One of the difficulties of engaging with our sacred text is that we tend to pick and choose the passages and stories that are a reflection of what we already believe. This problem has infiltrated our political discourse as well over the past few decades. The central issue is that when one stands on what they believe are the words of God, there is no reasoning or arguing with that position even if there might be contradictory interpretations of said passage.
However, this approach ignores not only the interpretive tradition, but it also overlooks the depth and breadth of our canonical literature. There is indeed more to be found in our Torah that is stranger and more curious than we may have learned in Religious School.
Parashat Naso is a classic example. We will often read and study about the Nazarites (those who were to refrain from drinking anything alcoholic or cutting their hair. Or we read the Priestly Benediction. But we often overlook the laws regarding the ‘wife who has gone astray.’
In this ritual, if a husband suspects that his wife has been unfaithful (the sotah) or even if he simply succumbs to a fit of jealousy, he is to bring his wife to the priest.
The wife is to then bare her head and she is to drink from the ‘water of bitterness.’ After drinking from this water, if she was unfaithful, a spell would ensue. This spell would cause “her belly to distend and her thigh to sag.” But if she was innocent, then she would be unharmed.
Upon initial reflection, this might remind us of the Salem Witch Trials. And to be sure there very well may be some parallels. Now one interpretation of this troubling passage is that a husband could not simply accuse his wife of infidelity and kill her. Reflecting upon the time with which this ritual was created, it was revolutionary in that a husband could not simply do with his wife as he wished. Another possibility is that the husband still had far too much power and authority over his wife. Two distinct and contradictory interpretations. Or, as one Torah commentary puts it, “consider the ritual to be unforgivably misogynistic, demonstrating vulnerability of women and the privileged position of men in Israelite society. (Or we can) believe this ritual works to protect accused women” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary pg. 821).
This is a long way of saying that there is a lot of ambiguity when it comes to many passages in the Torah. Upon initial reading, any passage might seem straightforward, but upon further reflection, we find nuances and complexities.
This is why it is so vitally important for us to study not just the well-known passages, but the messy ones as well. We need to stop giving ownership over our sacred texts to others because they believe in the literal reading of a statement. For as we have seen and as we know, that is only the beginning into a much deeper and wider understanding of what it means to be engaged with Torah.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff