This week we have several interesting pats of the portion, but Sotah is the most curious of all. I keep trying to understand it, and end up still perplexed. In this last attempt, I studied this portion in my Hebrew class and came to another conclusion no one was very happy with, Liberal or Conservative: State mandated abortion.
…then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is a meal-offering of jealousy, a meal-offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance. 16 And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD. 17 And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water. 18 And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD, and let the hair of the woman’s head go loose, and put the meal-offering of memorial in her hands, which is the meal-offering of jealousy; and the priest shall have in his hand the water of bitterness that causeth the curse. 19 And the priest shall cause her to swear, and shall say unto the woman: ‘If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness, being under thy husband, be thou free from this water of bitterness that causeth the curse; 20 but if thou hast gone aside, being under thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee besides thy husband– 21 then the priest shall cause the woman to swear with the oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman–the LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to fall away, and thy belly to swell; 22 and this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, and make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to fall away’; and the woman shall say: ‘Amen, Amen.’ 23
I came to this startling and disturbing conclusion after we talked about what “belly to swell and thigh to fall away” meant. With several other citations we learned of in class, it seems it meant a miscarriage. I then noted some about the dust on the tabernacle floor — it was likely that the dust contained ash from the sacrifices, but also a rather large amount of myrrh, which was used in the anointing oil for the vessels in the Mishkan and later temple, as read in Exodus 30. Exodus 30 was also very clear this stuff is toxic. In herbal medicine, myrrh has been known to induce labor — no matter what stage of pregnancy a woman is in. Herbalists avoid myrrh around pregnant women for this reason. That Ahashveyrosh in chapter 2 of the book of Esther requires myrrh treatments for six months for all maidens before meeting him points to more than cleaning the skin but the insides as well. Acashveyrosh was guaranteeing any child born to one of the “contestants” was really his.
I mentioned all this in class, and my idea of a state induced miscarriage and got it from all sides. Abortion is of course a touchy subject but what I was saying equally offended everyone. That a biblical passage was a commandment for preists to give a potion that would terminate a pregnancy in order to adjudicate a domestice dispute smashes both the pro-life and pro-choice positions rather squarely. The only one who did not object was my Orthodox professor, who from a biblical scholarship point of view could not find a fault in my argument.
And while there is a whole Talmudic tractate on Sotah, I think there is one critical element to Sotah, this bitter waters rite, that is missing. There is no record it was ever used in the biblical text. Someone leading a D’var Torah I attended recently asked the question did ancient peoples who could have written the Biblical text, also know modern psychology. I would say today no, they did not, for they had no use for understanding the mechanism of behavior. But they were certainly interested in results, and results that modern psychology might be able to derive, ancient man could easily see and use in their lives.
One of these is the concept of the ordeal and fear associated with it. Ordeals are painful or dangerous situations, sometimes used to judge a person. In some of those cases, as in Sotah, it is to gauge a woman’s guilt or innocence for infidelity. Yet rites of passage into adulthood have often had ordeals as part of their ritual. To go through the ordeal as part of a rite of passage is to show one’s bravery or perseverance. To fail is to show one is still a fearful child.
Yet not everyone has the courage, or some might say the stupidity to go through an ordeal. Some just looking at the ordeal freak out. I had that experience this weekend, and failed miserably. Of course my ordeal was something rather laughingly benign, indeed most would look at me funny — Dancing.
Everyone has performance fears. Probably one of the most common is speaking in public. Some fear being in crowds. Sometimes reason can counter a phobia, but a lot of time it is not enough. I do not have any problems getting in front of a crowd, I’m happy speaking or lecturing in front of 10 or 10,0000. Some people would be a total panic. But I can understand them, since I believe my fear of dancing is very related to public speaking. Both are about being embarrassed in public. My brain and my nerves have a really bad habit of not communicating well. It takes a huge amount of practice for me to do even the simplest of coordinated things. I could not catch a ball until I was in college for example. This has irritated more than one kid when I was growing up. I was so incompetent in sports all I got on the playing field was either kids laughing at me or kids yelling at me. If anything more than attendance was considered for Physical Education classes when I was growing up, I would undoubtedly fail. I even failed driver’s education. I was terrified to get behind the wheel of a car for the longest time.
Oddly though, I got a job out of college which required a massive amount of travel. 83,000 miles on the odometer in one year got me out of my driving phobia. As busy as I-80 is, it is still a rather lonely road, with no one but the one or two cars around you and state troopers watching what you are doing. That’s different from a crowded dance floor. Trip and everyone sees you. Dance badly and everyone knows.
What’s worse,as I found out in those P.E. Classes I failed so miserably, is that dances are not just partners dances but things like square dancing, which requires a lot of rather complex moves leading to disaster. I don’t just mess myself up, but everyone else as well. That kind of embarrassment is more than I can take. I thought of that this weekend watching a northwestern kind of square dancing known as contra dancing. These people were good, but watching them scared me witless. It was not me dancing, but just watching brought on the panic.
I can of course do what I did with driving. Get behind the wheel and do more intensive performance in a year than most people get in ten years of driving. If I do it gets into my “muscle memory” and it is no longer a problem. But just seeing people dancing brings on the fear, and that makes me realize why Sotah probably was never used. It was too fearful an ordeal — not just for the woman but her jealous husband. If she was willing to go throughout with this, it might be his child he was killing. there is a lot of setup, a lot of what the Inquisition called “showing the instruments,” bringing fear of the ordeal to do the same thing as the ordeal itself. If anyone even tried this, by mid ritual it probably stopped, for either husband or wife lost their nerve and confessed or recanted, depending on the situation.
I think for most we would not go through ordeals unless they are forced on us. The ordeal of mourning is one we have no choice. The ordeals we have a choice in we are, for the most part, cowards and will avoid. I believe there was a fiction of a bitter waters rite, once that scared everyone enough to calm dawn and deal with domestic disputes in a lot more rational and civil way.
But that said it is a good thing to conquer your fears. Excuse me while I practice this waltz.