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November 22, 2014 / 29 Heshvan, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘Sotah’

Halacha and…Shaking Hands (Part I)

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Question: Is there any halachic rationale for men to shake hands with women?

Answer: It is well known that the common practice of the East European, hasidic and yeshiva worlds is to refrain from shaking hands with women. As a youth I recall it said in the name of Rav Eliezer Silver, zt”l, that he frequently told women that Orthodox rabbis consider shaking hands with them a form of ungracious behavior. “The proper Jewish way,” he said, “is to bow before them in a courtly manner.”

Yet, it is reputed that German Jewry freely engaged in shaking hands with women. In America, too, quite a large number of observant Jews shake hands and consider those who refrain from doing so to be excessively and inappropriately pious (“frumeh shtik”).

Who is right? Are they both “right,” in the tradition of “elu v’elu divrei Elokim chayim”?

The Torah states that a sotah must bring a special korban. Before offering it, a kohen must place his hands under the hands of the sotah and lift and wave the korban together with her. Commenting on this process, the Yerushalmi (Sotah 13b; also Bavli, Tosafot 19a) asks, “Is this not mechu’er (repulsive, improper)?” The Talmud responds that the kohen uses a napkin so that he does not actually touch the sotah (see Pnei Moshe).

The Talmud then proceeds to ask, “Is this not an interference?” In other words, since the napkin is not technically part of the service, it is presumably a “chatzitzah,” an object that intervenes unnecessarily between the hand of the kohen and the sotah. To this, the Talmud responds: “They bring an old kohen.” In other words, an old kohen performs the service and since he’s old, it is unlikely for sexual thoughts to arise in his mind.

The Talmud then offers an alternative answer, namely, that a regular kohen can perform the service, and we are not concerned about him touching her because the inclination to sin does not pertain in such a short period of time (see Pnei Moshe).

According to the second response of the Jerusalem Talmud, there appears to be nothing wrong in touching a married woman’s hand for a brief period of time. Thus, shaking women’s hands would be permissible since a handshake takes only a second or two. It certainly takes no longer than it did for the kohen to perform the service together with the sotah. I personally recall many years ago hearing that Rav Ahron Soloveichik, zt”l, paskened from this Yerushalmi that it is permissible to shake hands with women.

We may ask, though: The Jerusalem Talmud offers two answers. According to the first answer (that an old kohen performs the service), it would seem that only older men may briefly touch a woman’s hand; younger men, however, may not. And since the Talmud offers two answers without deciding in favor of one of them, it would seem that the final halacha is in doubt. And when we encounter doubts concerning biblical violations, we err on the side of caution (safek d’oraita l’chumra).

(To be continued)

Rabbi Cohen, a Jerusalem Prize recipient, has written several books on Jewish law. His latest, “Shabbat The Right Way: Resolving Halachic Dilemmas” (Urim Publications), is available at Judaica stores and Amazon.com.

Obligating Oneself To Perform Mitzvot

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Question: Should a person try to observe mitzvot he is technically exempt from performing?

Answer: Many people assume the answer to this question is yes. Tosafot (Pesachim 113b) suggest that the source for this idea is Sotah 14a, which states that Moshe Rabbeinu sought to enter Eretz Yisrael in order to observe (and receive reward for) the mitzvot that are “dependent upon the land.” Based on this Gemara, Tosafot contend that one should strive to put oneself in a situation where one will be required to observe mitzvot that one would otherwise be exempt from. Thus, Tosafot argue that Jews should wear four-cornered garments in order to obligate themselves to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit.

When I learned this Gemara, many years ago, I, personally, had a different pshat for why Moshe Rabbeinu wished to enter Eretz Yisrael. It wasn’t that he wished to obligate himself to perform the mitzvot of Eretz Yisrael. Rather, Moshe was responsible for taking the Jewish people out of Egypt and bringing them to the promised land, and he wanted to finish his task in line with the saying, “Ha’matchil b’mitzvah omrim lo g’mor – We tell a person who starts a mitzvah to finish it.”

