While many of the Torah’s most controversial practices have been out of use for at least two thousand years, they remain an integral part of the Torah. Indeed, one of Rambam’s most brilliant strokes was to – contra the Rif before him and the Tur after him – include these laws in his classic Mishneh Torah.
Sotah, the process of determining the guilt of a suspected adulteress, is clearly one such practice. One reason is that it shows the asymmetrical nature of a Jewish marriage in which it is only the husband that can hold the wife to monogamy and not visa-versa. (The Rabbinic contention that the test will only work if the man is not an adulterer does not really affect this point, as it only requires him not to be involved in affairs with married women.)
Though there are reasonable strategies of getting around the discomfort our zeitgeist may have engendered about such a concept – perhaps citing Hosea 2:18 (last week’s haftarah) as a precedent that envisions a more symmetrical relationship as an ideal – we may lose much more than we gain by availing ourselves with such. For, as many have noted, the Tanakh is full of references to the relationship between God and the Jewish people as being modeled on that of a man and his wife. Granted, the comparison is a metaphor designed to help us understand a metaphysical concept. But given the centrality of that concept, there is a great deal hanging upon our understanding the vehicle of that metaphor. In fact, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to suggest that the whole reason God created man, male and female, was for us to better understand our relationship with Him.
Hence the dramatic ordeal the woman has to go through in the Sotah ritual can be seen as a reflection of what should occur to Israel when we are not faithful to God. It should occur, because the unique loyalty of a wife to her husband represents a single-minded commitment that is needed by both partners – for different reasons – for this fundamental and existential relationship to be whole. Like God, a man is imbued with a highly exclusivist jealousy that cannot fully allow for his spouse to be involved with someone else. Once that is the case, the existence of such a second relationship would obviously ruin the primary relationship for the wife as well.
It is true that a woman’s jealousy may be even more intense than a man’s; but it is not axiomatic. Indeed the cooperative nature of women often celebrated in feminist circles is what has allowed them to tolerate (and occasionally, even value) the presence of other wives in their households. (Although I am not an anthropologist and am aware that some will challenge my assertions here by saying this is a product of culture or economics rather than anything essential to men and women, my reading of the Tanakh leads me to think otherwise.)
This is a topic that requires much more developed treatment, but I want to look at three important implications:
The first is rather straightforward. If God is like the man, he can “marry” other nations besides Israel. Israel, however, can have no other gods. If the Torah deems it possible for a man to have the capacity to be a proper husband to more than one woman, how much more so is this true of the unlimited God. Hence we have no right to claim that God should not favor – or be intimately involved in the fate of – other nations as well.
The second is that while women cannot have other husbands, they can live together in some sort of harmony with other wives. This serves as a good model for the ability of nations to bind themselves to each other, even as they all serve the same universal God.
The third is that we see that in the stories of multiple wives, there always seems to be a primary one given higher status than the others. Indeed, that is precisely the point of tension when that primacy is contested. So, for example, as long as Rachel was alive, there was no question about Ya’akov’s primary wife. Accordingly, many understand Reuven’s disgrace of Bilhah as a response to his father’s apparent decision to skip over Leah when Rachel died.
Two people can never be fully equal or they would be the same person. Likewise can no two relationships be absolutely equal. And so while God may be intimately involved with other nations, His covenant with the Jewish people is that they are – and always be – His primary “spouse.” Ashrei ha’am she’kacha lo – happy is the nation for whom it is so!
And don’t forget to the related podcast episode, Equal Marriages and Relating to God!