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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Parshat Naso - Beyond the Bitter Waters

The parashah/portion this Shabbat is Naso (Be'midbar/ Numbers 4:21 - 7:89 ). The parashah includes one of the most difficult and painful passages in the Torah, the ordeal of the Sotah, or suspected adulteress. According to the Torah if a man suspects his wife of adultery (not the other way around, since man could have many wives and have sexual relations with other women as long as they weren't betrothed or married to another man) he would bring her before the priest and there would be a ritual in which she would be made to drink the "bitter waters". This was a concoction consisting of water, dirt from the sanctuary floor and ink from a piece of parchment on which had been written the words of the curses that would befall the woman were she to be found guilty and which had just been read aloud to the woman and all those present. The parchment was then dipped in the solution. If the woman drank the bitter waters and nothing happened she would be declared innocent and the husband would have no recourse other than to take her back. However, if her "thigh sagged and belly distended," which many commentators interpret as not only stomach pains, but that she is rendered unable to bear children, then she is declared guilty and will be cursed among the people.

I have always found this passage to be troubling and perplexing because of its inherent misogyny and patriarchy. However, it is also troubling because I have always believed (as have others) that no woman would have ever been found guilty since the waters would probably do nothing other than make her a little nauseous. However, I think there is another way to re-read the ritual through a modern lens that almost (and I emphasize "almost") makes it seems like perhaps this was actually a way to protect and not denigrate the women involved. That was the basis for my first the poem/d'var on this passage,
The Sotah's Lament.

As a man, I have also tried to imagine, through a modern lens, what her husband might have been thinking as he accused her. I was quite aware that this might be interpreted as a man's apologetic response to a clearly misogynistic text, but I still felt in my heart that the man's voice needed to be imagined as a way of trying to perhaps find some way to reconcile ourselves with the text in this particular moment in time.  It was written in another moment and one can only imagine what was in the minds and hearts of the authors at that time. I can only try to look into my own soul in this particular moment and see what response arises.

In writing this "response" I tried to give the man a voice while also realizing that he is clearly the one who has all the power in this patriarchal society, and that the woman is clearly under his control (not to mention that of the priest). Yet to reduce the man to anonymity also means that he becomes objectified (though certainly not to the same degree as the woman). Both the husband and the wife are objects of the author that were used to send a specific message at that time. Objectification of a human being, no matter what gender, is destructive.

I ask you to  read my imagined "husband's response" with an open mind and in combination with the first poem.  Read consecutively these can provide us with one writer's imagining of what might have been going on within the minds and hearts of the man and woman involved in this ordeal.
[note: I have written this poem in one column in order to make it easier to read on the computer screen. If you want to print it up I suggest pasting it into your word processing program and creating two or three columns.  Otherwise you will have a ream of material]

the sotah’s lament

I stand here accused
of what I do not know

of betraying him
husband-master I am his
he is not mine     never will be
I don’t want him to be

he says  I am unfaithful  I must be cursed
I am dragged to the priest
hair unloosed offering in my hand
I hear don’t hear the words the curse
ringing in my ears
I don’t comprehend
I say amen    to what     to him    to nothing
his words thoughts accusations

why am I here       of what am I accused
I think to myself what will happen
will my belly distend thigh sag
unable to bear children his children

do I care
yes no
I want my children      not his
I want freedom to choose
man woman someone
anyone    not him
I want to be left alone to live

suddenly the cup is at my lips
I am forced to drink
bitter waters dirty waters
filled with words of curse  words of hatred
filling me with the same

I know nothing will happen
I suspect the priest knows as well
the goal of this charade is to convince him
of an unreal truth
to make peace between us
between two for whom
peace is a theoretical construct      not a reality
or why would he bring me here

I wish something would happen
better to be unable to bear children
than to have to bear    him    his    both

I pray to show signs of guilt
let him cast me out send me away for all time
so I can start again          on my own
to start      to be      on my own
someday perhaps
foolish       impossible
in this moment   I hear the verdict
I am innocent   pure
he looks at me relief disbelief
I look at him resignation frustration depression
I must return to him with him
to his home      not really mine
to continue the charade

I am my beloved’s    my beloved is mine
foolish words       never to be a reality
perhaps a dream for the future
a true messianic era
never to be mine

the sotah's husband

I stand alone waiting to hear
the words to be uttered from his lips
the priest silent watching waiting for nothing speaks
she is innocent pure I am in shock
this is not what I hoped to hear not what I wished for me

I was sure of what I do not know
of her guilt perhaps of my suspicions certainly
of God's justice I cannot say
was this real a dream a sham a ruse to bring us back together
us what is that I don't know
two individuals man woman joined together
by fate politics parents tradition forces outside of ourselves
I know she does not love me for I do not love her
for we do not know one another
two entities thrown together by others as always why

will it ever change
I do not know I do not care I just want something more
so I do what I am told I can do
I am the man in charge she is the woman with no control
I accuse the priest must listen
I watch trying not to feel anything
she is dragged before him hair unloosed
offering in her hand she listens hears every word
the curse is uttered
she opens her mouth drinks willingly
perhaps hoping for the same consequence

but nothing happens
she is proclaimed innocent she must return to me 
I must accept her
we must return    to live together      a farce
I did the only thing I could       I accused
she did the only thing she could         she obeyed
she had no choice        I did       I still do
I have the power to choose       yet I do not
neither of us can truly choose    of our own free will
but at least I can pretend

will any of us ever be able to truly choose
why ask foolish questions
why question what I know will not be changed
we return home husbandandwife     masterandservant
is that what God meant   by ezer k'negdo*
a helper    facing     opposite     opposing    me
a man shall leave his mother and cling to his wife
how absurd        how can I cling to a non-person
how can I cling to    anyone    anything
if only I knew then perhaps we could both be free to live
but perhaps that is too much for anyone to ask 
at least for now 

* in Genesis Chapter 2 Eve is referred to as an ezer k'negdo. Usually translated as a “help mate” it can also be translated as a helper opposite or opposing him


Shoshana Kaminsky said...

Hi Steve,
I read both poems to my congregation this morning (yes, you've cracked the Australia market!). Everyone found the first poem very affecting but were less persuaded by the second one. I think it's challenging to turn this anonymous accuser into a sympathetic figure, and we all know far too many stories of women whose lives have been made miserable by unreasonably jealous husbands.

Olly Holmes said...

This is actually my first time hearing about the tradition of what exactly goes on with the process of judging a woman's innocence in adultery. Of course in account of scientific proofs of the phenomenon going on the ceremony, there might be some bit of interventions coming from the people.

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