The Torah overflows with moments that we might see as troubling amidst the #metoo movement. From Abraham’s pimping of his wife Sarah, to the rape of Dina, to the trope of stripping women of agency, we find texts troubling to our modern sensibilities. Perhaps nothing is as cringeworthy to read as the case of the Sotah, the suspected adulteress of parashat, Naso. According to the text, if a man suspects that his wife has committed adultery, even if his suspicion stems merely from jealousy, a husband can subject his wife to a trial by ordeal. The suspected adulteress would drink a sacred concoction of bitter water. If she was innocent, nothing would happen, but if she was guilty, her belly would distend, and her thighs sag. According to the Mishanh, she would turn green, her eyes would bulge, and her veins would swell (Sotah 3:4). Essentially, she would become barren and deformed.
We might be inclined to shy away from the horror of such a repulsive trial by ordeal. Yet in thinking about the text further, I wonder whether we haven’t been misunderstanding the true intention of the bitter waters. We might turn to the book How to Think Like a Freak, by Stephen Dubner and Stephen Levitt for some insight. In the chapter entitled “Teach Your Garden to Weed Itself,” they discuss what’ behavioral economists call “separating equilibrium.” The trick, according to the two economists, is to create incentives that will coax a guilty party into confession. Perhaps the most known biblical example of a separating equilibrium is the famous story of Solomon’s judgment concerning the disputed rightful mother of an infant baby. When two mothers both claim to be the child’s parent, Solomon orders a sword to be brought, and the baby to be split in half. Upon seeing this, the true mother calls out for the baby to be given to other women so long as he isn’t harmed. From the reactions of of the two women, Solomon is able to discern the true parentage.
Dubner and Levitt go further and explore trials by ordeal as a tool for creating a separating equilibrium. They explore, in particular, the medieval cases of priests carrying out trial by ordeal upon suspected criminals. They would either dip the hand of the accused in boiling water or make them grip a hot iron rod. Out of 308 cases that entered a trial by ordeal according to 13th Century Hungarian records, 100 of the accused confessed before the ordeal. Amongst the remaining 208 people, only 78 were badly burned. So what happened here? Well, it would behoove the guilty party to confess his or her crime and receive a lesser sentence, otherwise he or she would face mutilation and a higher prison sentence. Those who were innocent and truly believed in the efficacy of the ordeal, would likely go through the trial. The kicker, it seems, is that most priests would rig the ordeal so as not to harm the accused, who they believed innocent. After all, no one but an innocent party would partake in ordeal if they believed in the system. This might give us a clue into the psychology behind the trial by bitter waters. Just as it was easy to rig the temperature of a pot of water or an iron bar, a “magical” water concoction might be the easiest of all ordeals to fake. Perhaps then the bitter waters ordeal was a scare tactic to warn would-be adulterers. But maybe there is something more to it.
Let us not forget that according to the Torah, women should have no agency in a case where a jealous husband suspects her of adultery. But the laws of Sotah offer them another back-handed incentive––to study Torah. In the Mishnah, we learn that if a women has merit, her fate is protected from any ordeal by bitter waters. Ben Azzai elucidates a women gains merit through the study of Torah (Sotah 3:4). In other words, if a women wants to ensure complete immunity from the bitter waters and the potential jealousy of her husband, she need only study Torah. In this way, the ordeal of bitter waters becomes a separation equilibrium to incentivize Torah study for women. While it might seem despicable on the surface, perhaps the case of the sotah is really a brilliant tactic to encourage universal Torah learning for women.