Posts Tagged 'Sotah'

Rebuilding Trust: Sotah and Society

Recently I saw a great TED talk by Frances Frei, a professor of technology and operations management at the Harvard Business School. In her talk she discusses how to build and (even more importantly) how to rebuild trust. She outlines three component parts of trust: empathy, logic, and authenticity. She says:

Now, trust, if we’re going to rebuild it, we have to understand its component parts. The component parts of trust are super well understood. There’s three things about trust. If you sense that I am being authentic, you are much more likely to trust me. If you sense that I have real rigor in my logic, you are far more likely to trust me. And if you believe that my empathy is directed towards you, you are far more likely to trust me. When all three of these things are working, we have great trust. But if any one of these three gets shaky, if any one of these three wobbles, trust is threatened.

How to build (and rebuild) trust

It is worth watching the whole talk:

When we wobble with empathy we need to eliminate the distractions so we can be truly present and connected. It is pretty easy to do this, we just need to express to people that they matter. We need to do this by focusing on them. In this way technology is really eating away at our social fabric of trust luring us away with distractions.

When we have issues with logic- it is often not actually a question of the quality of our logic, but rather is an issue with our ability to communicate how we are thinking. Frei advises us to move away from the meandering narrative that leads to the main point to front loading the point and then following that with the supporting points.

And finally we get to the wobbles around authenticity. It is quoted in the name of Jean Giraudoux , “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.” It is extremely hard to fake authenticity. We have to do our best to create a culture which encourages all of us to live as our true selves.

With this we will have the three legs of the table of trust standing. These three ideas nicely line up with the wisdom of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel from Perkei Avot. He says, “On three things the world stands: on judgment, on truth and on peace, as it is said (Zachariah 8:16), ‘Judge truth and the justice of peace in your gates.'” ( Avot 1:18 ) It is easy enough to draw the lines between judgement and logic, truth and authenticity, and finally peace and empathy. The world and trust stand on these three things.

I was thinking about these questions of rebuilding trust in reading Naso, this week’s Torah portion. In Naso we learn about the case when a woman who are suspected of committing adultery. Trust has been broken between a husband and a wife. Sotah is the term for a woman suspected of adultery. She must undergo an ordeal that will establish her guilt or innocence. Numbers 5:11–31 describes in detail the ritual, which a priest performs in the Tabernacle to determine whether a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery is indeed guilty. The Torah determines that a husband who suffers from “a spirit of jealousy” and suspects his wife must bring her to the priest at the Tabernacle. There the priest performs a series of ritual acts: he offers a “meal-offering of jealousy,” an offering of ground barley without oil or frankincense, unbinds the woman’s hair, makes her swear an oath that she had sexual relations with no man other than her husband, writes the oath in a scroll and erases it in water mixed with dust from the Tabernacle, and finally makes the woman drink the mixture.

This mixture, which the Torah calls “the bitter, curse-causing waters,” contains the oath and the curses that accompany it, and ultimately determines the woman’s fate. As the woman drinks the potion, the outcome of the trial appears on her body, confirming or refuting her husband’s suspicions: If she is guilty, the water will cause the woman to become infertile (the expressions “her thigh falls” and “her belly distends” are probably euphemisms for harm to the sexual organs), but if she is innocent the water will do her no harm and even cause her to become fertile.

In the case of the Sotah trust is clearly wobbly. How does this ritual/ordeal try to rebuild trust? I am not sure how this ritual evokes empathy or any logic, but I can only imagine that it would reaffirm authenticity to help rebuild that relationship. That said, I am suspect that their marital issues are irreconcilable by this point. Maybe we need to learn from what does not work for the Sotah what we need to rebuild trust in society.


Nazir and Love: Beyond the Victory March

In Naso, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the laws of becoming a Nazir. The Nazir is someone who  takes a vow to “consecrate” or “separate” themselves. This vow means that they need to abstain from wine, wine vinegar, grapes, raisins, and eating or drinking any substance that contains any trace of grapes. It also means that they are going to refrain from cutting their hair. The final aspect of this vow is that they cannot become ritually impure by contact with corpses or graves, even those of family members. Why would anyone want to do this?

One answer given is that the laws of Nazir come right after the laws of the Sotah. This is not a case of a woman who is known to have actually committed adultery, but rather one whose behavior makes her suspect of having done so. Her faithfulness to her husband must therefore be established before the marriage relationship can be resumed. This starts with the husband expressing his suspicion that his wife had an improper relationship with another man. In this context he warns her not to be alone with that individual. If the woman disregards this warning and proceeds to seclude herself with the other man, she becomes a Sotah, forbidden to live with her husband unless she agrees to be tested with the “bitter waters.” The woman is warned that if she has indeed committed adultery, the “bitter waters” will kill her; if, however, she has not actually been unfaithful, the drinking of these waters exonerates her completely. In fact, the Torah promises that, having subjected herself to this ordeal, her marriage will now be even more rewarding and fruitful than before her “going astray.”

What is wrong with their relationship that you need this entire ordeal? The Torah goes right from these laws to a discussion of our law of the Nazir. One interpretation is that anyone who might see this play out would be driven to become a Nazir. But that seems to only get to the surface level. What else is going on here?

