[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.