This week’s parasha contains one of the most astonishingly strange moments in a book generally bursting with them. It merits being read in full, but for the hurried, here’s a condensed version: If a man, possessed by “a spirit of jealousy,” suspects his wife of being unfaithful, he is to bring the wayward woman to the priest. The priest is to expose the woman’s hair and warn her that if she’s indeed guilty of the deed, her thigh will rupture and her belly will swell up. Then, the priest is to take some holy water, mix in some dirt, write a curse on a piece of paper, immerse the paper in the sludgy mixture until the ink runs, and then serve the foul concoction to the suspected adulteress. She drinks it up; if she is innocent, the potion will have no effect.
Without much thought, one would be forgiven for thinking that the Torah has it backwards: Whether they dwell in dusty tents in the Sinai desert or in room 2806 of the Sofitel hotel in Manhattan, men—historically, psychologically, genetically—are the ones more inclined to cheat. The ritual, therefore, should have been awarded to women wishing to control their husbands; imagine, for example, Maria Shriver dragging Arnold away from the governor’s mansion and straight to the nearest kohen for a healthy dose of drinking drek.
But even reading the story on its own terms, much about the ceremony’s mechanics is difficult to explain. The curse, for example, contains the explicit name of God; when it is dipped in water, the name of God is blotted, a grave and expressly prohibited sin. But even more troubling is the logic behind the whole affair—why should something as profoundly intimate as a quarrel between husband and wife require divine intervention? And why should this intervention take on the peculiarly Byzantine form of a ceremony so forbidding it would not look out of place in a congregation of ritually minded pagans?
These are uneasy questions. The answers are uneasy as well. An entire Mishnah tractate is devoted to the matter: Sotah, or the wayward wife. It so baffles even the more astute of our observers that the preeminent Talmudic scholar Jacob Neusner, for example, wrote: “Sotah, for its part, shows us what a Mishnah tractate looks like when Mishnah has nothing important to say about a chosen topic.”
How, then, to read the whole convoluted affair? Here’s a start: To truly understand what’s on the minds of women, men better pray for a miracle. And to keep a relationship sound, it might help, every now and then, to bring in some magic.
None of this is meant to underplay the troubling bit about drinking inky mud; like so many thinkers far wiser than me, I can’t find any truly redeeming qualities to the demeaning and silly ceremony and can only take solace in knowing that even as early as the days of the Second Temple men seized by the spirit of jealousy were strongly advised to put the holy water aside, go home, and sort things out with their spouses. But the fundamental notion remains unchanged: Men see women as a great, big Other.
If this is news to you, you’ve likely not attended a college seminar, read a newspaper, or watched an episode of Oprah in the past 30 or so years. But this week’s parasha is far from irrelevant—everywhere you look nowadays, men, it seems, still wish there was some easy, foolproof, blessed way to keep women in check.
It’s tempting to discuss Dominque Strauss-Kahn in this context, or to bring up Arnold Schwarzenegger yet again, the beautiful soul who—as my colleague Michelle Goldberg recently noted—extolled the pleasures of his craft by saying of some of the more demanding moments in his role as the Terminator, “How many times do you get away with this—to take a woman, grab her upside down and bury her face in a toilet bowl?” To see the logic of the Sotah ceremony in action, look no further than the upcoming fall television lineup.
On NBC, The Playboy Club will depict the 1960s Chicago hotspot that, according to the network’s jazzy promotional language, is “the door to all your fantasies.” Lest us erstwhile male viewers have trouble remembering the female characters’ names, all women on the show are referred to simply as bunnies. Not to be outdone—and atoning, perhaps, for women-driven shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice—ABC is digging up Charlie’s Angels from the vault of long abandoned shows. The promo for the revamped version charmingly begins by identifying the show’s main protagonists, all women in their 20s, as “three little girls.” It’s all downhill and up-the-skirt from there. If you happen to like your little girls a bit more sedentary than Charlie’s karate-kicking badasses, ABC is also proud to present Pan Am, a bacchanal of sexy pilots and the sultry stewardesses who love them. And on CBS, home of the tender Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, a new sitcom called How to be a Gentleman focuses on a kind and sensitive newspaper columnist who must learn to unleash his inner dog-in-heat in order to keep his job and get the girl.
None of these shows, of course, features rituals or curses, but the effect is the same as the one of the Sotah ceremony: Rather than letting women speak for themselves as present and mindful and independent adults, television, for the most part, reimagines them as pretty little dolls; whether we drag them before a priest or into the Playboy Club’s bathroom for a quick tryst makes little difference.
We, alas, have already gotten used to our crass cultural artifacts and their facile way of humiliating women. But maybe a quick reading of this week’s parasha and its bizarre brutalities would shake us up a bit, and make us understand that men have always been particularly prone to jealousy, wary of women’s sexuality, and terrified by the possibility of a strong partner able to come and go and act as she pleases. And men have always wished for some kind of magic to help them know for certain that the women they love are theirs alone, faithful and pure and subdued. It’s been a couple of millennia since the rabbis realized just how problematic this approach truly is; we would do well to follow suit.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.