Therefore, we lack proof from the Talmud that Jews should try to perform mitzvot they are exempt from. There is no proof, for example, that a person must wear a four-cornered garment in order to obligate himself to wear tzitzit. One may, of course, follow the minhag of Klal Yisrael and always wear tzitzit. But, one cannot bring proof, as Tosafot did, that one should do so based on the Gemara regarding Moshe Rabbeinu.

Rabbi Cohen, a Jerusalem Prize recipient, has written several books on Jewish law. His latest, “Shabbat The Right Way: Resolving Halachic Dilemmas” (Urim Publications), is available at Judaica stores and Amazon.com.

Q & A: What Constitutes Shemot (Part I)

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Question: Since my daughter in high school started researching the topic of shemot for her school newspaper, I have become more and more confused. Does shemot only include items, such as books and sheets of papers, with Hashem’s name on them? Or does it even include items containing Torah concepts or even just Hebrew letters? For example, how do you advise I dispose of The Jewish Press? Finally, concerning Hashem’s name, must the name be spelled out fully in Hebrew to constitute shemot? What if it is in English in abbreviated form – “G-d,” for example?

Shlomo Newfield
(Via E-Mail)

 

Answer: The Mechaber (Yoreh De’ah 276:9-10) states: “It is forbidden to erase even one letter of the seven [Holy] Names that are never to be erased. And one may not erase one of the letters that follow them – for example the final chaf of Elokecha and the chaf and final mem of Elokeichem. And these are the seven Names: The name of Hava’yah, the name of Adnut, Kel, Elokah, Elokim, Sha-dai, Tzevakot, and some include also Eh-yeh asher Eh-yeh. If one wrote Kel from Elokim, Kah from the Name [of Havayah] or he wrote the Name Kah, they are not to be erased. However, as regards shin daled [without the yud] of Sha-dai or tzadi bet of Tzevakot they may be erased.”

The Rema (ad loc.) notes: “The same applies if one wrote alef daled of Adnut or alef heh of Eh-yeh. There are those who are stringent in this matter. However, as regards to the Name comprised of two yuds joined together, [it] may be erased if the need arises.”

The above halachot are mentioned in the context of Hilchot Sefer Torah regarding writing or repairing Sifrei Kodesh. Yet, as we will see, these are the basic halachot regarding any writing of Divine Names.

You asked about G-d’s name written in abbreviated form. My uncle, Harav Sholom Klass, zt”l, was the one of the first people to popularize writing G-d’s name in this way, doing so in The Jewish Press from its very inception (in the winter of 1960). Thus let us cite from his Responsa of Modern Judaism II, where he discussed this matter in detail in two related responses.

We first quote from one of them (p. 535): “Usually, if the name G-d is written in English, it is not considered holy and may be discarded [my uncle he is referring to secular, non-Jewish texts]. Only if written in Hebrew is it not permitted to be discarded.

“The Mishna and Gemara Sotah 38, states the following: In the Beth Hamikdosh the name of G-d was pronounced as it is written, Jeho-a (Yud Kay Vav Kay) but throughout the land it was pronounced (as we do today) Ahdo.

“The Gemara Yoma 39b, then continues with this subject by saying that when Shimon Hatzadik died, his brother Kohanim refused to say the Shem Hameforash (Holy Name) even in the Beth Hamikdosh.

“The Gemara Menachos 109b explains that after the death of Shimon Hatzadik, the Kohanim began to fight and jealousy arose. Tosafos in Sotah 38a explain further that the Shechina (Holy Spirit) departed from the Beth Hamikdosh and therefore the Kohanim weren’t allowed to use the Holy Name.

“The Rambam (Hilchos Tfilos chap. 14:10) explains that they stopped using the Holy Name so that disrespectful and unruly people would not learn it.

“The Maharsha in Kidushin 71a considers G-d’s name, Adoshem, as pertaining to the ‘Middas Hadin’ attribute of judgment which is applicable to this world, while the name Jeho-a is the ‘Middas Harachamim,’ the attribute of mercy which pertains to the other world. Only in the next world, which is all good and compassionate, will we be able to pronounce his name the way it is written.