Lucas Cranach d. Ä. - Samson's Fight with the Lion - WGA05717.jpg

It is not at all surprising that the haftarah coupled with this Torah portion is the origin story of Shimshon, the most famous Nazir in the Bible. Shimshon is not a normal Nazir in that he has superhuman strength. He also not a particularly good Nazir in that he appears to break his vows, by touching a dead body (Judges 14:8–9) and drinking wine (he holds a “drinking party”, in Judges 14:10). 

What is not covered in the origin story is the tragic end of his life. His immense strength to aid him against his enemies and allow him to perform superhuman feats came from his hair. There we read:

He said to her, “No razor has ever touched my head, for I have been a nazirite to God since I was in my mother’s womb. If my hair were cut, my strength would leave me and I should become as weak as an ordinary man.” (Judges 16:17)

Shimshon was betrayed by his lover Delilah, who used the secret of the origin of his strength against him. She ordered a servant to cut his hair while he was sleeping and turned him over to his Philistine enemies.

I got thinking about all of this when recalling the spellbinding lyrics of Leonard Cohen‘s Hallelujah. He sings:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Here Cohen seamlessly remixes allusions to King David’s lust for Batsheva, Shimshon’s succumbing to Delilah, and a contemporary lover. Maybe this gives us some insight into the connection of the suspicious lover in the Sotah case and the drive for self destruction in the Shimson and the case of the Nazir. If we see love as something to be won, it can also be something to be lost. In that version of love, there will always be causalities, people getting hurt, and people’s needs not being met. As Cohen so eloquently comments ” love is not some kind of victory march”. Love makes us do crazy things. A lesson of the Nazir is that we need to move beyond transaction to relationship if we hope to sing the song of Hallelujah.

Drinking Away Issues

In Naso, this week’s Torah portion we read about the case of the Sotah. In the case in which a husband was suspicious of his wife’s fidelity the Torah outlines a process for determining her guilt. Evidently asking her was not a possibility.  If she was unfaithful the potion would do her in, and the other possibility was that she was innocent and he was just jealous and insecure . There we read:

Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her— but a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself— the man shall bring his wife to the priest. And he shall bring as an offering for her one-tenth of an ephah of barley flour. No oil shall be poured upon it and no frankincense shall be laid on it, for it is a meal offering of jealousy, a meal offering of remembrance which recalls wrongdoing. ( Numbers 5:12-15 )

While it clearly speaks to a patriarchal society, it also speaks to a society in which men and women do not know how to communicate. The most striking element of the Sotah is the use of this magical potion. While imaging a world with this potion that has an impact on interpersonal relations seems so distant, I have to ask if this is so different from our society?

I was thinking about this in the context of the impact of another potionhas on relationships. It is reported that of married couples who get into physical altercations, some 60-70 percent abuse alcohol.  As the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence discusses, the following are some of the ways in which problem drinking affects family members, employers, colleagues, fellow students, and others:

  • Neglect of important duties: Alcohol impairs one’s cognitive functions and physical capabilities, and this, at some point, will likely result in neglect of responsibilities associated with work, home life, and/or school.
  • Needing time to nurse hangovers: Alcohol has various short-term side effects, such as hangovers. The physical state of a hangover may be temporary, but it can significantly disrupt a person’s ability to meet commitments as well as invite unhealthy behaviors, such as poor eating and a lack of exercise.
  • Encountering legal problems: Drinking can increase a person’s likelihood of getting into fights, displaying disorderly conduct in public, driving under the influence, and becoming involved in domestic disputes or violence.
  • The inability to stop at will: Alcohol is an addictive substance and can lead to physical dependence. Although a person who is physically dependent (i.e., has an increased tolerance among other side effects) is not necessarily addicted, ongoing drinking is a slippery slope that can lead to addiction.

While in the story of the Sotah from our Torah portion the potion seems to cure the problems the couple is having, for us alcohol seems to cause or at least be associated with many of our biggest problems. Throughout history it would seem so much better if we could just talk about our issues instead of trying to drink them away.

A Language for Jealosy: Rethinking Sotah

In Nasso, this week’s Torah portion we read about the case of the Sotah. In the case in which a husband was suspicious of his wife’s fidelity the Torah outlines a process for determining her guilt. Evidently asking her was not a possibility.  If she was unfaithful the potion would do her in, and the other possibility was that she was innocent and he was just jealous and insecure . There we read:

 or if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled; then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is a meal-offering of jealousy, a meal-offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance. ( Numbers 5:14-15 )

While it clearly speaks to a patriarchal society, it also speaks to a society in which men and women do not know how to communicate. It seems so strange with all of these magic potions, but is it so different from our society?

It is hard to read this part of the Torah the same way after the events of the recent shootings in Isla Vista. A young man sat in his car and outlined his jealousy toward the women in his life and his plans to kill them. Unable to communicate in normal ways he put this video on YouTube and actually went through with the heinous crimes. I think we need to look in the mirror and realize that while killing is not normal, the inability for people to communicate might be the new normal.

How did we get here?  Clearly the use and abuse of technology, pornography, and social media has played a role, but how do we undo these things? What do we need to do get us out of this problem? We need to change our very language and how we talk about each other. The next generation needs us to do some hard work on this. We need to teach our sons and daughters how to see each other as people to communicate with and to be intimate with rather than simply seeing each other a sexual objects to own and use. We need a language to communicate jealousy.

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