Sotah: Understanding Change

Confronting a troubling Biblical narrative.

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How the Ritual Disappeared

Some modern scholars assume that the ritual of the sotah disappeared because of the destruction of the Temple. Others argue that the ritual was abolished as a bold rabbinic move, to remove a practice that was seen to be unfair. But when one looks closely at the rabbinic texts, neither of these reasons is found.

Rather, the explanation given is that things were getting worse-either more people were openly committing adultery, or more husbands were sinning in such a way that the sotah ritual did not then work on their wives. The Rabbis account for these and other examples of decline by claiming that the deaths of certain sages led to the disappearance of certain qualities from the world (see for example, Mishnah Sotah 9:9).

Thus, in these rabbinic texts, change results from a world that is getting worse. It is also worth noting that we find a similar outlook in the Greco-Roman world that surrounded the ancient rabbis. From that perspective, religious and legal changes were a response to moral, sexual, intellectual, or political collapse.

Making Change Positive

Coming back to the sotah ritual, then, it seems that our ancestors did not abolish the ritual because they found it morally objectionable. Instead, they used the best conceptual tools of their time to make sense of why change had happened, and those tools explained change as the product of decline.

Our modern paradigm, in contrast, is fundamentally based on the assumptions of science, the Enlightenment, and Emancipation: we believe that it is possible for humanity to make changes based on progress, not decline. The optimism of the Enlightenment has been tempered by the Holocaust and other tragedies of modern times, but the fundamental shift remains. For us, change can be positive, even holy. We believe that God continues to speak to us. Living in accordance with our new understandings of gender and sexual identity has enriched our clergy and communities.

Living in a world more openly diverse has taught us the importance of outreach and inreach for our com- munities, in all their diversity. Scientific insights spur us to find new ethical and spiritual answers to questions of life and death. The existence of the modern state of Israel challenges us to live richer Jewish lives, wherever we are in the world. These changes and others are celebrated, not lamented as evidence of decline.

Ultimately, then, the sotah ritual is most powerful as a teacher of change: how we understood change in the past, and how we might understand it now. Just as the Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud used the best conceptual tools of their time to understand change, so must we--with the tools of our own time. Such an approach is not abandoning our tradition; it is being true to it.

The end of the Babylonian Talmud's tractate on sotah gives us a glimmer of possibility: some of our ancestors might also have had a different perspective on change and decline. Mishnah Sotah 9:9 ends with the statement that with the death of Rabbi Judah haNasi, humility and the fear of sin disappeared. In the Talmud's commentary, this statement is challenged. "Do not teach that humility is gone," says Rav Joseph, "for I am still here!" "Do not teach that the fear of sin is gone," says Rav Nachman, "for I am still here!" (BT Sotah 49b). Rav Nachman's self-proclaimed fear of sin--not to mention Rav Joseph's self-proclaimed humility--suggests that our ancestors, like ourselves, thought that they still had something to add.

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Rabbi Grushcow serves as Associate Rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City. She was ordained by HUC and has a doctorate in Rabbinics at Oxford University where she studied as a Rhodes Scholar.