“The Gemara Kiddushin 71a narrates: G-d says, ‘I am not pronounced as I am written. I am spelled “Yud Kay…” and I am pronounced “Ado…” (Alef Daled…)’

“Our Rabbis taught: At first G-d’s twelve-lettered name used to be entrusted to all the people. When unruly men increased, it was confided to the pious of the priesthood and they swallowed it (pronounced it indistinctly) during their chanting of their brother priests.

“Rabbi Judah said in Rab’s name: ‘The forty-two-lettered name of G-d is entrusted only to him who is pious, meek, middle-aged, free from bad temper, sober and not insistent on his rights…’ [Rashi ad loc. s.v. “v’eino ma’amid al midotav,” explains we are concerned that someone who lacks the latter attribute might use that name to exact retribution against an adversary.]

“The Midrash Rabah explains that the Holy Name of 12 letters represents the letters of Alef, Daled, Nun, Yud, Kay, Vav, Yud, Kay, Alef, Kay, Yud, Kay, which totals twelve letters. The Holy Name of 42 letters is the spelling out of each letter of the above words (such as the letter of Alef) which then total 42.

Q & A: Incongruous And Unbecoming (Part IV)

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

Question: Lately I’ve seen some young men who, though they wear a yarmulke, have ponytails or long unruly hair. I’ve even seen some ear piercings. Somehow I find this behavior to be incongruous. My real problem is that my own nephew and a few of his friends wear their hair in this manner. Even though his parents look upon it as a passing fad, I am at a loss to understand such behavior. Luckily, whether right or wrong, I’ve held my tongue. I wonder what the proper positive action to take is in this matter.

 No Name Please

(Via E-Mail)

 Answer: Parshat Acharei Mot includes the verse (Leviticus 18:3), “Kma’aseh eretz mitzrayim…u’chema’aseh eretz cana’an…lo ta’asu u’bechukoteihem lo telechu – Like the practice of the land of Egypt…and of the land of Canaan…you shall not do, and in their ways you shall not walk [go].” Rashi (ad loc.) at first seems to limit the prohibition to practices found in these two most corrupt lands, but then adds that “in their ways” refers to going to theaters and stadiums, which would apply to all lands. Rashi refers to the Gemara (Shabbos 67a and Jerusalem Talmud Shabbos 6:9) where our sages classify various idolatrous and superstitious acts as being “darkei ha’amori – the ways of the Amorites” (although they were not exclusive to that nation).

Rambam (Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 11:1) explains that we are not to appear like them in dress, hair and similar matters. He allows one who mingles with the secular authorities (11:3) to dress as necessary. The Mechaber (Yoreh Deah 179:1-2) rules accordingly. Rema (ad loc. 179:2) notes that the obligation not to copy idolators (which today essentially means gentile society) applies only when a practice is done for pritzut (licentiousness) or superstition; other practices (other than those forbidden elsewhere in the Torah) would be allowed. We are not required to be different from society in general, rather we are to avoid pagan and heathen behavior.

Regarding hairstyle, the Gemara (Bava Kamma 83a) cites a baraita concerning cutting one’s hair in a komi style, which Rashi explains refers to leaving a beloriyoth on one’s head – a specific pattern of hair growth which leaves hair either only in the back or on the crown of the head. This hairstyle is associated with idol worship (see the Avodah Zarah 8a). Rambam’s opinion (Hilchos Avodah Zarah 11:1) is unclear: some say he did not prohibit growing bangs or forelocks while others (Bach, Y.D. 178; Machatzis HaShekel, Orach Chayyim 27) maintain that he did.

The Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chayyim 27:15) only discusses hair as a potential chatzitza between the tefillin shel rosh and one’s head. Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller (Divrei Chamudot, in Vilna Shas at the end of tractate Menachot) cites Rashba’s view that a head covering (and surely one’s own hair) is not necessarily a chatzitza. Rashba also cites the Jerusalem Talmud which states that we see what the preponderance of people do (compare B.T. Berachot 45a) and act accordingly. Today we see that many people grow their hair in the place where the tefillin shel rosh is placed.

