The Torah reading was very long at a recent Saturday service. It began with counting the 8,580 clergy that were left out of the previous military census. Then the text shifted to what you do with individuals who are unclean, more specifically with those afflicted with tzara’at. (The same etymological origins of the Yiddish tsuris! Have I got tsuris! Have I got trouble!) Zarah is to scatter, to disperse as when the Israelites were exiled into the galut. Sārāh means suffering from an affliction as a result of adversity and distress. Zarah will be the result. Sārāh is the symptom of the affliction. When you have “a male discharge,” (a “wet dream”?), then you have both scattered your seed as well as displayed a symptom of an affliction.
But then the text gets into kinds of behaviour that can be regarded as unclean, and where evidence is presented and the alleged guilty offence is proven. This is then followed by a section which is not about proven, but suspected, guilt. What actions should a husband take when he suspects his wife of committing adultery? He does not know; he only suspects. The woman under the cloud is referred to as a sotah. What immediately follows the section on suspected infidelity is a discourse on the laws governing an ascetic, a nazir, an Israelite who grows his or her hair long, foreswears wine and belongs to a community of ascetics, the precursors of the Catholic monastic orders.
My first question is why this seemingly incongruous juxtaposition of topics – a census of the clergy, a depiction of how you treat persons where liquids are seeping from the body and the body is diagnosed as unclean, procedures and punishments for people found guilty of committing a sin (fines), procedures for dealing with suspicions of infidelity, and then the laws governing ascetics? You have to admit this order of what appears to be unrelated, or barely related, topics seems totally weird. Let’s unpack the topics from the clergy census to the rules governing ascetic orders.
The text seems clear enough, at least on the surface. The conduct of the clergy count seems straightforward. The discussion of the condition of one’s skin (tzara means you are afflicted with a skin disease). Having acne means you are suffering from some kind of tzara’at. Leprosy could be another type except that leprosy is contagious. Tzara’at are not. This is important. For the question is why, if someone is not contagious, he (or she?) should be ostracized, banned, not only from going to worship at the tabernacle, but from the camp in the Sinai altogether?
Moses and his sister, Miriam, were both stricken with tzara’at. (Exodus 4) God cures Moses. Moses cures Miriam but still quarantines her for a week. It becomes clear in the relevant texts in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers that the symptom tzara characterized by skin rashes, swellings, loss of pigmentation, are signs of uncleanliness. Hence, the association of skin conditions that give off pus with wet dreams. Only a Cohen, a priest, can diagnose the condition, reinforcing the notion that the condition is regarded as a symptom of a body afflicted with spiritual uncleanliness. All the detailed distinctions to define the condition from others is of little relevance, for the section is about the unclean and what you do with people who have the condition.
But what happens when you not only have a symptom of spiritual uncleanliness but also are found guilty of sin? Moss in Numbers chapter 5 is instructed to:
6 Tell the children of Israel: When a man or woman commits any of the sins against man to act treacherously against God, and that person is [found] guilty,
7 They shall confess the sin they committed, and make restitution for the principal amount of his guilt, add its fifth to it, and give it to the one against whom he was guilty.
You are fined, with a 20% fee going to the priest. You are not quarantined. You are not ostracized from the community. But look what happens when someone has no any symptoms in his or her skin of uncleanliness, is not caught in illicit behaviour and found guilty, but is only an object of suspicion. The text turns to a suspected unclean condition (adultery) where there are no manifestations on the skin. Certainly or, at the very least, it is unlikely you will be waking up with signs that you had a wet dream. In fact, one might be suspect as an adulterer if one’s skin was glowing. Clothing, including bedclothes, may also show signs of tzara’at. So can your abode – presumably mold, especially black mold, may be a sign that the house is afflicted. If that is the case, why are gentile homes immune from this affliction? But that is a problem for the Talmud not the Torah. Our problem now is suspected adultery with no evidence of guilt.
12 Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: Should any man’s wife go astray and deal treacherously with him,
13 and a man lie with her carnally, but it was hidden from her husband’s eyes, but she was secluded [with the suspected adulterer] and there was no witness against her, and she was not seized.
14 But a spirit of jealousy had come upon him and he became jealous of his wife, and she was defiled, or, a spirit of jealousy had come upon him and he was jealous of his wife, and she was not defiled.
Is the problem that the man is afflicted with jealousy or the problem that the woman may or may not have committed a sin?
15 Then the man shall bring his wife to the kohen and bring her offering for her, one tenth of an ephah of barley flour. He shall neither pour oil over it nor put frankincense on it, for it is a meal offering of jealousies, a meal offering of remembrance, recalling iniquity.
16 The kohen shall bring her forth and present her before the Lord.
So it appears that the issue is getting at the truth of whether or not the wife committed adultery. The issue is not the man’s jealousy, whether warranted or not. The woman has to drink the “bitter waters.”
