Texts and beliefs By Rabbi Shoshana Cohen 31st May 2017

Sotah – Oppression or Empowerment?

Parashat Nasso contains the famous law of the Sotah (Num. 5:11-31), the woman who is suspected by her husband of having committed adultery. In such a case her husband can bring her to the priest (kohen) and she will be forced to drink a strange concoction of water, dirt from the Tabernacle floor and curses containing God’s name ground into little pieces, known as the “bitter waters” (mei ha-marim).

Once the woman drinks this potion there are two possibilities: If she is guilty “the water that causes the curse will enter into her and become bitter, and her belly will swell, and her thigh will fall away; and the woman shall be a curse among her people.”  If she is innocent “then she shall be cleared, and will conceive seed” (vs. 27-28).

Throughout the passage about the Sotah it is the man, or rather the men, who are in control. The husband may be overwhelmed by an unfounded ruach kina, “spirit of jealousy”, yet he may still force his innocent wife to go through the ordeal. At this point her body essentially comes under the jurisdiction of another man, the priest.  The fact that an innocent woman could be forced to go through such a trying and humiliating ritual just because her husband is suspicious is problematic, to say the least. This may be one of the reasons why, according to many scholars, the ritual was likely never actually performed. In any event, part of what stands out to us as modern readers of the text is the utter powerlessness of the woman here.

Fascinatingly the rabbis in the Talmud tell how an important Biblical figure used this ritual as a mode of empowerment and strength. In Brachot 31 Hannah is presented as a model of prayer, from whom many important laws are learned, yet their close reading of I Samuel 1:17 portrays her as challenging God for the lot He has dealt her, particularly her being barren. R. Eleazar interpreted the words im ra’oh tireh (v. 11) – “if You will surely look” (lit, “look, look!!”):

“Hannah said before the Holy One, blessed be He: If You will look, it is well; and if You will not look, I will go and shut myself up with someone else in the knowledge of my husband Elkanah, and as I shall have been alone they will make me drink the water of the suspected wife, and You cannot falsify Your law, which says, ‘She shall be cleared and shall conceive seed’.”

In this Talmudic passage Hannah uses this apparently oppressive law to her advantage, as a tool of her own liberation (or at least to help her get what she so wants, a child). In doing so Hannah is revealed to be a talmidat hachamim, a Torah scholar, not only because she knows the law but also because she knows how to manipulate it to her advantage.  Hannah’s technique is one often used by less powerful people in an attempt to get control of their own situation, using the tools of oppression to secure liberation. 

What we do with difficult texts in our tradition is a matter of choice. We can choose to use them to further oppression or we can use then to overcome oppression and facilitate empowerment. Perhaps it would be better if we used Hannah as our guide.

Rabbi Shoshana Cohen works at the Shalom Hartman Institute, and is a former teacher of Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva, Jerusalem.

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