Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Written by Zahavit Shalev

What if a man suspects his wife of adultery but can’t prove she was actually unfaithful?

The Torah suggests a ritual that will resolve the matter. The wife is brought to the Tabernacle and made to drink a special potion containing among other things, the ink that has run off a piece of parchment with curses written on it. Making the potion thus entails the erasure of God’s holy name. (The full ritual is decribed in Number 5:11-31).

No doubt about it, the sotah ritual is disturbing: the rabbis also found it troubling, although perhaps for different reasons to us.

A story is told in Leviticus Rabbah 9:94:

Rabbi Meir used to hold regular classes in the synagogue every Sabbath eve. A certain woman was present who regularly came to listen to him.

On one occasion he went on later than expected. When she arrived home she found the lights out. Her husband asked her: “Where have you been?” She told him: “I have been listening to a class.” He replied: “You may not enter this house until you go and spit in the face of the teacher.”

We don’t know much about the characters of the story. Maybe the unnamed woman is very pious, maybe she’s a frustrated intellectual in a world that doesn’t educate women, or maybe, as her husband fears, she has a crush on the rabbi? We don’t know much about the husband either. Maybe he’s a boor, or maybe he’s a good guy who is right to be suspicious of his wife’s behaviour?

Meanwhile, Rabbi Meir has elected to hold his class on a Friday night. Whatever the reasons for holding the class at this time, there is a symbolic  and practical problem with the timing: Friday night is a particularly propitious times for a married couple to have sexual relations. The scheduling of this class has forced the woman to choose between her rabbi and her husband. Her husband sees her choice clearly – she chose the rabbi over him – and he makes an ultimatum: she should make her allegiance to her husband clear by insulting her rabbi in public.

Rabbi Meir witnesses this domestic exchange “through the Holy Spirit”. He understands that he brought about discord in the woman’s marriage, and responds to it the next day.

Rabbi Meir pretended to be suffering from pain in the eyes, and announced: “If there is any woman skilled in whispering charms for the eyes, let her come and whisper.” Her neighbours related this to her and said: “This is a chance for you to return home. Pretend you are a charmer and spit into his eyes [which was part of the charm].”

At this point in the story I have very mixed feelings about Rabbi Meir.

 I’m appalled that he seems to know of the woman’s exchanges with her husband, and of her marital difficulties. And yet I’m not really surprised; rabbis are privy to sensitive information about their congregants. Things don’t need to be spelled out to be communicated. Rabbis need to be highly-attuned, aware of the far-reaching implications of their teachings and able to take responsibility for them.

Now I’m really torn.

I like the fact that Rabbi Meir does the decent thing by engineering a way for the woman to repair her standing with her husband. But I’m even more disturbed that Rabbi Meir seems to be pulling the strings in the woman’s marriage!

It’s a great story, isn’t it?! Here’s what happens next:

When she came to him he said to her: “Are you skilled in whispering charms for the eyes?” Daunted by his presence she answered in the negative. He said to her: “Never mind, spit into this eye seven times and it will get better.” After she had spat he said to her: “Go and tell your husband: ‘You bade me do it only once; see, I have spat seven times!’”

After this, the woman and her husband cease to be part of the story. The implication is that the woman passed the loyalty test and patched things up with her husband.

The final scene of the story turns to Rabbi Meir and his students.

His disciples said to him: “Master! Are the words of the Torah to be treated with such contempt as this? Had you told us, would we not have sent and fetched the man and given him a flogging on the bench and forced him to become reconciled with his wife?”

Said he to them: “The dignity of Meir ought not to be greater than that of his Divine Master. If in the case of [the sotah ritual where] the Holy Name which is so sacred, the Torah orders that it is to be blotted out in water, in order to bring about peace between a man and his wife, what does the dignity of Meir matter?”

Superficially, the Rabbi Meir story explains how it is right that God’s dignity be dishonoured in order to restore marital harmony. Both the story of the sotah, and of Rabbi Meir and the unnamed woman, deal with a crisis of sexual jealousy. They show that performative rituals can he helpful in dealing with such crises so that we can go home and get on with our lives.

The Rabbi Meir story goes very deep though. I think it is really a rumination about rabbinic authority. It talks to me about the delicate position of the rabbi – privy to aspects of the private life of congregants, and potentially able to affect people’s emotions and their closest relationships. It talks of rabbinic ego, and of transference and countertransference between rabbi and congregant, all of it playing out as much inside congregants’ heads as in the synagogue and the home. The journey from Numbers 5 to Levitucus Rabbah 9 shows how our tradition encourages us to turn our stories over and over until they yield a truth that we can relate to.

Student rabbi Zahavit Shalev


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.