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Mirror and Enigma: The Talmud’s Sisters and Their Sotah Ordeal

Susan Reimer-Torn
March 23, 2015

by Susan Reimer-Torn

A STORY IS TOLD of two sisters who resembled one another. One sister was married and lived in one city. And the other sister was married and lived in another city. The husband of one of them grew jealous of his wife and wanted to bring her to Jerusalem to drink the bitter waters. That sister went to the city where her sister lived with her husband.

Her sister said to her: Why did you see fit to come here? She said to her: My husband wants me to drink the bitter waters. Her sister said: I will go in your stead and drink. She said to her: Go.

She dressed herself in her sister’s clothes and went in her stead. She drank the bitter water, and was found to be innocent. She returned to the home of her sister, who came out happily to greet her. She embraced her sister and kissed her on the lips. When they kissed one another, her sister breathed in the smell of the bitter waters, and immediately she died (Midrash Tanhuma, Naso 6).

152405266-magician-sawing-woman-in-half-gettyimagesThe sotah ("if she has strayed") ordeal is described in the Bible (Numbers 5:11-31), and was further elaborated and named in the Talmudic tractate Nashim ("women" or "wives"). In my own response to the midrash above, I see the civilized order being disrupted not primarily by a woman who may have committed adultery, but by the mindset of a husband who cannot dispel his suspicions of betrayal. He is a man obsessed with knowing the truth about his wife; he is a control freak, the very kind of man a woman might well seek to "escape," at least temporarily, through an affair.

The approach to the problem is not juridical — no witnesses, no testimonies, no evidence, no measured judgment are called for. Instead, we have a shockingly primitive trial by ordeal: The accused woman, the sotah, must appear in a suitably disheveled state before the priest. She will be made to drink bitter waters that contain dissolved sacred parchment and ashes from a dirty floor. If she is innocent, there will be no reaction. If she is guilty, her stomach will swell up and she is unlikely to survive the ordeal. Trial by ingested water implies the intervention of an all-knowing, arbitrating God.

359551_1_oBut in this story, sisterhood nearly triumphs over the patriarchal unfairness of it all. The two sisters look so much alike that one can pass for the other. When one is accused of marital infidelity, they collude. The narrator, though surely a male, seems to intuit that a woman, even without specifically being asked, will unconditionally come to her sister’s aid. A reader can hardly be unmoved by the gesture.

In the end, however, the story clearly serves as a warning to clever little ladies who might be tempted to conspire against male power. In her book, A Bride for One Night, Talmudic commentator Ruth Calderon says that the story “warns that anyone who tries to circumvent the law will pay with her life and that the final kiss will be a kiss of death. Feminine loyalty will not triumph over the masculine rule of law.”

Calderon, a secular Israeli who is a member of the Knesset and holds a Ph.D in talmudic literature, is well aware that this is a misogynist tale motivated by a deep-seated fear of woman power. In her book, she first relates the story with its original ending intact, but she then willfully imagines it ending another way: “I took the liberty," she writes, "of freezing the end of the story one moment prior to the sister’s arrival, just before the sisterly kiss turns into a kiss of death.” Calderon's is an alternative universe, an idealized utopia in which “sisterly solidarity is alive and flourishing as a force for life and challenging oppressive legislation.” In this version, the subterfuge succeeds, the sisters survive, both marriages presumably live on, and most important, the reader is invited to entertain a whole new way of thinking about these socio-sexual issues.

In a recent Jewish Currents blog post, Bennett Muraskin objects to Ruth Calderon’s rewriting — or rather shortening — the ending of this tale. I counter that Calderon’s creative prerogative is firmly rooted in our tradition. In the Midrash, rabbis were forever rewriting stories, sometimes to introduce a new theological perspective. There are even variations on the ending of the iconic story of the Sacrifice of Isaac, some insisting that Isaac was sacrificed rather than spared. Calderon is a spokeswoman for the new generation of secular, frequently feminist readers of classical Jewish texts who permit themselves to reimagine a sadly limited socio-religious mindset even while acknowledging it for what it was — and what it sadly remains to this day in less broadminded circles.

IN HER LATEST BOOK, Bewilderments, the acclaimed biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg has a lengthy discussion of the sotah. While she does not reference our sisterly aggadic tale, she does create an interesting arc of discussion.

Zornberg begins by quoting Rashi, who invokes a conventional rabbinic point of view: “Adulterers never sin until a spirit of madness enters into them.” Zornberg translates: The sotah must be mad, because “otherwise, her act would be unthinkable.” She also explains why the sotah is such a threat to the patriarchal status quo: “For society, she now represents the unthinkable, the terror of human permeability to momentary gusts of passion.... In such a universe, the observer becomes as vulnerable as the woman he observes" (italics added).

Zornberg goes on to explore why the bitter waters must contain dissolved parchment. This unsavory beverage is identical to the bitter waters that the Israelites are forced to drink after the sin of the Golden Calf. Here is an important detail: The parchment in both cases contains the dissolved name of God. In the eyes of the rabbis, both the idolaters and the sotah have betrayed God. In fact, they have both sought out a place where God’s presence is blocked out. For this reason, their punitive ordeal involves the ingesting of God’s name.

The sotah, according to Zornberg, is seeking a place where she can manage to escape the oppressive presence of God. She carries out her act hidden from God's eyes. While Zornberg, an Orthodox Jew, would likely censure such female temerity, I take the liberty of acclaiming it as a radical act of freedom. Rather than dismissing the sotah as mad, we come to understand her as a seeker of sanctuary where sexuality, desire, love, and loyalty will be ruled by a woman’s own laws. She uses her body to wrest authority from God and the patriarchy. It is in this act, that the woman finds her autonomous identity. “Daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend... the only place I feel fully myself is in the adulterous bed,” Erica Jong famously said in the early days of feminist awareness, dissenting from what she called "mating in captivity."

Calderon’s wishful retelling of the tale leads us to a place where women have agency and men’s anxieties are eventually quieted, even if by deceptive means. It is a new frontier where the regressive tyranny of a suspicious man will not find an ally in an analogously jealous God. In this place, a woman with radical self-possession and a little help from her sister triumphs. In doing so, she invites insecure men and the God they have constructed in their own image to transcend their own limitations.

Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return, published by our own Blue Thread Books and Music. She writes regularly for The Jewish Week.

Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.