The prohibition of darkei ha’amori applies even today if the practice in question maintains a semblance of idol worship. Many practices, however, with pagan origins are now practiced by the masses who ascribe no idolatory or superstitious purpose to them; these practices are permitted.

When there are specific differences between Jewish and gentile attire in a given society, more stringencies apply, as related in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 74a-b). In Nefesh Harav, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva and rosh kollel at Yeshiva University quotes his rebbe, Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, who related in the name of his father, Rabbi M. Soloveichik, zt”l that his great-grandfather (the Beis HaLevi) moved out of Poland for two years when Czar Nicholas decreed a change in Jewish attire in 1848 so as to avoid the decree.

The Hidden Side Of The Ten Commandments

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

On Shavuot we celebrate God giving us the Torah, represented by the Ten Commandments. We will explore them here through a broad lens, showing how they apply to our daily lives. We will focus on the First Commandment, the foundation, and the seven commandments phrased in the negative, which tell us what not to do, discussing both sides: the negative (avoiding what God hates) and the hidden side, the positive (doing what He loves).

For a discussion on the Fourth and Fifth Commandments – keeping Shabbat and honoring our parents – which are already phrased in the positive, please see my blog, yaakovweiland.blogspot.com.

The Ten Commandments start off utilizing this pattern of polar opposites. The First Commandment, “I am the Lord your God “(Exodus 20:2) is the positive formulation and the converse of the Second Commandment, prohibiting idol worship.

In the First Commandment, God introduces Himself in order to have a relationship with us. Developing the relationship includes getting to know Him (Torah study), talking and listening to Him (prayer and observances), and helping His children (acts of kindness).

In excess, material goals and desires become modern day idols, compromising our relationship with God. Ask yourself, “Am I headed toward a closer relationship with God, or farther away? Which aspect of my connection with Him will I strengthen?”

The Talmud (Sotah 4b) teaches that arrogance is a form of idol worship – worshipping our egos. To counter this, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (Likkutei Maharan 10:5) advises drawing close to tzaddikim. Ask yourself, “Do I have a rabbi to whom I defer, listening to his instruction and reproof? If not, who are some possibilities, and how can I build a relationship with them?”

The Third Commandment: Prohibition of vain oaths with God’s name. This also includes any form of desecrating His name (chillul Hashem). The converse is sanctifying His name (kiddush Hashem). Ask yourself, “What can I do or refrain from doing to bring more esteem to my people and my God?”

The Sixth Commandment: Prohibition of murder. The Sages say that embarrassing a person is a form of murder. When we apologize after causing emotional pain, we invigorate a person, giving back the life we took. The converse of this commandment is to give life, and teach our children – especially by example – to care about God and His Torah.

In addition, did you ever notice that after giving someone a sincere compliment or encouragement, that person stands a little taller? You have just infused someone with life. Ask yourself, “Whom can I apologize to, or whom can I compliment? How can I be a better role model to my children?”

The Seventh Commandment: Prohibition of adultery. This also includes other forbidden relations. God calls us a holy nation (Exodus 19:6) and we maintain our purity by avoiding forbidden behavior and thoughts. By sanctifying the most intimate act – through the laws of family purity – we bring holiness to our very core. Ask yourself, “What can I do or refrain from doing, to bring more holiness to all areas of my life?”

The Eighth Commandment: Prohibition of stealing. Theft includes taking or damaging what is not ours, borrowing without permission, being late in agreed upon payments or holding on to something that does not belong to us. The converse is to be charitable and generous; not being petty and insisting on getting everything we might be entitled to.

There is tremendous satisfaction in being impeccably honest and knowing our integrity is not sullied by ill-gotten gains. When we do the right thing, as defined by Jewish law, regardless of whether anyone compels us to do so, we show God that His will is our primary focus. Ask yourself, “Did I acquire any of my possessions or financial gains through questionable means? Do I have anything I need to return, or payments to make, to restore my integrity?”

