Manischewitz and Sotah

My lovely Marc blogged about last week’s Shabbat, including the Torah portion of the week.  His feminist take on a usually-regarded-as-sexist part of the Torah is so unique that I really wanted to share it with the blogosphere!  Also, in place of a picture, I’m including a link to a picture of Aliza in the Jewish Exponent’s kids contest.  “Like” the Exponent and the photo on facebook, and maybe we’ll win a free vacation!

Well, I’m happy to be writing for Miriam’s blog.  She asked me to write so I could share my d’var from last week’s Tikvah, which was a potluck, to which I brought “challah” from Trader Joe’s.  And I will, but first, a few additional notes about food.

Miriam and I hosted two meals this weekend.  Hosting a random group of people used to be something we’d do every two or three weeks.  This last year, it’s something we’ve done once every three or four months.  So things felt “back to normal,” and a bit nostalgic.  Miriam put together an astounding meal Friday night, including a sweet potato and bean “thing” (salad?), a green salad that wasn’t for me but that got compliments, excellent guacamole (which disappeared *fast*), a beet dip, which surprises me when I like it every time she makes it, and vegan chocolate cookies with homemade whipped cream.  I made a sangria, which was composed of Manischewicz cream peach wine, rum, lemonade, raspberry seltzer, and cut-up apples.  I’d tell you the proportions, but it’s better to just play it by ear.  The apples were especially tasty.

Below is the text of my d’var from last week, which I delivered without too much ad libbing.  Of course, my favorite part was when Aliza demanded for me to pick her up about 4/5 of the way through it.  Excellent distraction.  And, I should say, for this food blog: the parsha includes a recipe.  Sotah water includes water, dust from the floor of the tabernacle, and the ink of a written oath.  Like the sangria, the exact proportions of the ingredients are not listed.  Jonathan points out to me that this concoction would be unpleasant and unhealthy if it uses a lot of ash and ink, but I think we agreed that the ritual victual would be virtually harmless if it could employ just an iota of dust and ink.  So write the oath in tiny letters.


Hello, and welcome to the d’var.  Let’s get right to it.

By coincidence, I was also asked to give d’var on this parsha two years ago, I talked about Sotah.  I’d like to build on it.  I’ll summarize my previous argument, and then go a few steps further

First, a recap. The parsha describes Sotah, the ritual a woman suspected of adultery goes through.  Last time, I argued that this is an outstanding feminist institution.  In Egypt, the custom was for a woman suspected of adultery to be thrown into the nile.  The approximately half of women who survived were deemed innocent; the ones who died were guilty.  In Sotah, by contrast, a woman only needs to drink a glass of water and swear she is innocent, and if no harm comes to her that is taken as divine evidence of her innocence. In Sotah, no women are harmed, and the outcome of the harmless procedure is to reduce irrational male jealousy.

One the one hand, it sounds unfair – a woman has to go through some kind of ordeal just because her husband is irrationally jealous. That’s not fair.  On the other hand, look – a woman with an irrationally jealous husband has a harmless mechanism to get him to stop it already.  The unfair and harmful sexist thing is the male jealousy – Sotah is the fix to this problem.  Do we have a better system today?  Actually, no, there are few mechanisms in our culture that address male jealousy prior to committing harmful acts.  Sotah is sex-specific, but it is not sexist, not in the problematic sense of the term – or, it’s sexist like a women’s shelter is sexist, it helps with a preexisting problem.

That was the recap; now, a little more development.  First, some evolutionary psychology. Cross-culturally, one of the most consistent sex differences in jealousy.  There was just a meta-review by Sagarin et al about this analyzing hundreds of previously published papers.  Men are relatively more jealous over sexual infidelity, and women are relatively more jealous over a partner’s emotional attachments.  For example, when men and women hear that there was an infidelity, men would rather ask first, “Did you have sex with him,” and women would rather ask first, “Do you love her?”  This difference is like the sex difference in height – true cross-culturally, but still any particular male might be shorter than any particular female.  Sotah seems to acknowledge this difference. Most violence is committed by men – but that doesn’t make violence right, and it’s not an excuse.  The Torah is all about refusing to accept what is, and instead, works to make things the way they should be.

Does the Torah provide a similar institution with regard to jealous women?  Yes, it’s in the 10 commandments, do not covet other wives.  If women shouldn’t sleep around, this commandment says men shouldn’t cultivate emotional attachments. It’s like the Torah knew about Sagarin’s meta-analysis. Men and women are hurt by different things, and the Torah has separate laws that address men and women separately.

Here, though, to shift gears just a bit, is the broader point I’d like to make today. Let’s say that a ritual like Sotah can be seen as either anti-feminist or pro-feminist.  I want to argue that it is a stronger feminist perspective to focus on the pro-feminist messages in the Torah, rather than to find arguably anti-feminist messages.  If there is an option of going either way, why go negative? As I conclude, I’ll give two reasons why it is a more powerful feminist to be positive about the Torah as an exemplary feminist text.

First reason.  If you find Torah support for a progressive idea, your audience is much larger.  More people are willing to attribute errors to “the Rabbis” and commentators, including moral errors and sexist errors, than to the Torah ITSELF.  It is entirely consistent with the thrust of Judaism for you, now, to find a moral message in the Torah that has been overlooked before now.  If you go positive, everyone engaged in the process has a theological basis for at least listening to you.

Second reason.  If your perspective is that the Torah is creatively and progressively forward-thinking, then you might learn something from it.  If you give its ideas a chance to be better than yours, you might learn something from it.  But if the Torah is morally backwards promoting cruelty to women, then you can point that out, and then what?  Where do you go from there?  You won’t be in a mindset to learn anything new from a textbook that’s full of obvious errors.

If there seems to be an obvious moral mistake in the message of the Torah, take it as an opportunity to think creatively and find a way to make it work as progressive.  Sometimes, your new interpretation clicks, and opens up other sections of the Torah, like a key.

Let’s say your feminist perspective on the Torah is that it’s a deeply flawed book. Maybe you’re even right, but – so what?  Who cares if an ancient book has some anti-feminist idea?  On the other hand again, if a three-thousand-year-old book is outthinking us about how to deal with irrational male jealousy – well, then that’s pretty interesting. But you’ll miss it if you write it off, without giving it credit that you might be wrong, rather than that it is full of obvious mistakes.

Don’t be so sure the text is so flawed.  And, I think the same holds for sexual orientation.  Put the harmful biased sexist interpretations on the Rabbis.  Undermine their sexism by citing the Torah.  Amen.  Wait.  Not finished.  I’m not a preacher, I’m not one to end my own speeches with amen.  I should explain that I chose to say amen because it appears for the first time ever, in this parsha.  I forgot to mention that two years ago.  It’s what the text says women say at the end of Sotah:  Amen, amen.  And yes, what a relief – drink the water and when nothing happens that means g-d says you are innocent and your husband should stop accusing you.  Amen, in the worldwide context of abusive male jealousy, what a great mitzvah this Sotah does, plus of course all the other kind, fair, wise, and progressive feminist and egalitarian ideas in the Torah, many of which we know of, and many more we might still discover.  Let’s get learning!  And now back to your regularly scheduled services.


1 Comment

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One response to “Manischewitz and Sotah

  1. Eliezer Ben Philly

    So true. Look for the negative and it will be there. Look for the positive and it will be there. If it is worthwhile, it might not be so obvious.

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