This week’s Torah Portion, Naso, continues the census began in last week’s portion, the beginning of the Book of Numbers. It then continues by explaining the laws regarding the suspected adulteress, a woman accused of going astray in her marriage. It may not surprise you to know that the laws regarding the sanctity of marriage are rather problematic to our modern sensibilities. They deal only with a woman whose husband is suspicious and jealous of her, because men were not bound by the same rules of marriage that women were. They involve a situation in which there is no evidence the woman has done anything wrong, and in which she is subject to public embarrassment, and forced to drink a concoction of water and dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle, as well as the paper on which a spell is written to cause the woman to get sick if she did indeed break her husband’s trust. If she is innocent, G-d will protect and she will not get sick, and the husband will know he was wrong. If she gets sick, then everyone in the community will know that she was “bad”. The drink sounds disgusting, like it might just make someone sick anyway, like this is similar to the witch trials of colonial America, where if a girl could swim they would know she was a witch and burn her but if she was innocent she would just drown.
This week, I joined Twitter specifically so that I could follow more closely #YesAllWomen, a trending hashtag that is in many ways the current face of the modern feminist movement, at least for those with access to social media. With the release of a violent Californian’s 140-page rant about how women’s autonomy is unfair to him, a recent fresh wave of India’s violence against women, and the Nigerian schoolgirls still in the hands of their kidnappers, it’s much easier to remember that Yes All Women have had unpleasant experiences because of male dominance even today than it is to read our own ancient tradition of this week’s parasha through forgiving eyes. Obviously, without a Tabernacle or priest, the adulteress’s trial we read about this week is not at all still practiced. However, Jews are not necessarily any more advanced than other people when it comes to the treatment of women, and we can’t ignore the hard parts of our tradition.
What we can do, is learn from them. This week’s Torah portion isn’t just about the harsh trials of a woman; it’s about what happens when people can’t trust each other. Say the woman was innocent, and G-d did protect her, and she didn’t get sick, and she was allowed to go back to her husband. How happy do you think that relationship would be after he has subjected her to public humiliation like that, instead of just talking through his suspicions and jealousies with her as a fellow human, a partner? The Hebrew word for “man” is “ish,” aleph-yud-shin and the Hebrew word for “woman” is “isha,” aleph-shin-hey. One of the Hebrew names for G-d is Yah, yud-hey. If either member of the couple forgets that the other is made in the image of G-d, and leaves Yah out of their relationship, they are left with just the aleph and shin from “ish” and “isha.” Aleph-Shin spells aish, fire, and it will burn up the love and respect that was once there. If they leave in Yah, they can remain man, woman, and G-d.
That’s not just for romantic couples or between men and women, by the way. That’s just how the fun wordplay works. Anytime you disrespect another human being, publicly shame them, and/or refuse to simply treat them like equals, even, or especially, when feeling disrespected yourself, you cause painful disruption in society. Whether it’s ruining someone’s reputation and making them gag in front of all their friends and family, or it’s really physically harming them, it is not okay. People are people, just like you, even if they don’t look like you, sound like you, or think like you. Even if they don’t have the same rights legally or if you see other people treat them differently, that doesn’t mean it is acceptable for you to treat them poorly too. Remember what Hillel says: that which is hateful to you, do not do to others! And may you always leave Yah in your relationships. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.