In this week’s parsha, Naso, we find the description of a ritual designed
to test, through supernatural means, the guilt of a married woman whose husband suspects her of committing adultery. This “trial-by-ordeal” is referred to as the sotah ritual although, interestingly, the word sotah is not used in the Biblical account itself.
On first reading, the sotah ritual is a humiliating ordeal for a woman suspected of adultery. During the ritual, the suspected woman is intentionally wearied out by being paraded around the grounds of the Holy Temple, her clothing is torn and her head is uncovered. Some say her hair is disheveled. It is also sexist, since a woman who suspected her husband of committing adultery had no parallel recourse.
What a reading of the Biblical account doesn’t reveal is that the Sages of the Mishnah inserted numerous restrictions that served to limit the number of occasions when an accused adulterous woman would actually have to undergo the sotah ritual. Mishnah is the Oral Law which tradition teaches was transmitted orally by G-d to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The Mishnah was compiled in its present form around 1800 years ago.
The Mishnah details an astonishing 25 circumstances in which the sotah ritual is not conducted. These include cases where the marriage is forbidden by Jewish law, cases where the woman’s ability to conceive from the adulterous act is limited or non-existent, cases where the husband did not adequately warn his wife of his jealous suspicion and cases where the accusing husband is incarcerated or has a significant physical disability. If any of these 25 circumstances applied, the sotah ritual was not conducted. Instead, the woman was simply divorced without having to undergo the humiliation of the sotah ritual.
The Mishnah further narrows the opportunities for any woman to ever have to undergo the ritual by detailing specific conditions under which the ritual must take place. For example, the Mishnah specifies what kind of cup she must drink from, how much water is poured into it, from exactly where the dust to be added to the water must be taken and how much dust must be added. It also specifies what exact words the Kohen (Priest) must write, upon what kind of material the text must be written and upon what kind of material it may not be written. The Mishnah also specifies with what substances the Kohen may write the text and with what substances he may not write the text.
In a nutshell, the Sages of the Mishnah used every possible legal means to make it unnecessary for an accused woman to complete the sotah ritual. Eventually, after the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai abolished the sotah ritual completely.
When the accused woman is guilty, the sotah ritual ends in her immediate and gruesome death through spiritual means. The Mishnah teaches that, if the accused woman has led an otherwise meritorious life, the punishment did not take affect right away. Her affliction may not have begun for up to three years. Since she did not immediately become afflicted, it looked as if she was innocent.
This is the context for the infamous quote from Rabbi Eliezer, “Whoever teaches his daughter Torah, it is as though he teaches her tiflut.” Tiflut is variously translated as frivolity, obscenity or foolishness. In this context, the Sages argue about whether it is proper or improper to teach a woman that her merit may hold her punishment in abeyance.
Ben Azzai posits the argument in favor of teaching a woman Torah. If she is taught Torah, she will understand that, if she is guilty and nothing happened after she drank, it is her merit that prevented immediate affliction. Thus she will not erroneously conclude that the ritual is ineffective. Rabbi Eliezer argues against teaching a woman Torah by positing that if she is taught Torah, she may find a way to use her knowledge of Torah to conceal her improper behavior. It is this outcome, not a universal exclusion of women from Torah study, that Rabbi Eliezer intended to avoid by discouraging men from teaching Torah to their daughters.
The sotah ritual is yet another case, when it comes to traditional Judaism and women, where the reality is so much more sensitive and nuanced than it at first appears.