What will we do with the bitter waters?

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This week’s Torah portion is Nasso,
Numbers 4:21 – 7:89.

Full disclosure: I love Torah. Deeply. Even at its worst.


Our parshah describes a marriage gone sideways. The visual image of this law given in the wilderness is a wind of jealousy sweeping over the husband (Num. 5:14). He suspects his wife of infidelity, but he can’t prove it. He accuses, and she denies. What are the options?
He could divorce her. That’s radical — after all, her denials might be genuine. Plus, divorce requires paying a divorce settlement.

They could talk. But they’ve tried talking. He accuses and she, once again, denies. The wind of jealousy continues to blow. No teapot is safe from a tempest.

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He could publicly accuse her of a secret tryst. She will be mortified and, if she is found innocent of wrongdoing, he will be humiliated, as well. The elimination of doubt, however, makes the ordeal worthwhile.

He brings her to the Jerusalem Temple, and a priest mixes water, dirt and the dissolved ink of an incantation. The priest’s use of the four-letter name of God quickens the conditional curse of the bitter waters. The woman says, “Amen. Amen.” She drinks from the goblet.


Should she be innocent, she will be blessed with a child. But should she have been unfaithful, the waters will turn bitter. Whatever seed that might be within will be expelled, and she’ll be rendered infertile forever.

And they live happily ever after. The end.

What’s to love about this? The Torah figured out a way to keep the couple together by allowing the husband’s jealousy to blow over. If the wife really had been unfaithful, she gets off easy. The punishment for adultery, when it can be proven, is death. The Mishnah brings in its own deus ex machina.

Let’s say Betsy, her neighbor, heard the headboard banging against their common wall. Both Betsy and the adulteress might wonder: “Are these bitter waters just psychodrama therapy?” The Mishnah anticipates such a question by revealing that if the adulteress had a whole slew of good deeds under her belt, so to speak, the effects of the bitter waters might be suspended for up to three years.

But now the rabbis are in a pickle. If women know of that exemption, some might become righteous sluts. But if they don’t know, some might suspect that the ordeal is just for show.
If we examine how other ancient Near Eastern cultures deal with their jealous husbands, we’ll notice that their water ordeals involve rivers and drowning. Even though the bitter waters are ugly, there was uglier.

When I declare my love for Torah, sometimes what I mean is that I love how the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud interpret the Torah in ways that make it seem like they’re just as bothered with the patriarchy and misogyny of certain texts as I am.

The Mishnah begins its explanation with its own act of interpretive magic: The rabbis transform the Torah’s jealousy into a warning that the husband issues his wife against being secluded with a certain man, Ploni.

This warning, to have legal force, must be issued in front of two witnesses. In order for the husband to bring his wife to the priest in Jerusalem, not only must she be warned, but there must be additional witnesses. She was warned, and she persisted.

The Mishnah neutralizes the overreactive husband and gives the woman the opportunity to avoid the ordeal. That was the obvious injustice that the Mishnah needed to address. It is the next interpretation that makes me proud to be an heir to this righteous tradition.

What about Ploni? The paramour goes unmentioned in the biblical text, but the rabbis drag him back in by the hair, kicking and screaming. In the Torah, Ploni gorges on the forbidden fruit without consequence. But in the Mishnah, if the woman was guilty, so was Ploni, and he suffers the same consequences.

It boggles my mind when my rabbinic colleagues argue their point by saying, “But, it is written …” and leave it at that. Our job as rabbis, as Jews, is not to idolize the text by turning it into an object of stone, but to plant its values in our soil. The rabbis knew that for the Torah not to become petrified wood, it had to be a Tree of Life.

Rabbi Shai Cherry is the rabbi of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, and author of “Torah through Time: Understanding Bible Commentary from the Rabbinic Period to Modern Times” and “Coherent Judaism: Constructive Theology, Creation, and Halakhah.”

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