The Ninth Commandment: Prohibition of testifying falsely against each other. This also includes other forms of hurtful talk. The converse of this commandment is to be truthful and keep our word. The opposite of being against each other, is to avoid conflicts, when possible, by humbling ourselves; making the first gesture and giving in a little for the sake of peace.

Have Artists Condemned The “Wayward Wife” To Oblivion? Richard McBee

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

At the risk of being crude, the narrative in Numbers 5 of the Sotah, the so-called “wayward wife,” ought to be a goldmine for biblical painters. It is hard to imagine a biblical punishment more vivid and aesthetically fertile than the adulterous woman’s belly bursting after she drinks the “bitter waters” into which the priest has erased the Divine Name – a violation of the third commandment so reprehensible it is clear how serious the Torah sees this issue. Forget the shyness of Esther before Ahasuerus, which has so fascinated artists for centuries. The Sotah is on trial for her life, literally exposed and alone in front of a host of men in the holy Temple. Numbers 5 devotes 21 verses to the Sotah; by comparison, Numbers 20 only gives 13 verses to Moses’ sin of striking the rock, which prevents him from entering the Holy Land.

But the only representation I knew of the episode (until recently) is disappointingly tame. There are no bloated bellies, and barely even an action shot. The miniature comes from a Christian book — a History Bible from Utrecht dated 1443, in the collection of The Hague. In the miniature, the suspected wife kneels before the priest, as another man – her jealous husband? – looks on. The priest hands the Sotah a golden vessel (though Numbers 5:17 prescribes earthenware), which surely holds the bitter waters with the Divine Name. Ironically, whereas Numbers 5: 18, where the priest uncovers the woman’s hair, is one of the sources for the practice of women modestly covering their hair, the miniaturist depicts the Sotah with a veil (or wimple) over her head.

 

Richard McBee. “The Sotah Exposed” (2009).

Marc Michael Epstein, professor of religion and Jewish Studies at Vassar College, shared another image with me from Christian Hebrew scholar Johann Christoph Wagenseil’s 1674 Latin translation of the Mishnaic tractate of Sotah. In the image, two groups of observers watch as three priests restrain a woman under an arch, adorned with the Hebrew inscription, “This is the gate of the Lord; pure women might pass through it” (a feminized adaptation of Psalms 118:20). On the floor in front of the woman, lie a jug and a piece of paper, presumably the cup of bitter waters and the scroll with the divine name. Through the gate, the temple is clearly visible. The woman’s hair is bare, and she is partially unclothed.

 

Richard McBee. “The Sotah Drinks the Bitter Waters” (2009).

Why have Jewish artists entirely neglected this important biblical episode, and why have Christian artists nearly avoided it altogether? It is hard to imagine that they were aware that the episode might never have been enacted. (See for example Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s article on Sotah at MyJewishLearning.com.) And even if Numbers 5 is meant to put forth a law that was never practiced, why should that have stopped artists?

I will save speculations about why artists avoided this narrative for other venues. Instead, it is worth examining a new series on the Sotah by Richard McBee, co-author of this column. In my opinion (and it is incumbent upon me to disclose that Richard has been a colleague and great friend for six years), McBee’s series is nothing short of revolutionary.

 

Richard McBee. “The Sin” (2009).

All images oil on canvas, 24 x 24, and courtesy of Richard McBee.

The four paintings (each 24 inches squared) in the series show the sin (here seclusion, not the actual obscene act), the exposure in the Temple (where the Mishnah in Sotah 1:5 says the woman is actually unclothed by the priest), the drinking of the waters and the woman’s return home with her husband after she is found to be innocent.

McBee sets the ancient narrative in a contemporary urban setting. The “Temple” where the Sotah is charged and tried becomes McBee’s own synagogue on the Lower East Side, and the Sotah and her husband’s apartment is part of a building that could be just about anywhere in a major city. The characters wear contemporary Orthodox and Chassidic garb – black hats, coats, shtreimels and dresses.

