I am now taking classes in English pronunciation. Therefore I hope I will be able to spell correctly the word: embarrassment. Because, indeed, this week’s parasha makes me feel very embarrassed.
To begin with, the opening and the conclusion of the parasha itself are two long lists – the census of the Levites in the opening (Num 4:21-29), the list of the gifts for the dedication of the altar in conclusion (Num 7). So boring and, indeed, embarrassing. What we are supposed to do with these two long lists of names and items?
The core of the parasha, then, is mainly about purity – in such a physical, bodily, meaning. These are first the laws about the nazir (Num 6:1-21). A nazir was a person who decided to devote his (o her) life to God, to set himself (o herself) apart from the rest of the people, to observe an almost fanatical abstinence from alcohol –even from dried grape, out of fear that might be fermented, and to not shave at all.
The nazir was not allowed to take part to funerals, even of relatives, even of siblings and parents (Num 6:7). Otherwise the nazir would have been defiled. I find this rule so harsh – participating to a funeral makes you defiled, if you have decided to devote your life to God.
This embarrassing parasha, also, lists all the procedures to be taken with the taameh, the impure person, as we have read (Num 5:1-4). It is all about eruption and discharge: again, is very physical. This disease is unknown to the modern scholars, “leprosy” being just an imprecise translation.
The poor fellows affected were to be removed from the camp and isolated, put at the margin. Yes, this also is embarrassing: truly our Torah, our Law, can prescribe something so cruel?
Then the parasha deals with matter of economic reparation and then goes on, with rules about a peculiar kind of damage. It is the procedure to be observed when a man suspects his wife to be Sotah, adulterous (Num 5:11-31).
The ritual has been probably inspired by a similar trial, that we find mentioned also in some legal document of the Ancient Middle East, where matters of adultery were often debated close to rivers or lakes.
The description begins in the paragraphs that we have read, and then goes on: When a man suspects his wife of “having gone astray [the verb here is incredibly vague] and broken faith (Num 5:12)” he shall bring her to the priest. The priest will make her drink “the water of bitterness” a potion that, we are told, will cause permanent sterility if the woman has been disloyal.
The magic part of the ritual is embarrassing. But the fact that the woman is silent throughout the long ritual, and is allowed to say only Amen! Amen! in front of the priest – and cannot even to protest her innocence, this is so cruel, and misogynistic. I hope it makes furious each of us.
Well, the good news is that we are not alone. The Rabbis too find this passage embarrassing and could not bear the inclusion of such an ordeal in our practices. An entire tractate of the Talmud, called Sotah, has been developed from this set of rules.
In this tractate they describe so much in details the procedure, stating that they want to make explicit what in the text is implicit – for example they explain that this procedure applies only if a husband warns his wife in advance not to seclude herself with a particular man, and only if there are witnesses to the warning and to the act of seclusion.
Of course, such a sequence of events is unlikely to happen, the chance of administering the ritual decrease. The Rabbis reasoned that the waters should test the supposed partner too and then limited further the whole issue, stating that a husband had committed adultery in the past, then the waters would have not harm the wife. Which, by the way, shows the deep psychological insight of the Rabbis: usually the adulterous persons are overly jealous too.
After having reduced so dramatically the possibility that such a degrading ritual could have ever happened, the Rabbis did the final trick, with their usual bit of huzpah. Because they maintain that adultery was so common toward the end of the Second Temple period, that the ritual needed to be abrogated. It is an extraordinary intelligent way to get us rid of the embarrassment that surrounds the magic ritual of Sotah.
But is also a very Rabbinic way to show us that this ritual does not work to prevent adultery – just in case somebody might come out and, sticking to the letter of the text, pretend to make us a more moral people. We have already experimented, they enabled us to say, it does not work.
It is also admirable the way the Rabbis came to such a conclusion, that immorality has been so pervasive among the Jewish people at the end of the Second Temple Period. Yohanan Ben Zakkay found a significant passage in the book of Hosea (4:14), where God says that prostitution is so common among the people of Israel, that God decides to punish the whole people with the destruction of the Temple. The errant wife becomes therefore a metaphor of the relation between God and Israel, us, the Jewish people.
Which, again, shows us how much the Rabbis understood of human psychology – because we put us, the am cohanim, the people of priests, in the same position of the suspected woman who was to be tested by the priest himself, and has no right to object to the ordeal. Once you have learnt how does it mean being on receiving end, most likely you become motivated to establish a more just, and fair, system of laws.
Now, without being judgemental – think how much easier might have been, in the same time of the Rabbis, follow those who wanted to get rid of the memory of this enigmatic ritual; those who were declaring all these embarrassing rules to be the “letter of the Law”, that applies only to the “body”, the “flesh” as opposed to the “spirit” or the “soul”.
The Rabbis did not choose the short-way. Maybe because we, as a people, always prefer the long way: moving from Egypt to Eretz Israel might take just some months, but instead we wandered into the desert for forty years. The short way is too easy. No, the Rabbis choose to read closely the text, to stuck to every possible details, to insert their exegetical efforts even into the silences of the text, in the same time inviting each of us to do the same: to overcome unfamiliarity and embarrassment and to apply our intelligence and sensitivity to the text, to make it relevant to our life.
I think that the position of us, Modern Jews, is someway similar to that of the Sotah, the woman unjustly suspected of having gone astray of having been someway promiscuous with other culture or spiritual tradition, and there are those who want to bring us in front of some dignitary, who will dispense us the adequate dose of bitterness.
The Sotah is at the margins of the Jewish camp, just like other members of the tribe who someway defiled themselves by touching some corpse or out of their unrestrained nature. It is not a comfortable place.
But the Rabbis, with their commitment, and deep understanding of the Torah and their sensitivity to the human nature, set a wonderful example for each of us. Torah, and Judaism, are there to be studied, as well to live by – not to be used as a weapon or as an opportunity to deny dignity to other human beings.
The Rabbis used the best tools of their time to make sense of this problematic passage, and were able to derive from it deep and important moral teachings that we are blessed to review each time we confront that Talmudic tractate or this embarrassing parasha.
May all be worthy of such a precious heritage.
May all be worthy of such a precious heritage.