Parashat Nasso contains two unusual passages, one right after the other: the Sotah and the Nazir. The Sotah ordeal is as follows: If a jealous husband suspects his wife of adultery, only God can accurately adjudicate this he-said-she-said situation. The husband brings his wife and a grain sacrifice to the priest, who exposes her hair in humiliation and has her swear her innocence. The wife drinks curses dissolved in water. If she’s guilty, something horrible happens to her womb. If she’s innocent, she conceives a child by her husband. Later, the Talmudic sages determined that the necessary conditions warranting the Sotah ordeal were near impossible to satisfy. Still, this situation of enacting a woman’s humiliation simply on the word of a man who has power over her can be disturbing to a contemporary audience.
Following this Torah passage is one describing the Nazir. Nazirites take a vow of additional stringencies, including not consuming grape products (e.g. wine), not cutting their hair, and not encountering dead bodies. The Talmud asks, why are these passages adjacent? Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi answers: To teach that anyone who encounters the Sotah in her humiliation would swear off wine, like the Nazir, because wine is the source of indiscretion.
I suggest we learn from this commentary. When a woman in our community is humiliated in the process of adjudicating a he-said-she-said situation, witnesses should be powerfully moved to take on additional stringencies for prevention, regardless of who is ultimately guilty in the case at hand.
Let’s try to prevent the combination of power, sex, and wrongdoing by removing their necessary conditions. Guila Benchimol, a Toronto-based expert in sexual violence prevention, explains we must start by recognizing that sexism and sexual violence are intrinsically related, and so they must be simultaneously addressed. Rabbi Rachael Bregman outlines ways to address gender inequality, including equalizing gender representation in kitchen work and community security, in respect and compensation, in ritual participation and scholarly references. Also necessary are creating a culture of consent around physical touch, having policies in place for reporting misconduct, and training community leaders to listen to disclosures appropriately.
Let’s not let this moment pass us by. As a Jewish community, we must witness the cases that are finally seeing light and take a vow of proactive stringencies, preventing future victimization as much as we can through structural change.
Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.