Friday, June 5, 2009

Naso: Civil Disobedience?

An exhaustive list of all elements in halachic literature—Biblical and otherwise—that would lead one to believe that classical Judaism is irrevocably misogynist has yet to be completed, probably because it would never end. [That classical Judaism is “patriarchal”, kuli alma lo pligi; the question of whether that means it is necessarily misogynist is another, much longer, discussion.]

Parshas Sotah (5:11-31) is one of the segments that attracts the most opprobrium, certainly not least as the source of the halachos of hair covering, but more so because of the fact that it ostensibly serves to highlight the unquestionable double standard regarding adultery. Specifically, not only that adultery is only contingent upon a woman’s marital status, but that even if she is ultimately cleared when she drinks the water, she is forced to go through the entire delineated ordeal as if she did something very wrong just by having been put in the position of being accused.

While I can’t directly argue against these sentiments [precisely because one can’t really ever argue sentiments away directly], two interesting ancillary categories can be brought up from the inyan of Sotah that might sevre to somewhat mitigate just how “offensive” one finds it.

The first can be deduced from numerous hints dropped all over the Gemara in Sotah, but primarily from R’ Eliezer’s statement on 47B based on a posuk in Hoshea that the mei sotah would only work if the husband was himself beyond reproach; this, and extension of he Mishnah there which states that Rav Yochanan stopped the entire process from being implemented, as the assumed rampant profligacy had already rendered the entire process moot. One might even say that G-d Himself obviated the process, as it were, because He realized that the hopefully extraordinary cases in which the waters were to be efficacious were not so extraordinary, and as HE did not want to contribute to the double standard [which he didn’t, by employing the even more selective standards of efficacy], He short-circuited the process itself.

[There are other hints that Chazal was not oblivious to a double standard; witness the statement of Resh Lakish right at the beginning of Sotah that a man gets a wife he deserves (i.e., if she “misbehaves”, you can be certain he’s likely as prone to incontinence); similarly, the gemara in Kesuvos (10a) relates that if a newly-married husband had the temerity to come before Rav Nachman complaining that his wife was not a virgin, Rav Nachman ordered the accuser to be flogged, as it was obvious that he had received more hands-on anatomy lessons than he should have.]

In any case, one might say the G-d, as it were, built within His own system of mei sotah a self-initiated method of civil disobedience; they just weren’t going to work as they were supposed to. This ostensibly far-fetched motion becomes less far-fetched when one looks at Brachos 31B, where Chana tells G-d she will “force” him to grant her children by putting herself through the ordeal of mei sotah and, upon her acquittal, she will conceive, because the Torah promises this to an innocent woman who drinks. While this explanation is immediately questioned in the Gemara—why then, don’t all barren women do this?—the notion of a halachic “civil disobedience” remains salient. [One might say that Chana was simply calling out the Midas HaRachamim to commit a type of “civil disobedience” against the Midas HaDin, but that’s another discussion.]

Whether there exists a form of halachic “civil disobedience” that can be practiced “halachically” is certainly open to question. [One can’t imagine any jurists really advocating their decision being blatantly and publicly flouted; this would certainly apply exponentially to halachists.] However, one might conclude that just as the mei sotah obviated themselves, certain other notions that might once have been salient at one point have simply lapsed of their own accord. [As, say when anyone sees a statement prefaced with “Ain darka shel isha le’"...]

And we didn’t even have to do it ourselves.

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