Defiant women, jealous husbands, and occultish rituals mark this week’s parshah, Naso. Following an accusation of adultery by a husband with no proof, a woman was brought before a Temple priest to undergo the enigmatic ordeal of bitter water. If she were innocent, she would survive and bear children. If she were guilty, she would not.
“The priest shall bring her forward and have her stand before the Lord,” our Torah describes. “The priest shall take sacral water in an earthen vessel and, taking some of the earth that is on the floor of the Tabernacle, the priest shall put it into the water. After he has made the woman stand before the Lord, the priest shall bare the woman’s head and place upon her hands the meal offering of remembrance which is a meal offering of jealousy. And in the priest’s hands shall be the water of bitterness that induces the spell. The priest shall adjure the woman, saying to her, ‘if no man has lain with you, if you have not gone astray in defilement while married to your husband, be immune to harm from this water of bitterness that induces the spell. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and have defiled yourself, if a man other than your husband has had carnal relations with you -’ here the priest shall administer the curse of adjuration to the woman, as the priest goes on to say to the woman – “may the Lord make you a curse and an imprecation among your people, as the Lord 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.’ And the woman shall say, ‘Amen, amen!’ (Numbers 5:16 – 22).
The entire experience would have been one of intense emotional turmoil. Such a woman, known as a sotah, would first confront the suspicions of a jealous husband and then endure the public shaming which undoubtedly accompanied a formal accusation. She would have been forced to appear in her community’s most sacred space in a state of humiliation, choke back the dust of the Temple floor, and wait for her body to respond. Our Torah offers no recourse for women who suspect their husbands of infidelity, nor advice to the husband who has wrongly accused his spouse.
Today, the majority of Jewish women worldwide do not define their existence exclusively by marital status or reproductive capacity. We do not put women on trial because their husbands are abusively possessive. We know infertility is not divine punishment. In the west, though we continue to navigate both covert and subtle elements of a patriarchal paradigm, we are closer to gender equality than ever before. Women of other cultures, however, are forced to endure the attitudes exemplified by this week’s parshah. Recently in Sudan, Meriam Ibrahim was sentenced to death both for adultery and for renouncing a Muslim identity. In both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, adultery remains punishable by death. In Somalia, a woman may be stoned if found guilty of infidelity and in Bangladesh, a woman may be publicly flogged.
I choose to read the above passage as a call to action. The description of ritualized misogyny is a reminder that such practices still exist. For me, parshah Naso recalls the powerful words of Devarim. “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Deuteronomy 16:20). My duty to God is my obligation to my sisters and brothers in our shared human family. Grateful for the privilege and freedom I enjoy as an American Jewish woman, I have the power to effect change for my sisters. This week’s parshah provides an opportunity to reflect on the evolving sphere of women in Judaism, as well as the current experiences of women worlds away from our own communities.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.