The Laws and Regulations Given In The Wilderness of Sinai

Numbers IV, 21 to VII

By Lorraine Highkin Forman

May 25, 2002

The midrash for this service involves a discussion of jealousy, adultery and punishment.  It is not a very easy topic for a modern woman and a feminist to write about and keep in perspective .  It did give me lots of thought about where we came from and how we got to “now”.  (National Organization of Women)

The writings are about the implications and punishments relating to the following statement and the repercussions involved.  The statement is:
IF ANY MAN’S WIFE SHOULD GO ASIDE FROM THE RIGHT PATH AND BECOME SUSPECT IN THE EYES OF HER HUSBAND, OR IF ANY MAN’S WIFE SHOULD COMMIT FOLLY.”  The crime of infidelity threatened the social order of the society and the priests felt it was necessary to remove even the suspicion of marital unfaithfulness, that is marital unfaithfulness on the part of the wife.  There is not any discussion of adultery by men and how there could be unfaithfulness of women without men is a mystery.  The story goes something like this.

When a spirit of jealousy comes on a man then he shall set the woman before the Lord and the priest shall apply law to her.  If the husband produced a witness, the wife was tried on the evidence and found guilty.  If there was no witness, the wife was tried by a procedure called “Ordeal”. Interestingly, this is the only instance in Scripture of trial by ordeal.  She could of course admit her guilt at any time. If she didn’t, the following would be the procedure.

The priest would take some dust from the floor and add some holy water into the vessel.  He then disheveled the woman’s hair and placed a grain offering of jealousy into her hands.  In his own hand he places the water of bitterness that would bring the curse upon her.  Then she takes an oath.  If she is not lying, then she will be immune to the water of bitterness.  But if she has gone astray while under her husband’s authority,  then the Lord makes her uterus to drop, her womb to discharge and this water to enter her bowels.  This meant miscarriage, sterility or possibility death. And the woman is to say “Amen”  The priest put the curses in writing and made the woman drink the water of bitterness.   The man shall be free from iniquity but the woman shall bear her iniquity.  Oy vey

>From the beginning, the association between sexuality and the study of Torah was more than just an arbitrary analogy. Rabbis banned women from the study of Torah on the grounds that it would teach them lasciviousness. In this culture, as in all others, the way sexuality is constructed is a map for the hierarchies of the society as a whole. For the rabbis, the dominant male role in sexuality and study of Torah were intimately and in separately linked.

The interesting problem involved here is how they attempted to deal with the problem of sexual temptation which needless to say existed then as now  and threatened marriage then as now,.  As years went on they  became more and more  exacting in their attempt of delineate what they considered one of the greatest transgressions.  For example, looking at women was less dangerous than talking to women.  The penalty of having sex with a Jewish woman was greater than having sex with a gentile woman and the penalty of sex with a  gentile servant was even lesser, given that she probably represented a lesser threat.  Only one place did I come across any description of a penalty accorded a man.  When a man is found guilty and If the man is ready to repent, he should sit in an icy river for as long as it had taken to consummate the affair.  If it is summer, he is to sit on an anthill.  You could hope it was a quickie.  Note some justifications.  Samson had relations with a gentile woman but the reasoning states that he  had permission because he was trying to convert her.

Men had used all kinds of ruses to rid themselves of wives they no longer wanted.  There are many writings of men accusing wives of terrible and not so terrible misconduct.  One husband heard his wife breathing very hard behind a curtain and accused her.  The abuses to be rid of wives were so great that finally,  there started to be stricter rules of evidence applied for the asking and for the granting of divorce.  The major reason was to preserve the family but I believe there was also a recognition of the great  iniquity being perpetrated on women and changes started to occur.

Our teachings have given us  some incredibly wonderful legacies but we also inherited archaic, obsolete and painful attitudes. So the questions all this brings up is “have we progressed today”  What are our attitudes now.  From the beginning man had difficulty controlling his behavior and put the responsibly on women.  Even now, in modern times,  the orthodox  sections of religions have women covering themselves so that men won’t be tempted.

In modern day, both men and women are learning to be responsible for what they do.  When attitudes changes, there are always extremes that take place. In an attempt to equalize the playing field, woman have adopted some attitudes that are just as detrimental as they were to men and are having to learn how to balance their attitudes.  I believe our society struggles all the time with these questions.  Yes, major changes have occurred.  And yes, more needs to happen.

The rock bottom issue is that someplace inside us we know what acceptable behavior is.  We need to do no harm to ourselves or others.  When we commit a wrong,  we break our faith not only with our laws and our mates and families, and we break our faith with Adonai.  But the greatest sin is that we break faith with ourselves.

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