Sotah: An accused wife, brought to the Tabernacle by a jealous husband, and made to kneel, uncover her head, and drink a bitter water solution concocted by the Priest, to determine her innocence or guilt. It was irrelevant as to whether the husband’s suspicions were grounded, by the way.
Not quite a Salem witch trial drowning, but close. The whole law is pretty disturbing, no matte rhow you look at it.
The Sotah is described in Naso¸ this week’s parasha in the Torah. If she was innocent, the bitter water would have no effect. If she was guilty, her “thigh would sag and her belly would distend.” She may have been publically humiliated, but at least she wasn’t stoned to death, right?
By the time of the Talmud, (in the 1st CE), the men in the community had become so adulterous, that the whole Sotah thing lost any meaning. So, since the people weren’t following law anyway, might as well get rid of the distasteful law. (The “bitter waters” are effective only if her husband is free of iniquity. Therefore, when adultery became commonplace, R. Yochanan ben-Zakkai discontinued the Sotah ordeal (Sotah 47a-b).
So what to do with an uncomfortable law? There are other examples – like stoning disobedient sons. The Deuteronomy 21:18 law requires a death sentence in a public square, and the Talmudic sages were so uncomfortable with the idea of public stoning o children that they put in many “safeguards” to make sure it would never actually happen.
Now, it’s clear I’m speaking as a post-modern, so I feel perfectly comfortable looking at some of these laws in context, in retrospect, and with interpretation. It’s not exactly “one-from column A” Judaism. It’s not a matter of ignoring what’s uncomfortable; rather, we have to face it, try to find values within it. Perhaps it’s the study itself that’s valuable. Perhaps it’s valuable in that it cautions us as to what not to do. A law like Sotah reminds us of what happens when women are so vulnerable to public sexual humiliation, but men are not held responsible. Even Yochanan B. Zakkai saw that a couple of thousand years ago, so he acknowledged what the community had already figured out by “officially ending” the law.
A law like Sotah reminds us not to dismiss the dangers of unchecked suspicion. What else is quite as destructive as the ability to accuse without cause? Sotah reminds us that some biases don’t belong in caring communities. Rather than dismiss that which is distasteful, we study it to uncover its lessons.
How many laws in our society need to be declared void, because the community has already seen through to their inhumanity and inappropriateness, just waiting for the officials to catch up with what the people already know?
Sotah teaches us that it’s never too late. Keep your eye out and your voices ready.