Content Warning: This article mentions rape and domestic violence.
We call this week’s portion Parashat Naso I (and next week’s Parashat Naso II) as part of an adjustment to the Torah portion calendar, which keeps Reform synagogues outside of Israel in sync with the diasporic schedule of Torah portions. Usually, Jews everywhere read the same Torah portion every week. But sometimes the Torah portion schedule can differ by one week between Jews in Israel and Jews outside Israel (diaspora), whose custom is to observe a second Yom Tov/Holy Day for major festivals like Sukkot, Pesach, or Shavuot.
This year, Shavuot falls on a Thursday night and Friday. For communities that add an extra Holy Day, however, Shavuot falls on Thursday night, Friday, and Saturday, meaning the Torah portion read on Saturday. May 27 is a special second-day-of-Shavuot portion, and the weekly portion of Parashat Naso resumes for those communities on the following Saturday, June 3. The communities which follow the Israeli schedule, however, would read Parashat Naso on May 27, Parashat B’haalot’cha on June 3, and so on. Those diaspora congregations which choose to divide Parashat Naso into two parts across May 27 and June 3 are balancing their own practices with the desire to be in sync with the synagogues and communities closest to them, wherever they are outside the land of Israel.
This same spirit of compromise and shalom bayit (pursuing peace in the home, or in this case, community), is an invisible but present force behind some of the rules described in this week’s part of Naso. It begins with dividing up the critical and sacred tasks related to packing up and moving the Mishkan (the portable Temple in the wilderness) to issues of health-related quarantine and community members making restitution to other community members for their wrongs. The conclusion of this half of Naso, however, is harder to understand at all, let alone understand in the context of compromise and shalom bayit.
The text describes a ritual to deal with jealous husbands who believe – whether correctly or incorrectly – that their wife has been unfaithful. As one can imagine, much ink has been spilled on this passage over the centuries, with a variety of interpretations and readings. In the most basic and literal reading of the text, a husband has the right to bring his wife before the priest, along with an “offering of jealousy.” The wife is to drink water with supernatural powers called the “water of bitterness” prepared by the priest, which will, if she is guilty of adultery, make her infidelity known through some sort of physical malady, as well as cursing her in a more general sense. If, however, the waters have no effect, then that is proof that she is innocent of the suspected infidelity.
One obvious issue—to a modern eye, at least—is that if this passage is to be taken as the entire guide on the matter, there is no identical recourse for a woman who believes her husband has been unfaithful to her. This surely reflects the sexism we see in other aspects of Biblical rules pertaining to gender and marriage. Yet, I believe there are gleanings for us in this passage, even in today’s world.
The passage is careful to specify that this ritual only applies in a case where there is no evidence of any kind about a wife’s alleged wrongdoing, whether the wife actually cheated on her husband in secret or whether she is entirely innocent of wrongdoing. That is a fairly wide range of possibility! The commonality here is really the husband being overcome by a fit of jealousy about his wife, regardless of her actual guilt. The answer to his fit of jealous wroth is not to take action against her himself but rather to bring the case to an unbiased third party with jurisdiction over health and safety: a priest.
The ritual is grounded in an inherently unequal approach to gender and sexual relationships, yet perhaps the intention of the ritual is not to further this inequality, but to counter it. There are societies and cultures even in the present day, which hold that it is a husband’s right to treat his wife in any way he wishes, including rape and violence. The Torah is clearly taking a position that is different than that. It is not a perfect position by any means, but perhaps if we read the passage within its overall cultural context, we can read this ritual as an attempt to offer a protection for women accused and scorned by providing a supernatural answer to a groundless accusation: whether the waters were actually supernatural or not, either way, the outcome is to take any authority to impose consequences on the wife away from the husband and place it in God’s hands alone (or, for the pragmatic among us, the hands of the priest, who should ideally be a fair and impartial arbiter).
If we read this passage from the perspective of a society that has conquered inequality, then perhaps we would be justified in dismissing it as entirely irrelevant to us. If we read it, however, from the perspective of a society which still struggles and strives for equality, then what can we learn from this and other places in the Torah which step toward egalitarianism or equality without fully embracing it? Here are my takeaways:
- Be humble. It is easy to jump straight into judgment when we deal with people and issues that are highly emotional and personal for us. Yet, we should also be the first to remember that we are not perfect; we do not have it all figured out. It is just as important to recognize how much our society has improved as it is to justly critique its faults.
- Seek to end intimate-partner violence. Domestic violence is simple to denounce but complex to eradicate. To address it fully is beyond the scope of a single sermon, but this passage is a reminder to us just how old the issue is of a partner overcome by a “fit of passion” and committing acts of violence. How can we as a society create ways to address this on personal, community, and wider levels? (One way to further educate yourself on this issue is through “WRJ Says STOP: An Initiative to Stop Sexual Harassment and Assault.”)
- Build relationships with people who can hold us lovingly accountable. Sometimes in our lives we will experience a situation in which we are not acting in accordance with our highest ideals and aspirations, a situation in which we are perhaps even behaving badly, being reactive, taking things out unfairly on those around us, holding others accountable for things which are not properly their fault, etc. It can help us to have someone already in our lives whose judgment we trust as being loving, constructive, and supportive, even in their critiques of our actions. When we cultivate relationships with this level of trust, we can lean on them in those moments when we are not at our best and ask them for help or advice to find our way again.
We read the Torah anew every year not because the Torah changes, but because we change. What insight or response does this week’s portion evoke in you this year?
May we be blessed in the coming week with strength and humility as we work to overcome the “bitter waters” of our present society to make the world a sweeter place for everyone in it. Amen. Shabbat Shalom.