In the series, McBee manages to represent the narrative in an almost theatrical or cinematic manner, and it is easy to imagine his designs working for an operatic set. Although the palette is overwhelmingly dark and ominous – as is to be expected given the grave plot of the material – the divine presence, which is so apparent in the narrative, can be sensed in areas of intense light in each painting.

Although each of the four paintings merits careful examination, the final image, The Sotah Returns Home, is perhaps the most provocative. All the biblical narrative offers by way of resolution to the story is that if innocent, the woman, who nonetheless undergoes a humiliating public trial, is blessed with a son. “And the husband shall be clean from sin,” declares verse 31, “and the woman shall bear her sin.”

In McBee’s painting, the man and wife sit in opposite rooms in an apartment, the only lit room in an otherwise dark, cityscape at night. The woman sits on a bed in the dark, looking back over her shoulder at her husband. The man sits on a chair under a light, which passes through a curtain and shines a spotlight on the woman. The woman looks shy and helpless, while the man holds up his hand, as if explaining himself for his jealousy that subjected her to humiliation.

 

Richard McBee. “The Sotah Returns Home” (2009).

McBee’s painting overwhelms the viewer with the realization that life will never be the same for the man and woman, who will have to get to know each other all over again. Perhaps there is an occurrence of PTSD – post-traumatic Sotah disorder.

I’m not sure why artists have shied away from the Sotah as if she were the plague. Maybe the story is so intense that it is hard not to caricature it. Maybe Christian artists found new episodes in their scripture that conveyed the same messages, and they chose to represent those narratives rather than Numbers 5.

Either way, McBee’s series not only tackles a long-neglected motif, but also examines it through very modern eyes. When private sins are so regularly broadcast publically on the news and on YouTube, contemporary bible readers might be equipped in an unprecedented way to grasp the statement of Rabi Yochanan the son of B’rokah in Avot 4:5, “Whoever desecrates the divine name in private is punished publically.” McBee has the brilliant insight to realize the desecration and the public humiliation is not the end of the story. In many ways, the reconstruction and the rebuilding that must follow the calm after the storm is the most interesting element of the narrative.

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Have Artists Condemned The “Wayward Wife” To Oblivion? Richard McBee’s new Sotah series

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

At the risk of being crude, the narrative in Numbers 5 of the Sotah, the so-called “wayward wife,” ought to be a goldmine for biblical painters. It is hard to imagine a biblical punishment more vivid and aesthetically fertile than the adulterous woman’s belly bursting after she drinks the “bitter waters” into which the priest has erased the Divine Name – a violation of the third commandment so reprehensible it is clear how serious the Torah sees this issue. Forget the shyness of Esther before Ahasuerus, which has so fascinated artists for centuries. The Sotah is on trial for her life, literally exposed and alone in front of a host of men in the holy Temple. Numbers 5 devotes 21 verses to the Sotah; by comparison, Numbers 20 only gives 13 verses to Moses’ sin of striking the rock, which prevents him from entering the Holy Land.


But the only representation I knew of the episode (until recently) is disappointingly tame. There are no bloated bellies, and barely even an action shot. The miniature comes from a Christian book — a History Bible from Utrecht dated 1443, in the collection of The Hague. In the miniature, the suspected wife kneels before the priest, as another man – her jealous husband? – looks on. The priest hands the Sotah a golden vessel (though Numbers 5:17 prescribes earthenware), which surely holds the bitter waters with the Divine Name. Ironically, whereas Numbers 5: 18, where the priest uncovers the woman’s hair, is one of the sources for the practice of women modestly covering their hair, the miniaturist depicts the Sotah with a veil (or wimple) over her head.

 


Richard McBee. “The Sotah Exposed” (2009).

Marc Michael Epstein, professor of religion and Jewish Studies at Vassar College, shared another image with me from Christian Hebrew scholar Johann Christoph Wagenseil’s 1674 Latin translation of the Mishnaic tractate of Sotah. In the image, two groups of observers watch as three priests restrain a woman under an arch, adorned with the Hebrew inscription, “This is the gate of the Lord; pure women might pass through it” (a feminized adaptation of Psalms 118:20). On the floor in front of the woman, lie a jug and a piece of paper, presumably the cup of bitter waters and the scroll with the divine name. Through the gate, the temple is clearly visible. The woman’s hair is bare, and she is partially unclothed.

