Shabbat Naso

Candles Friday 17th at 8:10pm
Havdalah 18th at 9:05pm

The ordeal of the Sotah comes in the context of having an ideal society in which reconciliation is more important than suspicion. Trial by ordeal was a very common way in the ancient world of trying to resolve situations in which there were indications of fault but no clear evidence. Just the threat was enough to get people to admit. Trial by ordeal was common in Europe and America until the seventeenth century.

A Sotah was a woman who had defied authority, but there was no clear evidence she had done something wrong sexually, that she had betrayed her husband. Although it is framed in terms of a wife betraying a husband, some commentators see it as a metaphor for any betrayal. A climate of mistrust was a threat to the stability of society.

But it did seem in the Bible rather unfair that husbands had this right rather than women. So initially the rabbis declared that the man was tested just as much as the woman was. But even so there came a moment when Rebi Yohanan Ben Zakai (two thousand years ago) declared that he would suspend this right because the men of his generation were not on a higher level that they deserved this privilege granted in the Torah.

Just think about how Rebi Yohanan was able to suspend and in effect make a biblical law inoperative. Actually there were quite a few other examples. Such legislative innovation that was possible once, no longer seems possible. Is this because our rabbis nowadays don’t have the authority or do not want the authority?

It’s not easy to decide what stays and what goes. People often pressurize rabbis to make concessions and they are not strong enough to withstand pressure. That is why there is consensus nowadays to make changes very reluctantly. But that does not mean it is not possible altogether.