Rabbi Lisa Edwards is the leader of Beth Chayim Chadashim, the world’s first gay and lesbian synagogue, and a thoughtful and reasoned advocate for same-sex marriage, environmental protection, and social and economic justice. The official website of Reform Judaism has chosen Rabbi Edwards to write a weekly D’vri Torah for the entire book of Numbers, every week for the next two months.
The sign read, “We’ve got to stop it,” and under it a woman sat alone at a table in the grocery store parking lot. The sign also contained the words “domestic violence,” so I walked over. She greeted me warmly, “I’m trying to put a face to it. To say it could happen to anyone. Because,” she explained, “before it happened to me I wasn’t very sympathetic. I would hear about battered women and think to myself, ‘just put one foot in front of the other and walk away.’ I had no idea how difficult that could be, how entrapped people can become in this cycle of violence. Are you a survivor?” she asked me.
“No,” I said, “but I worked at a battered women’s shelter for six years, so I well know what you’re saying.”
“Jealousy, for no reason, can start it all,” she said. “But it can be anything-just that desire to control something-someone-in a world that feels so out of control.”
One of the strangest passages of Torah occurs in this week’s Parashat Naso–the ritual of the jealous husband and what comes to be known in Mishnah as the sotah wife (sotah from the word used in our parashah, tisteh, meaning “gone astray” or “turn aside”). “If any wife has gone astray and broken faith with her husband . . . [and] a fit of jealousy (ruach kinah) comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself, the husband shall bring his wife to the priest . . . . ” (Numbers 5:12-15). The priest is instructed to subject the wife to a bizarre ordeal, including drinking “bitter waters” made of sacred water mixed with dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle and ink from the writing of the punishment she will face if guilty. If the drink causes her womb to swell, she is judged guilty; if not, she is innocent. If guilty, it is left to God to punish her-presumably by the miscarriage or infertility that will result from her swollen belly.
We’re not the only ones troubled by this passage. The Talmud includes a whole tractate about it, Sotah, and examines this ordeal in great detail, including added restrictions that greatly reduce the likelihood of using it. But even if we stay just with the Torah’s cryptic version, chances are the woman will not suffer physical harm either from the “potion” or at the hand of her husband.
And why is the jealous husband not punished (especially if the wife is found innocent)? (5:30-31). Perhaps because without fear of punishment, both he and his wife will be more willing to seek outside counsel, to go to the priest, rather than just allowing the cycle of jealousy and violence to continue-with the husband inevitably “punishing” his wife himself. As Proverbs 6:34 observes: “Jealousy is the rage of a man, and he will show no mercy when he takes revenge.”
So perhaps, as some scholars suggest-and we can hope-this ordeal is the priest’s way (God’s way) of stepping in when there is dangerous jealousy in a household. Perhaps it’s a community-approved way of stepping in and stopping a dangerously escalating situation.
By the way, if you are among those who think that jealousy and domestic violence are passions and crimes that do not occur in Jewish families, or that take place only in relationships between a man and a woman, think again. Estimates suggest family violence happens often in Jewish families and also between same sex partners, and the common assumption that violence does not occur in Jewish-or in gay or lesbian-households can make seeking help even more difficult. Below are some Web sites that can offer help and advice should you or people you know (including teenagers) be in a violent or threatening relationship.
It’s possible, of course, that the story of the Sotah wife and the jealous husband is just what we think when we first come upon it-a vision of Judaism at its most misogynist. But I like to think otherwise-that this odd ritual, and all the Talmud discussion that follows, is not misogyny so much as it is understanding, as my new friend came to understand, that cycles of violence and jealousy are human nature (human nature gone astray perhaps- tisteh–but human nature nonetheless) and that Torah and God, and Judaism have yet again devised a way to bring the sad side of human nature at least into focus, so that from there we can all work on ways to help tame those sad sides.