Parshat Naso: Psychological ploys

The trial by bitter waters described in this week’s portion sounds almost like some sort of black magic, not in consonance with biblical rationality.

“And in the hand of the Kohen shall be the bitter waters that bring about the curse” (Numbers 5:18)
One of the strangest passages in the Bible is the law of the woman suspected of adultery recorded in this week’s portion. The text says that if a woman is suspected by her husband of having an affair, and he warns her before two valid witnesses not to be alone in a secluded place with that particular individual, and nevertheless the woman is seen to have sequestered herself with that man, the woman becomes subject to an eerie sort of “trial” to establish her innocence.
The husband must bring his wife to the kohen, together with an offering of barley flour. The kohen then takes sacred water mixed with earth from the floor of the Sanctuary and dissolves within this mixture a parchment scroll inscribed with the following curses which he recites to the doubted wife: “May the Lord render you as a curse and as an oath amidst your people when the Lord causes your thigh to collapse and your stomach to distend. These waters, which bring about a curse, shall enter your insides to cause your stomach to distend and your thigh to collapse” (Numbers 5: 21-22).
The accused woman responds “Amen, Amen,” after which she is given the bitter water to drink. The kohen then takes the meal offering from the hand of the woman, waves it before God, and offers it on the altar. The woman then drinks the water. If no symptoms of the curses occur, the woman is considered innocent and the couple can resume their marital relationship (Numbers 5:11-31).
What is the significance of this procedure? It sounds almost like some sort of black magic, not in consonance with biblical rationality.
“Trial by bitter waters” was limited to the period of the First Temple (until 586 BCE). The talmudic sages insist that beyond the first commonwealth, the test was no longer efficacious because an increasing number of men were having extramarital affairs. Their proof text is the closing verse of this chapter (5:31) which reads, “And the man shall be clear from iniquity, and that woman shall bear her iniquity.” The sages take this to mean that it is only when the husband is innocent that we can condemn the wife. But the procedure still jars modern sensibilities.
An incident occurred in Efrat about a decade ago which gave me an insight into the meaning of this ritual. Due to the positive relationships we enjoy with many local Arab villages, as the local chief rabbi I am often called upon to adjudicate disputes between Palestinians and Israelis, and sometimes even between Palestinians and Palestinians. In this case, two Palestinian cousins from separate villages were suspected of having a sexual relationship.
The family of the young woman spoke of an honor killing. The family of the young man persuaded the woman’s relatives to come to me for arbitration and to abide by my ruling. I interviewed the two cousins separately and together, listened to the testimonies of witnesses who had seen unseemly behavior but had not seen any sexual activity. Based on this, I ruled that there was no legitimate proof that cohabitation had taken place. I insisted that the two get married, which they did with alacrity.
Judaism emerged from the Middle East, where jealousy is rampant and women are often considered the chattel of their husbands. A jealous husband can easily persuade himself to harm the wife whom he suspects of adultery. I therefore believe this trial of the bitter waters provided a marvelous psychological ploy to protect the woman from a husband’s wrath.
To the best of my knowledge, there is no record of a woman whose thighs collapsed or whose stomach distended after drinking the bitter waters; hence, the woman would be declared innocent and her husband would take her back. And if her fear of the consequences resulted in a confession then the marriage deserved to be terminated with a payment of a fine by the adulteress. In any case, a murder in the name of family honor would be avoided.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.