Every once in a while, we come upon a Torah portion that is just plain troubling. Naso is one of those. If there was ever a section that was disturbing, it is the story of the Sotah (Num 5:12-31), the woman accused of cheating. Her husband suspects her fidelity, he brings her up in front of the priest and the community, publically accusing her. She has to drink the “water of lustration”, that is mixed with dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle, and the piece of paper that contains the words of the husband’s suspicions. Her hair is uncovered and she is shamed in front of the community. If she has been unfaithful, the potion will make her “belly swell and her thigh fall”. If she’s innocent, she’ll be able to bear a child.
Sotah always brings to mind two things: Salem witch trials and the golden Calf. In Salem, if a woman was accused of being a witch, they dunked her in the water. If she drowned, she was declared innocent, because a witch could have saved herself. Small consolation, indeed. When Moses came down the mountain from receiving the Torah from God, and came upon the Israelites partying with a Golden Calf, he ground the Calf into dust and made the Israelites drink water that was mixed with that ground Golden Calf.
The Sotah is supposed to make us think of the Calf; the sin of the Calf was the greatest sin the people could or would ever done against God. It was the ultimate betrayal, after being redeemed from Egypt and brought to the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the people got impatient and made a god for themselves.
But with the Sotah, we don’t know if the wife is actually guilty. It’s just her husband that suspects she is, and yet she is made to go through this humiliation in front of the entire community. Is it a ritual? Is it a trial? Is it a ritualistic trial? Her guilt or innocence is determined through these actions, so it has trial-like flavor, but the fact that it takes place in front of the Priest and he is the one to administer the punishment makes it seem more like a ritual.
In any case, what can we possibly learn from the Sotah experience that doesn’t just make us want to turn our backs on a misogynistic Torah text? There is one, small thing.
The husband has some skin in the game. He has to come forward in front of the entire community and accuse his wife. If he’s wrong, and she was innocent, he looks like a fool. He only suspects. He has no real proof of her guilt, so if she is not guilty, he is also humiliated in front of the community. Presumably, this might keep him from bringing “frivolous suits” against his wife. But there’s another lesson.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if our society made those who manufacture facts, “journalists” in extreme media, those that stir up frenzies based on the slimmest of “evidence” and use half-truths, have some “skin in the game.” Then, like the Sotah’s husband, they would be humiliated and shamed when the accusations turned out to be false. It’s our responsibility to hold them responsible, to make their reputation as much at risk as those they seek to shame.