This is the first sermon I have ever given on parashat Sotah.
It's a scary text for a modern and a feminist
It should be scary for us all.
To refresh our memories.
If a husband is overcome with a fit of jealousy regarding his wife's fidelity she is made to stand before God and, in the language of the Mishnah.
וכהן אוחז בבגדיה אם נקרעו נקרעו אם נפרמו נפרמו עד שהוא מגלה את לבה וסותר את שערה
And the Priest seizes her by her garments and if they are torn or ripped, they are torn or ripped and he exposes her heart and uncovers her hair.
And the woman is forced to drink mei hamarim – the bitter waters under the threat of her belly distending and her thigh sagging.
Let me be more specific about my problem with Parashat – Sotah.
Or rather what my problem is not.
My problem is not anthropological.
I know this is how they did things in 'the good ol' days.'
I know that there is a ordeal very similar to that of the Bible in the Ancient Babylonian Code of Hammurabi.
In Hammurabi it states
If a finger has been pointed at a man's wife because of another man, but she has not been caught, she shall leap into the River.
And if guilty she floated.
I don't have problem looking at this old ritual in the context of the societies surrounding the Ancient Israelites.
I'll admit I find Sotah confusing in the same way the great medievalist, Nachmanides, found Sotah confusing.
Sotah is, said Nachmandies, magical it feels pagan, it's the most magical and pagan moment in the Bible. And, as a way of finding out guilt or innocence it feels too dependent on a miracle and, by and large, we Rabbinic types prefer to reason our way to justice, rather than rely on pointed finger descending from the heavens – it was you..
I'm confused but I'll look past my mild theological confusion.
My great problem with Parashat Sotah is this.
How, dear God, can I consider these texts holy?
We just sung this.
Etz hayim hi lmachazikim ba vkol netivoteha meusar.
It is a tree a life to all to grasp and all its paths are upright.
This week, that song is a struggle because instead of being to bathe in the beauty of our extraordinary tradition there is this niggle.
This poor woman, dragged up before a gawping crowd of men and stripped and poisoned to satisfy a very male niggle.
How can I read these verses as Torah, with love, vshinantam levanaecha – and you shall repeat these words to your children and hold them before you always – what even these words?
A huge part of my heart, my soul pulls me away from repeating these words, this week, every year it's this week.
And it is a very Jewish tug.
Many of you will know this story from Bereshit Rabba well.
The Rabbis imagine Abraham as a young boy, his father, Terah, has left him in charge of the idol store and Abraham has smashed up the idols.
Dad comes home, surveys the destruction and demands to know what has happened.
How could I lie to you, the hot-headed Abraham replies meekly, there was this woman with a flour offering she wanted me to put before them.
But first this one said, 'I'll eat first'
Then that one, then the other until largest idol took up this hammer and smashed them up.
Do you think I am a fool – snaps back Terah – they are idols, how can they have any sense or knowledge.
At which point Abraham responds 'let your ears hear what your mouth says.'
How can you put yourself forward as a seller of idols when you know these idols are not holy.
How can go through the motions of religiosity when you know it's untrue?
How, in the name of God, can you deem something holy when you know, you know, it is not.
This is the problem with parashat Sotah.
Let me do another Gemarah.
Hael hagadol hagibur vhanora – 'God the great, the mighty and the awesome.'
We might know these words from the liturgy, but their origin is Biblical.
Moses spoke them, on the plains of Moav.
But the Rabbis notice something else.
They notice that Jeremiah says something similar to Moses, but he calls God
Hael hagadol vehagibor – Jeremiah leaves out the hanorah he doesn't call God awesome.
It must be, say the Rabbis, that Jeremiah was so upset to see the destruction of the
And the Rabbis notice something else. They notice that Daniel, when Daniel prays to God, prays to
Hael Hagdol vhanorah – Daniel leaves out hagibor – he doesn't call God heroic.
It must be, say the Rabbis that Jeremiah was so upset to see the enslavement of his people that he cannot bring himself to acknowledge God as heroic.
How is it possible, the Rabbis demand to know, for Jeremiah and Daniel to skip out a liturgy fixed by Moses himself just because they didn't feel like it?
The answer is clear –
מתוך שיודעין בהקדוש ברוך הוא שאמתי הוא
Since they know that the Holy Blessed One is truth, they could not ascribe falsity to God.
As a Jew you have to say what you mean, particularly if you want to speak from a religious perspective.
No comfortable white lies allowed.
No gentle dishonesties permitted
Rabbi Jacobs certainly knew that – no comfortable white lies.
So, here we are, with this problem with parashat Sotah
It's a problem made worse by a tradition that refuses to lie and countenances even a measure as extreme as reworking a teaching of Moses himself.
