Thursday, June 2, 2011

Sotah, Modesty, Suspicion & Peace- A Womanless photo & Strauss-Kahn. Naso

Photo that has two women photo-
shopped out
The editing of a photo to remove Hilary Clinton’s image was met with widespread ridicule. People who did not just fill in the blanks must have wondered ‘what were they thinking?’ In our Torah reading this week, the modesty issue raised is more substantial than Clinton’s face in a photo. Perhaps it is more like the situation involving Mr. Strauss – Kahn, the issue is the treatment of allegations of sexual misbehaviour. Like Strauss-Kahn's treatment in the court of public opinion, in the Torah’s case there is no presumption of innocence. However, unlike the case of DSK, the accused is female, the alleged act consensual and the whole scenario challenging to modern sensibilities. In this post I explore questions of the presumption of innocence, the treatment of women, modesty, sexual morality, the importance of marriage and peace in the home.  

“The Straying Woman”
We read the case of a woman accused of adultery. She is described as a “Sotah”  סוטה which is a word that is related to the idea of straying.  The procedure outlined in the Torah is no longer practiced for technical reasons [i]. Essentially, if a married woman was suspected by her husband of infidelity with a particular man, he warned her to stay away from him. If she was found alone with this man she would be given a choice to either accept a divorce or go through a humiliating [ii], public, and supernatural procedure in which she drank water in which God’s name had been erased and would die a horrible death if she was guilty (as did her lover [iii]) but if she is exonerated and proven innocent then she would be blessed [iv].  

The Torah Context
In the Torah adultery is not just a betrayal between two married people but also a betrayal of God. This is hinted at in the repetition of the word 'man' in the Torah verse that introduced the topic: 
אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי תִשְׂטֶה אִשְׁתּוֹ וּמָעֲלָה בוֹ מָעַל  a man, a man if his wife will stray [v]”. The repeated word 'man' hints that she betrayed, the “Divine man of war” as well as her husband [vi]. While I don’t know how common adultery is in the non-religious world, there is definitely an advantage for marriages to exist within a worldview in which adultery is considered a shocking crime.

Following the principle of “make a gate around the Torah”[vii] there are various laws designed to keep people away from compromising situations. The laws include a prohibition of “Yichud” (literally: being at one with), which is a prohibition for any man and woman not married to each other (except for immediate family) to be in a locked room together, unless others have keys and can come in at any moment. 

These laws combine with placing a high value on modesty. While modern observant Jewish women are far from invisible, orthodox Jewish thinking is guided to varying degrees by the phrase “all the glory of the daughter of the king is within[viii]. This verse is interpret as relating to a standard of modesty[ix]. ‘Like Abraham and Sarah, Abraham is at the front of the tent welcoming guests[x] and Sarah is behind the scenes [xi] “in the tent”, shy and reserved yet also rising to the occasion whenever a crisis hits[xii] or critical action when it is called for’[xiii]. 

Taking it too far
Our tradition warns against husbands expecting women to stay at home all the time. The phrase “a man, a man”, according to one interpretation, hints at the husbands being perhaps too "manly”, seeking to keep women locked up at home. A story is told of Yehudah Ben Pappos who locked his wife in the house every time he left. This should not be done “because this causes hatred to arise between husband and wife and leads her to commit adultery[xiv].

Male Dominance
I think today there is generally an egalitarian dynamic between Orthodox Jewish husbands and wives, reflecting the principle that a man must his honour his wife more than himself[xv]. Classical sources on this issue reflect other ideas, one the one hand, men are advised to be easy going and overlook problems in their house, if wine spills or there is damage he should not fight with his wife, but on the other hand it states “but if he hears something relating to his manhood/role as a husband, stand up like a man, to the one whose master you are show your authority with all your ability, that is why it say, a man, a man”[xvi]. The husband also brings an offering on his wife’s behalf[xvii].  Of course there is also no opportunity for a wife who suspects her husband of infidelity to warn her husband, nor is there a male equivalent of the Sotah. As someone who values and imperfectly practices equality (can do better with the house work), yet lives my life by the guidance found in these sacred texts this is far from comfortable.

You are a suspect based on this photo from 1968
Presumption of innocence and past misbehaviour
In spite of teachings about judging others favourably[xviii] and guidance not to accept reports about others’ wrongdoing as true there is clearly no presumption of innocence in this case. (Arguably the concept is not part of the Halachic system[xix]). In terms of process at least a judge is told “When the litigants are standing before you, let them be in your eyes as wicked[xx]”.  

It seems that the ethical imperative of giving people the benefit of the doubt is linked to having an untarnished reputation, “anyone who suspects “Kosher” (people) receives (the punishment of) lashes on his body”[xxi].  While this helps people with a record of being Kosher (Chezkat Kashrut), it is of little use to DSK who allegedly had a track record of improper behaviour around women. It also works against the straying woman, who in spite of the lack of sufficient proof must undergo the humiliating ordeal. Her hair is uncovered and un-braided, which is deemed culturally humiliating[xxii].  The reason for proceeding is because “this matters has legs, as he (her husband) had already warned her”[xxiii] on the basis of witnesses reports of her secluding herself with a man who was not her husband.

