in a way that undermines the bonds of marriage should not be loved, but hated (see Pesachim 113b).
However, the Spanish talmudist Rabbi Meir Abulafia (1170-1244), in his Yad Ramah commentary to Sanhedrin 52b, responds to this critique in a brilliant manner by suggesting that the word neighbor (re’eicha) is a portmanteau of the words ra’im (those who act wrongly) sheb’cha (among you). We shouldn’t just love those who do good, but also those among us who do bad. Clearly, this radical interpretation of the word re’eicha has far-reaching consequences.
But there’s actually a second way to understand Rabbi Abulafia’s insight. The word ra’im can also be understood to mean “bad [qualities]” and sheb’cha can be understood to mean “within you.” Explained this way, the verse teaches that we shouldn’t only love the good parts of ourselves, but even the less-than-perfect aspects of who we are.
Today’s daf therefore teaches us that not only should those who have transgressed be treated with dignity, and that we ought to love even the transgressors among us. But also that each of us should also practice self-love to the extent that we don’t just love the good parts of ourselves, but also find ways to love the qualities that we know we can, and should, improve within ourselves.
Read all of Sotah 8 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 6th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.