In search of a way to save Sotah it is worth working out why on earth the passage exists in the Bible at all.
After all we all know what happens to the adulterer – it's written [in the Ten Commandments/up there]
ואיש אשר ינאף את אשת איש
מות יומת הנאף והנאפת:
One who had adulterous relations with a married woman, the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.
This is the first step – parashat Sotah might be horrid, it might be cruel, it might be misogynist – but it saves the woman's life.
Jacob Milgrom, the acknowledged master of sefer Bemidbar sums up this irony perfectly
By appropriating a semi-pagan, semi-magical ritual, the whole Sotah mechanism 'provides the priestly legislator with an accepted practice by which he could remove the jurisdiction over and punishment of the un-apprehended adulteress from human hands and thereby guarantee that she would not be put to death.'
It's actually a step in the right direction.
Which brings me to the Rabbis.
The most remarkable thing about the Rabbinic treatment of the Sotah ritual is the key Mishnah which describes what happens during the ordeal.
It opens as follows
אם אמרה טמאה אני שוברת כתובתה ויוצאת
If she says, I am impure, they tear up her ketubah and the marriage is over.
It is only if she claims to be pure that she is taken to the East Gate of the City.
This opportunity for a confession never appears in the Bible.
As far as the Bible is concerned, either you are clearly guilty, in which case death, or the husband has a suspicion, in which case the Sotah ritual applies.
Now we have a third option – if the woman confesses, the marriage is dissolved.
As one makes their way through the major Rabbinic treatment of Sotah we come across whisper after whisper of a re-framing of this admittedly discomforting text.
What of the man who feels it is appropriate to accuse his wife of adultery in such a public and shameful way.
הוה פתח ריש לקיש בסוטה, אמר הכי: אין מזווגין לו לאדם אשה אלא לפי מעשיו
When Reish Lakish would begin teaching Sotah he would say this 'a man is only paired up with a woman according to his own actions.
And then of course the Rabbis do away with the whole apparatus of Sotah.
Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai abolished the ritual of the bitter waters [citing a verse from the book of Hosea] I will not punish your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery (Hos 4:14)
And it is gone as a matter of practical Rabbinics.
It remains only as a text.
Drosh lkabel schar – we should study it to receive merit.
When we engage in the journey of this text through our tradition I would encourage us to see not a misogynist pagan ritual but an attempt in the Bible to rescue a suspected adulterer from death, an attempt by the Rabbis to find ways out of the whole ritual, a way to gently prod at the jealous husband – are you sure you are so clear of blame yourself and then finally, a triumph of hermeneutic magic – poof, it's gone.
The story of Parashat Sotah is a lesson in travelling. How far can you go, while staying in the system.
How far can you change while staying the same.
And now, all of a sudden, this whole business of Sotah starts to feel very Masorti.
Rabbi Brad Artson of the American Jewish University wrote that the Tree of Life, the Torah, needs a prune every now and again.
He is of course right and to see that happening with an issue like Sotah is to understand how our tradition functions.
And as long as we continue to read.
As long as we continue to be affronted by verses like parashat Sotah but, instead of deleting them, or feeling embarrassed by their power,
As long as we use our own confusion and puzzlement that a tradition as holy as ours can contain verses like this.
As long as we dig deeper, look further, hold onto our masorah – our tradition – ever more tightly
We get to understand something far more important than the mechanics of a particular ritual at a particular point in history.
We get to understand the very nature of what it means to be, to be a Rabbinic Jew.
The danger with deleting that which discomforts us is that we turn off our sensors.
We make the edit and we forget what it means to be part of this journey.
Anything that seems a little awkward, a little uncomfortable, the temptation is always to back away, pretend it doesn't exist.
And we are then in grave danger of losing both bathwater and baby.
The Reform liturgy, for many years, felt uncomfortable with the second paragraph of the Shema, so that went.
And the end of the Ain Keloheynu, so that went,
And resurrection of the dead, so that went.
Many of these things have recently come back in the wonderful new Forms of Prayer Siddur, and that is great – and the siddur is a tremendous piece of work,
but for me, I miss some elements in the tradition.
The challenge in life is not to work out how you feel on day or the next.
The challenge in life is not be blown back and forth on the winds of fashion.
The challenge in life is to understand our edginess and to learn from it.
The challenge is to understand what goes on beneath our surface awkwardness.
And when we are dealing with our glorious 3000 year old tradition there is a great deal going on under the surface.
And that is the journey.
To hold the ancient past
To understand the way in which the past has rolled into the present
And to pledge ourselves to be part of this journey into the future.
And if we can do that we deserve the great blessings of our faith.
We deserve God's blessing and protection
We deserve the God illumination and favour
We deserve that God should lift up God's face to us and grant us peace.