TRIAL BY WATER– Naso – Num. 4:21-7 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
Among other narratives and teachings, this week’s Torah reading contains what could be the strangest law of all, the Ordeal of Jealousy. It lays out a ritual by which a husband can determine if his wife was unfaithful. The procedure requires that if he has reason to suspect her, he must take her to the Temple where the priest accepts her meal-offering and puts her under oath. He takes an earthen vessel and fills it with holy water, throws in a handful of the meal offering and also puts some dust from the Temple floor into the water. Then he notifies her that if she is innocent the ordeal will not harm her, but if she is guilty her thigh will fall away and her belly will swell. She will be a shame to her people. And the woman must listen and answer Amen Amen. He writes the curses in a scroll and blots them into the water. Then she must drink.
Did this actually take place? Since the Torah describes it in such detail, we assume it did. But not since the destruction of the Temple. In fact it was the respected leader Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai who discontinued it. Yet the Talmud considers it important enough to name an entire tractate Sotah after this practice, and discusses details of its conduct. First, we learn, the husband must warn the wife not to be alone with a certain man. And if she does so, there must be a witness to how long they were together. Generally Jewish law requires two witnesses in a criminal case. Here, the testimony of one witness is accepted. Also, the Talmud relates, the priest could not use indelible ink; it had to be washed off into the bitter water. The rabbis further observe that someone will not commit a serious crime unless a “spirit of folly” – ruakh shtus – enters him. So whose body does the spirit of folly enter? The suspected woman, or the jealous man?
So far, all this jealousy centers on the woman. What about the man? After all, we just read the Ten Commandments on Shavuos, including the famous Seventh one, “Do not commit adultery.” The Hebrew verb for adultery, tin’af, is in the masculine. Historically, of course, the adultery indicated there concerns having intercourse with another man’s wife. So, Reuven, stay away from Shimon’s wife. Don’t even covet her. But what if Reuven’s wife suspects him of infidelity? Is there a jealousy ordeal for a man? No, because polygamy was common in Biblical times. In fact, it remained acceptable until the Edict of Rabbainu Gershom in about the year 1,000 CE. As we know, some distant Jewish communities never heard about that, so when the modern State of Israel welcomed all who wanted to return, some Jews from Yemen arrived with 4 wives each. The Israeli government ruled that families would not be broken up; those who were already multi-married could stay that way, but future generations needed to abide by the laws of Rabbainu Gershom and the State of Israel.
In all these instances, sanctity of the family is paramount. Indeed, the Torah itself recounts the creation of Eve and her mating with Adam, and says “so will a man leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”(Gen.2:24) One man, one woman. Not until some 22 generations later does Jacob become the first of the patriarchs to marry two wives, with the ensuing bitter rivalry that colored their lives. It took many centuries for men to learn that one wife is plenty. Effectively, then, for the past millennium and more, Jewish families consist of one man, one woman and one or more children. Those children are marriage’s goal and reward. And fidelity is important. How important is it?
The Klee Yokor commentary offers a visual example. We usually see the Ten Commandments represented on the twin tablets, as two adjoining columns of five each. So #7, prohibiting adultery, appears exactly parallel to #2, prohibiting false gods. Not only is the violation equal, even the punishment is equal. The unfaithful wife has to drink the bitter water containing the ink spelling out her guilt. And the unfaithful Israelites in the desert had to drink water containing the ground-up fragments of the Golden Calf. Family solidarity bears equal importance to true faith.
What about today? More and more, we see family life weakened, even destroyed. Current trends can alarm us. What is wrecking the American family?
Changing roles for women sometimes get cited. Can a woman be a loving wife and mother and also a corporate executive? Maybe some can and some can’t. But look at the Haredi community, the most traditional of all Jewish groups, and see wives who are both homemakers and providers – storekeepers or wage earners – while their husbands spend full time in Torah learning. Those women, with all their responsibilities, manage to bear and raise more children than liberal wives are willing to have.
Deviant sex habits, and political acceptance of same-sex couples can be seen as a force against family life as we know it.
Whatever the cause, we see a falling birthrate, a rising divorce rate, and a prevalence of the practice of “living together,” generally a temporary arrangement. So, speaking of current trends, what are the causes?
Is Global Warming damaging human sex? Doubtful.
Are misguided movements and party politics destroying the American family? Yes they are. Just check the figures. Recent surveys find some 23% of white babies and 73% of black babies born out of wedlock. How many of those children will become wards of the state? How many will get adopted by same-sex couples, and carry a distorted experience of family life into adulthood? One predictable result: these children will grow up and vote. So chances of a political push to rebuild traditional marriage look pretty slim.
How important is the family? It is the basic unit of every human society, from tribal to industrial. Destroy the family, and the society crumbles. Face the danger. We need to deal with it.
Circumstances we see around us call for a dedicated educational effort by those who value the strength of the traditional family. Clearly, it took centuries to arrive at the formula of one man, one woman and their offspring. That pattern is worth keeping. Let’s keep it.