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Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg @TheRaDR
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OK, I promised y'all that I'd do a new repro rights/Bible thread when we reached the fundraising goal for Jackie and JP, so fair's fair. A reproductive rights/Bible thread that is likely to make my mentions apoplectic. Enjoy.
The first thing I want to say is that this is entirely speculative--different Biblical scholars have a few different theories on this, but I see this very clearly in the text and other people agree with me. So.
Numbers 5, the trial of the accused adulteress:
"If any man’s wife has gone astray & broken faith with him, in that a man had sex w/her unbeknown to her husband, & she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, & there is no witness against her—
but a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself—the man shall bring his wife to the priest.
First, just to note that the verb for "broken faith" is מָעֲלָ֥ה, referring to mis-use of consecrated items. Not relevant to the point I'm gonna make but--a married woman (or just her sexuality) is consecrated to a man like an object is to the Temple, & misuse is מעילה.
There are a lot of directions you can go with that fact and I can't teach Sotah (this section) without pointing that out. ANYWAY.
So there's a woman. The situation is that she either had adulterous sex or she didn't but "a fit of jealousy" is coming over the husband nonetheless. We don't know if she did or not. If there were witnesses we would go straight to consequences of adultery, but here it's: ???
So we don't know if she did or not. He takes her to the priest. He takes an earthen vessel w/water, adds some dirt from the floor to it. Tells her that if she drinks it and she is innocent, nothing will happen when she drinks from the "waters of bitterness."
If she is not, “may God make you a curse and an imprecation among your people, as God causes your thigh to sag and your belly to distend;
may this water that induces the spell enter your body, causing the belly to distend and the thigh to sag.”
Then he "shall put these curses down in writing and rub it off into the water of bitterness." Lots to go on about the whats and the whys on that, but tl:dr it's a test--we will know if she committed adultery by what happens when she drinks.
"Once he has made her drink the water—if she has defiled herself by breaking faith with her husband, the spell-inducing water shall enter into her to bring on bitterness, so that her belly shall distend and her thigh shall sag; and the woman shall become a curse among her people.
But if the woman has not defiled herself and is pure, she shall be unharmed and able to retain seed."
Questions: Why is the husband jealous if maybe she didn't do anything? What's this "fit of jealousy" about? What does it mean for her "belly to distend and thigh to sag?" What does it mean that she will be able to "retain seed"? (Translations here are accurate enough-ish.)
Different people speculate that the waters cause uterine prolapsis, infertility, some sort of horrible gastrointestinal thing (though really we seem to be in the realm of repro stuff, hence "retain seed").
Some say the bitter water trial never impacted anyone badly, so it was basically a ritual to restore the husband's confidence in his wife, with the help of a placebo effect. All could be. But there's another answer that makes things a bit clearer.
First, to note that "thigh" (ירך) in Biblical Hebrew often meant "genitals" (Cf Genesis 24:2, 24:9, 47:29, believe oath was touching genitals, place of power and/or vulnerability). Which makes sense given the "if you're not guilty" here is also about reproductive stuff.
Occam's razor is that she became pregnant and the husband is worried that maybe the baby isn't his. And that the bitter waters would cause her to miscarry if in fact the paternity is from another man. In which case--yes, the bitter waters are a sort of abortifacient.
Some recent scholarship even suggests that the עפר, dust/earth is critical not as part of the psychological mechanism of humiliation (which--there's other stuff there for that too) but bc there's copper ore in it.
The "symptoms of copper intoxication fit the main and side effects of the potion precisely as evoked in this text," and cause miscarriage.
This would make the "retaining seed" part pretty clear--miscarriage definitely messes a body up, and if she's innocent, she stays pregnant. Though if she's drinking copper probably that's not it.
Again, could see either there's some sort of abortifacient in the water and all women miscarry, or could be that there's nothing really bad in the water and it's a way to humiliate her and expiate the husband's issues and she stays pregnant.
Or maybe, assuming that non-adulterous women miscarried then at the same rates they do now, there's some sort of after-the-fact blame that could happen--get dragged to do the ritual, miscarry later, blame is apportioned.
Regardless, I don't see any way to slice this that is particularly great for the woman (best case scenario is that it humiliates her to help a jealous husband get over himself).
And the Mishnah on Sotah is even worse; the humiliation is worse, the sexualization of the humiliation is worse, it's more public, the presumption of guilt is worse, everything. Dr. Sarra Lev wrote a killer piece on this in Passionate Torah. It literally smokes from the page.
Anyway, the point here is that it might very well be that there's a ritual for terminating a pregnancy right there in the Bible. Which might upend a lot of thinking about a lot of things (though probably it'll just get people angry in my mentions, hi, all!)
A little refresher on Judaism and reproductive rights, since how Jews think about this stuff and read Bible and etc. is not the same how folks in the Christian Religious Right do. We don't derive principles of law from Psalms. We just don't.…
Addendum: Yes, consequences for adultery are on wife, not husband. If there are witnesses to wife committing adultery, consequences are on wife and her side-piece (Lev 20:10). It was not forbidden for a husband to have a side-piece. (Nice when slang makes who's who clearer).
A husband's female side-piece was called a pilagesh, concubine, and that was a known category into the Middle Ages. Several reasons for this inequality. Mostly prolly to stem concerns about paternity. Also, you know, patriarchy. Both go back to the מעילה thing earlier.
The fact that the wife is *consecrated* to the husband the way something might be *consecrated* to the Temple is really first seen in this passage in Num 5, but becomes critical in Rabbinic literature.
An item consecrated to the Temple is forbidden for non-Temple use. If you consecrate a spoon (make it hekdesh, הקדש, yes, like קדש/holy) to the Temple but haven't yet made it to Jerusalem to hand it off to the priests, you are forbidden to use it for non-Temple use.
If you then use it to eat your breakfast cereal, you commit מעילה, meila. So a woman (or just her sexuality, some day) is consecrated to her husband. And if she uses her sexuality outside that framework, she commits meila.
The optimistic thing to say is that it's a way of saying that marriage is a holy space (and you can take this metaphor and run with it.) There are grumpier feminist things to say about it.
But now, even today, under the wedding canopy, traditionally the groom says to the bride, "behold, you are consecrated to me according to the laws of Moses and Israel." Lots of takes on what that means and is that great or terrible and what we should do with it and etc.
Here's more background on that: I put this together when in rab school--if you wander over to the blog section you'll see a bunch of the different ideas I had collected re: approaching the Jewish wedding ceremony around this.
So yes, there's an asymmetry there. And how that looks and what the reverberations are and what meaning we can make of that are still very much live questions. Oh! Wrote this for the Atlantic about wedding stuff, too:…
The wedding stuff isn't about adultery punishments per se, but I hope you can see how these concepts are all kind of tangled up together.
Oh! And in case it wasn’t clear! The sotah (suspected adulteress) ritual, if it was ever actually practiced in the Temple (this is unclear), certainly hasn’t been part of the tradition for more than 2000 years, probably much longer than that. FYI.
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