Parsha Naso by David Hartley Mark

Moses and Aaron complete the census, in which they tally over eight thousand Levites between the ages of thirty and fifty. This showed how many men were available to physically transport the mishkan/sacred dwelling-place of God through the wilderness—not that the Israelites spent the forty-year wilderness sojourn continually wandering; indeed, there were periods lasting one or more years, during which they encamped in just one place. It is sad that there is no way for archeologists to track the history of a nomadic people! An ancient city will yield many clues: broken pottery, a statue here and there—but there are few reminders akin to a “Kilroy was here” for the Israelites. Even Mt. Sinai’s precise location is doubtful.
An odd, but telling detail of this parsha is the ordeal of the Sotah, or wife suspected of adultery. Accused by her husband of cheating, although there is no witness to the crime, he can force her to participate in a demeaning ordeal, wherein she must drink a combination of the water used in the sacred service, mixed with dirt taken from the floor of the sanctuary. The officiating kohen/priest reads a curse over the woman, promising that, if she has indeed committed adultery, God will “cause [her] thigh to sag and [her] belly to distend…and the woman shall say, ‘Amen, amen!’” (Num. 5:21-22). There have been many rabbinical commentaries who have offered apologia for this primitive, superstitious, and humiliating ritual. Indeed, as early as the 10th Century, the great Rashi (1040-1105), himself the father of daughters whom he educated in Judaism, took the word “sotah” and etymologically compared it to “shoteh” (fool) to shame the husband who would suspect his wife of adultery, in the absence of any witnesses to the crime.
Unfortunately, there has been, and yet remains, a definite anti-woman prejudice in Judaism, which is only now being addressed, mainly by the preponderance of woman rabbis, cantors, and other religious professionals. The Talmud, itself a compendium of Jewish law and lore, is, unfortunately, a mixed bag of anti-woman prejudice, for the most part. We find, for example, the case of Beruriah, the wife and devoted helpmeet of Rabbi Meir, himself one of Rabbi Akiva’s wisest students. It is generally assumed that she existed, because several legends have sprung up about her. Her father, Rabbi Chaninah ben Teradyone, was one of the “Ten Slain by the [Roman] Government” for the crime of teaching Torah, who are mourned during the High Holy Days in traditional congregations. Beruriah was considered to be particularly expert in the laws of women’s purity, and there is a Talmudic reference to her besting her father in an argument on that subject. Sadly, as a lesson to other women of the dangers of Torah study (and as evidence of the anti-woman bias of many Talmudic rabbis), she was later seduced (though not to the point of actual adultery) by students of Rabbi Meir’s (Talmud Avodah Zarah 18a-b), and she and her forgiving husband exiled themselves to Babylon—a tragic end to a woman’s scholarly career. Thankfully, the situation has improved greatly since then: today, women rabbis and cantors enrich Judaism through their efforts and endeavors. Hopefully, the current fracas involving the Women of the Wall vs. the traditionalists will produce a solution acceptable to all, although, personally, I have my doubts.

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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