Naso – On skin disease, on sacred time, and on the Sotah (suspected adulteress) 

In Parshat Naso we find the organization of the camp and also the purity regulations. Anyone with skin diseases, sexual discharge, menstruation, or those “defiled by a corpse” had to be excised. While many of us find these pronouncements exclusionary (particularly to women who were the only group to regularly experience one of these), it is also understandable that the control of disease and other concerns over cleanliness and health, particularly in the absence of medical knowledge, were paramount.  The text is not simply about purity in terms of cleanliness but also creating sacred space. While the word “sacred” is controversial in Humanistic Jewish circles, we can all identify with the idea of creating space and time that is set apart. The Levites are in charge of “worldly” (i.e. secular) and “sacred” matters. We sometimes label this division the sacred and the profane, but can also think of it as the regular and the special. When we celebrate Havdallah, we mark the division between special time and regular time. It is not that the rest of the week is “profane” as in offensive, but it is not special as is the Shabbat. Of course we try to bring elements of depth and light into our regular time and space, but we also all have certain times and places that are marked for deep critical reflection, quiet, or thoughtfulness. We also designate times and spaces for celebrating special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, commemorating yahrzeits, etc. Naso challenges us to consider how we make spaces special – by placing a mezuzah on our door with a text that is meaningful for us perhaps – and how we designate certain times to be set apart from others. The text can remind us to consider how we bring the idea of the “sacred” into our secular lives.

 Naso also contains a very interesting idea concerning the relationship between people as it corresponds with the relationship between people and God. In chapter 5 the God-character instructs Moses to “Speak with the Israelites. When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him who he has wronged (5. 5-8). It goes on to describe how, in the event that no restitution can be made directly to the person or his kinsman, it shall go to the priests. But it is significant that restitution be granted to the person directly when possible. Even though ethical behaviour is justified through the mechanism of the “faith with the lord” that must not be broken, really the idea is that people must behave well towards and with one another. In excerpts such as these we find evidence of how our earliest ancestors tried to create a just society. The particular law being referenced in this passage is that one should not steal from a convert. The relationship between the people and outsiders is tricky. In trying to create a distinct identity lines must be drawn. But the “ger” or stranger/convert is to be treated ethically. This is a reminder that our tradition holds as an extremely high value that we behave ethically within and without our own people. Our treatment of converts, those intermarried into Jewish families, or our neighbours, is a reflection of our cultural values as well as our personal ones.

 Just as we think the Torah might be a text wholly in pursuit of justice, Naso also contains the idea of the trial by ordeal for the Sotah, the “suspected adulteress.” Any man who suspects his wife to have been with another man brings her before the priest (notice there is no parallel for a suspected male adulterer). The suspected adulteress is given water laden with written curses and dirt from the tabernacle, which the text says will not harm the innocent but will create a distended belly (implying the lack of ability to carry children to term) in the guilty. It is a horrific scene designed to produce guilt and shame, and perhaps even physical torture. 

Women are tightly regulated because of the “purity” of the birth line. Thus the parshah’s themes of purity, and the book of Numbers’ themes of loyalty and peoplehood, coalesce through the control of women. The English word “nation” comes from the root “natio” or birth/to be born. All nations depend on the loyalty of women to keep bloodlines pure. Societies throughout time and across the globe have created measures to ensure women stay within the bounds of marriage. Nationhood and sexism have thus reinforced one another. 

 Perhaps what is most disturbing is that the ritual occurs even if the man has a vague suspicion. We can imagine instances where even a man who had no such suspicion but wanted to control, torture, or threaten his wife might take advantage of the ritual. We can also imagine instances of men having suspicions of innocent wives but the wives dying anyway. There is no consequence to a man for going through the ritual – he bears no guilt, the text says – but the woman, regardless of guilt, is shamed and harmed in the process. It is a remarkably sexist passage in Torah.

Interestingly, there is no evidence to suggest the ritual of the Sotah was ever practiced. Rather, the text here serves as a cautionary tale for women. It is not encoding the law as such but projecting a potential legal practice in order to regulate women. What is Torah? Law book? Fictional narrative? It’s not really both or either.