Our parasha contains what many see as an outdated, troubling methodology for judging claims of infidelity from a jealous husband against his wife. Never one to try and shy away from attempting to redeem some of the more misogynist parts of the text, I shall delve into the fray surrounding Bemidbar 5:11-29.
A more careful reading shows that all may not be as it seems.
Consider, for example, that the text makes explicit that this test is to be used if the husband suspects infidelity, whether or not there was actual infidelity.
This ritual is not about a wife's unfaithfulness. This is a ritual about a man's jealousy. It is Gd and our ancestors recognizing male humans for what they are, imperfections and all. And one typical male human imperfection is a tendency towards jealousy and suspicion when it comes to his wife (or wives, to put it in a more accurate perspective.)
Yes, it is indeed true that the text seems to imply that a woman who has indeed been unfaithful top her husband will indeed suffer and be cursed from the effect of the waters of bitterness ritual. But in the Torah's sense of values, this is not surprising.
It may seem a perverse value, but a man's jealously or worries about a wife's infidelity, imagined or real, is not an offense before Gd. Infidelity, however, is. It cannot but be punished, if discovered, whether by arcane ritual or other means.
But imagine for a minute that this ritual were not in force. Jealous men, driven by their jealousy, may take justice into their own hands. They might cast out, harm, even kill a wife suspected of infidelity.
Now, even then, our ancestors realized that this was a situation for which obtaining testimony was difficult at best. Rarely will there be witness to an act of infidelity other than the two people engaged in it. And it is not likely they would freely admit to their guilt. Thus, this was not a fit subject for judgment by elders or others, but only by Gd. The priests act only as intermediaries, performing the ritual.
As for the ritual itself, it may be simple superstition, or it may have a deeper psychological purpose. Consider how the guilty adulterer might react in the face of being subjected to this "test." Perhaps the ritual is designed more to elicit self-examination than guilt. Even the faithful wife will have reason to reflect. As will the jealous husband who learns his wife was faithful (or unfaithful.)
We are such a cocky modern civilization. We think we invented everything that makes humanity better, from technology to psychology. Truth of the matter is, our ancestors had as good a handle on it as we do. We have much to learn from them, if we try. Did our ancestors live in a patriarchic society? No doubt. Women and men were not treated the same. But our Jewish tradition does has a history of recognizing the role and rights of women. We need not view every passage that seems misogynistic through that lens. Let's look for what good these troublesome things accomplished, try and understand why Gd and our ancestors, in their collective wisdom, said and did the things they said and did (or better perhaps, did and heard?)
I am an eternal optimist - I think even Hosea's whoring wife metaphor is redeemable. Next time you encounter a troubling bit of text in Torah or Tanakh, turn it and turn it, and see how it can be redeemed. You may or may not find an answer. But, as we are taught in Pirkei Avot: "lo alecha hamlecha ligmor, v'lo ata ben chorin l'hivatel mimena. It is not your obligation to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it." The responsible traditional and liberal Jew alike bears that responsibility for ALL of Torah. Carry it well.
©2000 by Adrian A. Durlester
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