This week’s Torah portion, Naso, contains the curious, and bizarre, sotah ritual (Numbers 5). Although its practice was long ago abolished by the rabbis, its meaning and purpose are worth pondering. Here is the ritual. If a husband suspects his wife of committing adultery he brings her to the priest. (This ritual and its accompanying laws were decidedly one-sided.) The husband brings a meal offering. Then the priest has the woman come forward and stand before the altar. He makes her drink bitter waters. The priest then offers an incantation saying, “If you have committed adultery then may these waters make your belly distend and your thigh sag.” She responds, “Amen, amen!” If these words come true then she has broken faith with her husband.
What a strange ritual indeed! We belong to a tradition that rejects such magic. The purposes of rituals are to add holiness to our lives and focus our thoughts on proper behavior. They are not to work magic. Ask me to pray for the sick. And you might be granted extra strength. Ask me to hold your hand. And you might gain added comfort. Beg me to lay my hands on your head and scream, “You are healed!” This is beyond human abilities and foreign to our tradition. Miracles can instead be found in the ordinary. They stand before us each and every day. Magic by contrast is the stuff of charlatans, and not believers.
Why then would the Torah offer this uncharacteristic ritual? The medieval commentator, Ramban, remarks that only in the case of this sotah ritual is a judicial decision dependent on such magic. The suggestion is clear. This ritual was intended not to render justice but to avoid judgment. According to the Torah adultery is a capital crime. The renowned biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom notes that the Bible stands apart from other ancient Near Eastern legal traditions in not allowing the husband to commute the death sentence against an adulterous spouse. He can’t simply say, “I forgive you.” Here is the underlying theory. If it is a crime against God then only God can unravel the judgment. This is the purpose of the sotah ritual.
It is a ritual devised to circumvent the law. Judgment is not always the best medicine. Perhaps magic and potions can bring healing to broken relationships.
Today people get divorced for many different reasons. Judaism recognizes its necessity. Sometimes the best medicine for the couple, and the family for that matter, is divorce. Still Judaism wants people to fulfill the Torah’s wish, “It is not good to be alone.” In this week’s portion it appears as well to be making the remarkable claim that at times adultery can be overlooked, that the relationship might be more worthy of preserving than even this truth of “breaking faith.”
When the sotah ritual is examined one realizes that the intended result is that the couple is made whole again. The ritual stands in direct contrast to today’s news reporters and gossip columnists who pursue such truths and thereby destroy countless relationships. The priest does not run around the community searching for witnesses in order to prove or disprove the husband’s claim of infidelity. Instead he makes the wife drink a potion. Did these waters of bitterness ever make any woman’s belly distend or thighs sag? I suspect not.
And so then the priest could say, “Let your jealousy be quelled. Return home together.” In our age we might say, “How arcane. What superstitious nonsense.” Then again we might do well to ponder the extraordinary lengths our tradition travels to preserve relationships. Time and again Judaism sacrifices truth for the sake of peace. Shalom bayit, peace in the home, takes precedence over most else.
Here it invents a ritual so that a husband and wife can again look each other in the eyes and say, “I love you.” That is the message of the sotah ritual. Helping couples say these words is its intent. Helping couples say “I love you” is worth renewed effort.
It is even worth resorting to magic potions.