Monday, May 19, 2008

Daf: Sotah and Misogyny

[Haveil Havalim is here!]

Our Daf Yomi is starting to learn Sotah. Sotah is mostly aggadata on a broad array of topics, and many key philosophical discussions, such as regarding the nature of Divine reward and punishment, are rooted in this masechta.

However, Sotah is also a magnet for misogyny allegations; after all, the Sotah is exclusively female, and she is made to suffer a greaty humiliating ordeal, when she might actually be innocent! It is true that if a woman were to be found guilty in her Sotah orderal, her male partner would suffer the same Sotah fate as she – such is predicted in the Gemara – but he would not face the Sotah ordeal itself.

So at the start, I feel it necessary to explore both of those points: The female-limitation on Sotah, and the possibility of the Sotah’s innocence.

1) If the Sotah might be innocent, why is she put through such a humiliating ordeal?
The Sotah becomes a Sotah if her husband warns her (rationally rather than in a fit of rage - Rashi Sotah 2b איכא עיקר) not to be alone with a certain man, and then she is secluded for a period of time with that man, with a witness to their entry into seclusion. Technically, there may not have been a sexual act at all.

However: Whatever one may say about the Sotah, this is not a case of innocence. There is a bibical prohibition against a man being secluded with another man’s wife, and a rabbinic prohibition against seclusion of unmarried an man and woman together (see, for example, Sanhedrin 21b). Therefore, in being secluded with this man, she has already violated a biblical law.

2) Why can’t a man become a Sotah?
The bottom line: Because, shocking as it may seem to us, the biblical text does not view a man’s extra-marital relationship as inherently adulterous and harmful to the household.

The proof of this is the Torah’s permission for polygamy.

Taking polygamy on the most straightforward, pshat level: Polygamy is biblically permitted because it maximizes the first Divine instruction, of פרו ורבו procreation. Multiple husbands with one wife (polyandry) would minimize fertility, but multiple wives with one husband (polygamy) will maximize fertility.

Yes, the Torah does present us exclusively with examples of polygamous households which self-destruct, starting with Lemech-Adah-Tzilah and running right through Shlomo haMelech, and yes, the chachamim saw and identified the psychological disaster that is polygamy, but the biblical permission chooses the nation (through procreation) over the needs of the individual.

Therefore: If a man is secluded with a woman other than his wife, he does not become a Sotah; it is not considered as great an attack upon his wife. Instead, if she is single, they may wed. If she is already married to someone else, then if there are two witnesses to the act he is killed (because of the damage he rendered to that other marriage), but if not, then she may become a Sotah.

I am well aware that this does not entirely settle the mind; why should her extra-marital involvement be more offensive to her husband than his extra-marital fling would be to her? Is it a product of biblical permission for polygamy? Is it a human nature observation? I don't know.

But with all of that in mind, we begin Sotah.


  1. The standard explanation for your question is that, no matter with whom the husband was closeted, there is no question about who is the MOTHER of any resultant children.

    A married woman, on the other hand, who secludes herself with a man who isn't her husband muddies the bloodline, because (until recently, anyway), there was no way to prove whether any children born after that seclusion belonged to her husband or the other man, even if she herself knew they hadn't been intimate.

  2. The biological difference Tzipporah mentioned is obviously a significant difference. I would only add that we should look at such utilitarian issues as an asmachta because ultimately whose to say whether in any particular case the halachah is because of the utilitarian reason or vice versa. Nor can we understand why Hashem didn't make things work differently.

    Another charge is that the Sotah ritual is to compare it to various ways women were tortured to try them as witches. Of course in those instances the they were proven innocent by dying from the violence. In the case of the Sotah the women is given something which is benign and only if she is guilty will punishment be met.

  3. Tzipporah-
    An interesting approach, but defeated by the majority view in the gemara that many factors will render the water inoperative, or at least delayed in its effect.

    Yes, I've thought of the Salem comparison - but as you note, it's turned on its head.

  4. Every act of adultery contains two members in it. the offending man and the offending woman. Any perspective that deems it unfair for a woman to be punished for her violation of the marriage ignores the unfairness of the punishment of the single man who did not violate any of his marriage vows but is punished with the same punishment regardless. In my mind, the only possible unfairness revolves around the embarrasment and not the punishment.great Shabbat. Brad

  5. Yes, Brad, but what about if he is a married man?

  6. please, to use that to defend deny the inherent misogyny is a bit of a stretch. the whole exercise is an expression is to warn uppity women who may control who. telling us who has the right to warn who about what. the ritual is a pornographic ritual as well, reminding who has the right to expose whose body.

  7. Bear in mind that there is no public ritual that punishes a man -for anything- involving intentional humiliation, certainly not public sexual humiliation, and most certainly not at the instigation of his wife.

  8. Hi Kisarita,

    Sorry, but I don't buy that. There are, indeed, such experiences for men - every time they get malkos.

  9. Are there any sources that would seem to point to the idea that if a married man is intimate with a woman who is not his wife that it's an issur? I can imagine a few. That it's adultery? If the husband himself has been unfaithful does the gemara assume that the mei sotah will be effective? If no, why should something that is only an issur affect something that's adultery? Brad