18 Then the kohen shall stand the woman up before the Lord and expose the [hair on the] head of the woman; he shall place into her hands the remembrance meal offering, which is a meal offering of jealousies, while the bitter curse bearing waters are in the kohen’s hand.
19 The kohen shall then place her under oath, and say to the woman, “If no man has lain with you and you have not gone astray to become defiled [to another] in place of your husband, then [you will] be absolved through these bitter waters which cause the curse.
20 But as for you, if you have gone astray [to another] instead of your husband and have become defiled, and another man besides your husband has lain with you…”
21The kohen shall now adjure the woman with the oath of the curse, and the kohen shall say to the woman, “May the Lord make you for a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord causes your thigh to rupture and your belly to swell.
22 For these curse bearing waters shall enter your innards, causing the belly to swell and the thigh to rupture,” and the woman shall say, “Amen, amen.”
If she drinks the bitter herbs and she is guilty of adultery, she will get both a bloated belly and a hip put out of joint. The latter reminds one of the passage from Genesis (32:25), “When the angel saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.” This is what happens when neither prevails. In the case of the former, the belly is the heart of the spirit and it will swell out of all proportion as a result of drinking in bitterness.
So the order of the sections now becomes clearer. You start with the depiction of the number of priests. There is then a depiction of one function they have to perform when individuals, their clothes and their home are afflicted with symptoms. Then the fines are described for people whose guilt is proven when they commit sin. But what happens when a husband lacks any of these clues but suspects his wife of adultery? Well the Kohenim perform their voodoo and if the drink tastes bitter to the wife under suspicion, her guilt is established. Alternatively, if she is innocent, her husband’s seed will make her pregnant. And if the husband is wrong in his accusations, nothing happens to the person afflicted with jealousy. Not very appealing to any feminist worth his or her salt.
27 He shall make her drink the water, and it shall be that, if she had been defiled and was unfaithful to her husband, the curse bearing waters shall enter her to become bitter, and her belly will swell, and her thigh will rupture. The woman will be a curse among her people.
28 But if the woman had not become defiled and she is clean, she shall be exempted and bear seed.
29 This is the law of jealousies when a woman goes astray to someone other than her husband and is defiled,
The order is then:
1. The priests.
2. The evident symptoms of uncleanliness in the skin.
3. Punishment for proven acts of sin.
4. Procedures for dealing with the suspected sin of adultery.
5. Recourse to asceticism to avoid the possibilities of sin.
Other than the voodoo part, that all seems to make sense if you think the section is all about the purity of individuals, the way of dealing with sins of the flesh, evident in that flesh, proven and unproven and one preventive response. But what if the story is really a metaphorical tale of the relations between God and humans? It helps make sense of the section of the man who “suspects” infidelity but cannot prove it and there are no symptoms in the flesh. After all, the Israelites are depicted as the wife of God. What if the real issue is God’s suspicion that, in their hearts, the Israelites have been unfaithful but God has no proof? The Israelites are not found to be making and worshipping idols.
Then it makes sense why God – who always confesses he is a jealous God but until the Greek era was not considered omniscient – is never punished for feeling jealous even when the jealousy is unjustified. God has to follow a procedure to test the faith of the Israelites. What is the bitter waters the Israelites are forced to drink? Are the Israelites really guilty of being unfaithful to their God – in which case, they will be destroyed – or is this a matter of a temporary breach between God and his people, between God and his wife who is suspected of jealousy.
Even if the Israelites – or some of them – flirted with worshipping another God, grounds for suspected adultery are present, but no proof. The proof, in fact, will be in the pudding. Will Israelites be able to multiply and flourish or will they remain barren? If the Israelites are flirting with another, then they will taste the bitter waters of exile from the land promised to them. If they are free of adultery even in their thoughts, then the water they drink will taste fresh and they will not have bitterness in their hearts and / or in their treatment. Exile then, the bitterness is, for the religious, a depiction of a crisis in the marriage where there is no definitive judgement whether God’s jealousy is warranted. If the people remain faithful to their God in spite of the trials and tribulations of galut, then they will have proven that they have maintained their fidelity to God.
That is why the asceticism follows. One joins a monkish-type order of ascetics, not because one is closer to God, but as an expression of the alienation between a people and its God. It is a retreat, an escape from one’s responsibilities as a wife. It is a retreat from the obligation to flourish and multiply. It is a confession of lack of faith in one’s God and the ability of the people to be reconciled with their God. That is why the tzara’at precede the test of adultery, for one either displays symptoms of sinning or one actually sins and pays a fine. But it is a sign of a lapse not of a final divorce. God carries a big stick really only when He does not know and only suspects. Otherwise, in the end, He is relatively mushy.
Like any husband who reconciles with his wife after he has an unjustified fit of jealousy.