In the upcoming Torah passages, we read of the ritual of the sotah, the suspected adulteress. Anyone who has studied these passages immediately understands the controversial nature of the material.
It involves a husband who suspects his wife of adultery but doesn’t have the required proof to bring her to justice. There’s no way to resolve the issue, so he brings her before the high priest and the whole community. There she is publicly accused of being a suspected adulteress and is shamed and made to drink “bitter waters,” which consists of water, earth from the Temple grounds and a curse written and dissolved into the water. If she survives the ordeal, she’s innocent and will be rewarded with children. If she’s guilty, her innards will shrivel and drop.
The sotah ceremony is one of the few trials by ordeal that Judaism records. Essentially, the concept of a trial by ordeal is that when disputes can’t be resolved by the usual methods, they still need resolution. In such a case, God is invoked as Final Judge, assuming that God wouldn’t allow an innocent person to be punished and exonerates the innocent while condemning the guilty. The sotah ceremony stopped in the early Rabbinic Period. Aside from logistical difficulties, the sages usually preferred that we handle things ourselves through a judicial process.
The usual controversy that surrounds the sotah ceremony today is that there isn’t an equivalent ceremony for men. Certainly there are parallel suspicions that can be lobbied against a male suspected of being intimate with a married woman. Where is the trial by ordeal for the man?
I suspect we can ask that question because we’re sitting in a modern world. It’s not that no one would dare give a man a trial by ordeal. On the contrary: the fact is that men lived with it almost constantly. In the ancient world, warfare was seen as the ultimate trial by ordeal. If God favoured you, you would win, and if you had sinned, God would let you lose. Any war arena became the ultimate trial of your relationship with God based on your daily choices.
The ancient world didn’t honour the men so as to exempt them from trial by ordeal, but rather created the male world entirely around these trials. It’s in the face of this overwhelming worldview that the sages proclaimed the power of peace. It’s not a test of your faith to engage in warfare, but rather a test of your commitment to God to solicit peace.
When the sages were discussing entering the Land of Israel, they stated that if the land gives us food and drink, we still have nothing unless we have peace. “If there is no peace, there is nothing at all.” The text goes on to say: “Peace equals all else. Indeed we say, when God made peace, God created everything.”
Rachael Turkienicz is director of Rachaelscentre.org.