Wayward Wives

According to the Bible, when a man suspects his wife of adultery, he may initiate a ritual to test her faithfulness. The couple travels to a priest who makes the woman (the sotah) drink bitter water mixed with the dust of the floor of the holy place. The priest loosens her hair, takes a “jealousy” sacrifice from her, and makes her swear an oath. If guilty, the water will make “her belly swell and her thigh fall,” but if she is innocent, she will conceive (Numbers 5:11-31).

The description is stark yet suggestive. One can’t help imagining the accursed woman standing before her husband and the priest, and maybe others, as she brings to her lips the holy water that will reveal her deepest secrets. Is this a sexist, misogynistic display, allowing men to humiliate their wives any time jealousy possesses them? Or could the ritual perhaps be useful to women, allowing them a way to prove their innocence?

Similar questions captivate the rabbis, as ably described in Lisa Grushcow’s Writing the Wayward Wife: Rabbinic Interpretations of Sotah (Brill, S129.00). Sometimes detailed and punitive, while other times protective and gracious, the rabbis’ detailed discourse has led some to see the sotah ceremony as a clue to the rabbis’ views on women. Grushcow recognizes the complexity and richness of the later texts, insisting that while many of the issues the rabbis raise-propriety, uncertainty, sin, pride, punishment, reward—have an impact upon women, “none of them are primarily about women.” Instead, Grushcow suggests that the rabbinic commentary (the Mishnah, the Tosefta, the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, and the midrashic works, among others included in her analysis) are shaped by two themes. The first is the rabbinic focus on details of the law, leading to an intense exploration of all aspects of the ceremony. The second theme is more specific to sotah; the rabbis are of course interested in condemning and preventing adultery, but they are also wary of presuming guilt.

Grushcow’s analysis proceeds theme by theme through each of her chosen sources, including Greek Jewish texts. Though written first as a dissertation (six pages on various “critical approaches” are about five more than a general reader might need), this academic work is quite readable, especially for those familiar with rabbinic literature; the book is easy to navigate and well-indexed.

Particularly interesting is the section describing the discontinuation of the sotah ritual. The Mishnah (200 C.E.) already describes the ritual as a thing of the past, and the later sources are even less familiar with any actual historical sotah ceremony. The various explanations for its elimination, from universal moral decline to a rabbinic decree, reinforce the point that all the later rabbinic interest in the ceremonial details must be motivated by more than practical concerns. Gruschow’s fascinating account offers a glimpse into the rabbinic mindset—which is, in itself, reason to concern ourselves with the story of these bitter waters. 

Shira Fischer studied in Jerusalem while on a Dorot Fellowship. Sine is a candidate for an M.D/Ph.D. degree at the University of Massachusetts