 


Richard McBee. “The Sotah Drinks the Bitter Waters” (2009).

Why have Jewish artists entirely neglected this important biblical episode, and why have Christian artists nearly avoided it altogether? It is hard to imagine that they were aware that the episode might never have been enacted. (See for example Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s article on Sotah at MyJewishLearning.com.) And even if Numbers 5 is meant to put forth a law that was never practiced, why should that have stopped artists?


I will save speculations about why artists avoided this narrative for other venues. Instead, it is worth examining a new series on the Sotah by Richard McBee, co-author of this column. In my opinion (and it is incumbent upon me to disclose that Richard has been a colleague and great friend for six years), McBee’s series is nothing short of revolutionary.

 


Richard McBee. “The Sin” (2009).

All images oil on canvas, 24 x 24, and courtesy of Richard McBee.

The four paintings (each 24 inches squared) in the series show the sin (here seclusion, not the actual obscene act), the exposure in the Temple (where the Mishnah in Sotah 1:5 says the woman is actually unclothed by the priest), the drinking of the waters and the woman’s return home with her husband after she is found to be innocent.


McBee sets the ancient narrative in a contemporary urban setting. The “Temple” where the Sotah is charged and tried becomes McBee’s own synagogue on the Lower East Side, and the Sotah and her husband’s apartment is part of a building that could be just about anywhere in a major city. The characters wear contemporary Orthodox and Chassidic garb – black hats, coats, shtreimels and dresses.


In the series, McBee manages to represent the narrative in an almost theatrical or cinematic manner, and it is easy to imagine his designs working for an operatic set. Although the palette is overwhelmingly dark and ominous – as is to be expected given the grave plot of the material – the divine presence, which is so apparent in the narrative, can be sensed in areas of intense light in each painting.


Although each of the four paintings merits careful examination, the final image, The Sotah Returns Home, is perhaps the most provocative. All the biblical narrative offers by way of resolution to the story is that if innocent, the woman, who nonetheless undergoes a humiliating public trial, is blessed with a son. “And the husband shall be clean from sin,” declares verse 31, “and the woman shall bear her sin.”


In McBee’s painting, the man and wife sit in opposite rooms in an apartment, the only lit room in an otherwise dark, cityscape at night. The woman sits on a bed in the dark, looking back over her shoulder at her husband. The man sits on a chair under a light, which passes through a curtain and shines a spotlight on the woman. The woman looks shy and helpless, while the man holds up his hand, as if explaining himself for his jealousy that subjected her to humiliation.

 


Richard McBee. “The Sotah Returns Home” (2009).

McBee’s painting overwhelms the viewer with the realization that life will never be the same for the man and woman, who will have to get to know each other all over again. Perhaps there is an occurrence of PTSD – post-traumatic Sotah disorder.


I’m not sure why artists have shied away from the Sotah as if she were the plague. Maybe the story is so intense that it is hard not to caricature it. Maybe Christian artists found new episodes in their scripture that conveyed the same messages, and they chose to represent those narratives rather than Numbers 5.


Either way, McBee’s series not only tackles a long-neglected motif, but also examines it through very modern eyes. When private sins are so regularly broadcast publically on the news and on YouTube, contemporary bible readers might be equipped in an unprecedented way to grasp the statement of Rabi Yochanan the son of B’rokah in Avot 4:5, “Whoever desecrates the divine name in private is punished publically.” McBee has the brilliant insight to realize the desecration and the public humiliation is not the end of the story. In many ways, the reconstruction and the rebuilding that must follow the calm after the storm is the most interesting element of the narrative.

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/have-artists-condemned-the-wayward-wife-to-oblivion-richard-mcbee%e2%80%99s-new-sotah-series/2010/02/17/

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