She is told during the process, [xxiv]וְאַתְּ כִּי שָׂטִית תַּחַת אִישֵׁךְ which in context would be translated as “And as for you, if you have gone astray [to another] instead of your husband”, homiletically the word כִּי (which could be understood as if) is interpreted in its more usage of “because”. She is presumed guilty at least of great immodesty and she is told “you are fitting for humiliation because you strayed, as your husband had formally expressed his jealousy and still you secluded yourself [xxv]. Quite jarring stuff.     

On the other hand when the offering is brought it is labelled “a remembrance of sin[xxvi]”, which one commentary explained it as being brought because of one of the two options, either the sin of the woman or the sin of the husband who suspects her[xxvii].  Another view is that even if the wife is proven innocent the husband is not considered to have sinned because he was required to deal with his suspicion because he would not be allowed to continue to be married to her without clearing up the matter [xxviii].

Peace in the home
It has been argued that the great shame involved in this ordeal would serve as a deterrent to both women and men, for the former to conduct themselves in a way that is always above suspicion, for the latter to avoid frivolous accusations. The end result of this fear would be to prevent domestic tragedies[xxix]. One of the messages drawn from this reading is the importance of peace between husband and wife. If she is innocent, she this procedure with her face shining, finding good will from her husband [xxx], the couple able to continue their marriage, hopefully putting this episode behind them. This is so important that the name of God can be erased [xxxi] in the pursuit of this objective.

None of this justifies removing the face of Hillary from a newspaper photo, nor does it all sit comfortably with modern ideas about equality and rights, but it opens a window into thousands of years of religious thinking about various ways men and women with the support of their communities can handle their urges and suspicions and preserve the sanctity of marriage.

[i] The procedure was only done when the people were at a higher level of righteousness. It was discontinued thousands of years ago, when it could no longer be expected that men who suspected their wives of infidelity were themselves innocent.
[ii] Her hair was uncovered, she brought a sacrifice of animal feed, a Cohen held on to her clothes and if they tore, they tore, if the stiches came apart, they came apart until her heart is revealed, (Mishna Sotah 1:5). There is a similarity to the text in Hoseah 2, where Israel is compared to an adulterous wife and is told “lest I strip her naked, and set her like the day she was born”. 
[iii] Rashi on Numbers 5:22
[iv] Numbers 5:11-31
[v] Numbers
[vi] Rashi
[vii] Pirkey Avot 1:1
[viii] Psalms, 45:14
[ix] Talmud Yevmot 77a
[x] Genesis 18 Genesis 21:9-10
[xi] Genesis 18:9
[xii] Such as the need to protect her son from negative influence of danger as in Genesis 21:9-10
[xiii] Soloveitchik Rabbi J.B, quoted in Insights a Talmudic Treasury, by Rabbi Saul Weiss, Feldheim, New York, Jerusalem,  p 202
[xiv] Talmud Gittin 90a
[xv] Maimonides, Laws of Marriage, .
[xvi] Bamibar Rabba 9:2, with commentary by M”HRZV, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol. 36, p.167
[xvii] Numbers
[xviii] Pirkey Avot 1:6
[xix] On the website “Jewish Virtual Library” a writer asserts “There is no explicit presumption of innocence in Jewish law; the requirements of proof of guilt are, however, so stringent and rigorous, and the possibilities of establishing a valid defence so wide and flexible, that a conviction is much more difficult and an acquittal much easier to obtain than under a rebuttable presumption of innocence.” see also
[xx] Avot 1:8
[xxi] Talmud Shabbat 97a, Yoma 19b
[xxii] Numbers and Rashi’s commentary
[xxiii] Talmud Sotah 3a
[xxiv] Numbers
[xxv] Chizkuni on Numbers 5:20
[xxvi] Numbers
[xxvii] Chizkuni on Numbers 5:15
[xxviii] Bchor Shor on Numbers 5:31
[xxix] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:49, cited in Munk, Rabbi E, The Call of the Torah, Bamidbar p. 49
[xxx] Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel
[xxxi] Numbers


  1. Another fascinating article. Thank you.

  2. thanks Mercedes. Appreciate the feedback. Zalman

  3. Posted on FB: "A strange essay. While I strongly agree that people should live and dress modestly, the essay was so patriarchal, so saturated with sexism, that all I could do was shrug it off as a peculiar vestige of a very troubling world."

  4. thanks for taking the time to read it and respond.

    I had hoped I had distinguished between the way I personally think and relate to gender issues and early rabinical texts that are patriachal and that I find jarring yet i cannot edit them out of their place in orthodox Jewish sacred text.

    Happy for you to shrug them off as a pecuiliar vestige. For people like me these are part of a spiritual heritage. I am trying to square the circle of modern notions of equality between men and women while also being nourished and having much of my life guided by orthodox tradition. I must be honest that I find the dismissal of these texts and my grappling with them upsetting.

    Question 1: If the essay under discussion was Muslim, would it be appropriate for the FB poster to comment as strongly as he did?
    I suggest it would be useful for the language to be more qualified, eg. 'as for me, it comes accross as Sexist and I could not see it being part of my world view' or something like that.

    Question 2: If both parties to a disagreement about sacred text are of the same faith, is there value in restraint? Or is free discussion better?

  5. Post #2 on FB. I don't find it sexist because and I consider it is morally correct, although I know the source of the photo prior editing, however, even with my limited knowledge I can pretty much expect the source where it has been published after appropriate editing. Well, I don't have any problem if some editor is working to meet expectation of his readers. Yet for me the rabbinical text are the window to the other world, I look in to the open window and I absorb the view and I keep it in my memory. So thanks for sharing and explaining.