Last month I watched the film, The Stoning of Soraya M, which shook me to my core. I had trouble sleeping and was overcome by a great deal of anger for days after viewing this film. The Stoning of Soraya M tells the true story of one of the victims of stonings in modern Iran. In the late 1980’s Soraya’s husband, Ghorban-Ali, wanted a way out of his marriage in order to marry a 14 year old girl, but did not want to support two families or return Soraya’s dowry. When Soraya began cooking for a local widower Ghorban-Ali found a way to achieve his goal. Abetted by venal and corrupt village authorities, he accused his wife of adultery. She was convicted, buried up to her waist, and stoned to death.
Although this week’s parashah, Naso, fortunately does not portray a scene as gruesome as stoning, it describes the process of dealing with the Sotah or wife who is suspected of adultery. Numbers 5:12-15 states:
If any wife has gone astray and broken faith with her husband, in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her—but a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself—the husband shall bring his wife to the priest. And he shall bring as an offering for her one-tenth of an eifah of barley flour. No oil shall be poured upon it and no frankincense shall be laid on it, for it is a meal offering of jealousy, a meal offering of remembrance which recalls wrongdoing.
The text then describes how the priest takes sacral water mixed with earth from the Tabernacle floor and induces a spell over the concoction before making the woman drink from it. If the water causes the “belly to distend” and the “thigh to sag,” meaning that she becomes infertile, then she has committed adultery. Without a witness, this woman cannot be put to death. If the woman goes untouched or is still able to conceive children then she is innocent; the husband suffers no punishment if his accusations are proven false. Texts like ones found in Parashat Naso are difficult, sexist, and may provoke anger amongst its readers.
How might we continue to embrace Torah when such challenging texts exist in the cannon?
We must understand texts by analyzing them in light of their specific historical contexts. When compared with other Near Eastern texts and traditions, the Sotah keeps with other laws contemporary to Torah times. Rather than take these traditions and laws at face value, it is in our hands to keep the memory of such unfairness alive. The biblical text serves us a reminder of where humanity has come from in the long journey to perfection and ultimate kindness. The biblical texts awakens our moral compass and calls on us to stop atrocities from happening in our own communities and in those of our neighbors.
After watching The Stoning of Soraya M and examining Parashat Naso, I was curious to learn more about the lives and challenges of women living in male-dominant cultures. With a swift Google search I found countless stories and horrific images of women less fortunate than even the convicted Sotah. In places where ancient text is taken at face value, women are tormented and murdered without reason. And it must stop.