A Miraculous Ordeal

Hirhurim addresses the question of whether the halakha ever takes the miraculous into consideration. Presumably, one could argue for the affirmative position based on the Sotah ordeal described in this week’s parsha (last week’s parsha if you’re among the fortunate who live in Israel). In it, a woman guilty of adultery would be miraculously disemboweled. Seems to be pretty solid proof that, at least in this one instance, halakha recognizes and relies upon the actual suspension of the natural order.

Nevertheless, I think that the laws of the sotah ordeal are engineered to work whether or not a miracle ever takes place. In other words, the belief that something would happen is far more important than it actually happening. Allow me to explain.

Sotah is a unique example of a procedure called ‘trial by ordeal’. It is unique in that it presumes that God will miraculously punish the guilty, whereas most others presumed that God would save the innocent. The Torah’s ordeal is much more compassionate, but only if we blunt our expectation of actual miracles. Dying from drinking water is no less miraculous than surviving a shot of, say, hemlock. But like the Rabbi who allocates tzedakah by throwing his cash heavenward and saying “God, just keep what You need!”, the Torah, by reversing the methods of the trial to place the burden of proving guilt on God, implicitly acknowledges that a miraculous ordeal might not be the best determinant of the truth.

Probing the circumstances under which the Sotah-ordeal takes place reinforces our thesis. A man suspects his wife of infidelity. However, he has no real evidence that she’s done anything, and might just be going on a whim; in the language of the Mishna, a little bird told him. Should he take her to court, his case would be thrown out but his jealousy would not be assuaged. He needs to know what happened.

The woman is then subjected to a terrifying and embarrassing procedure which is designed to get her to admit if she was unfaithful. If she confesses, then the husband’s fears are borne out, and they must divorce (and she forfeits the rights to her ketubah). The Talmud assumes that in nearly all cases, the unfaithful woman would confess before drinking the cursed water.

But let’s say she drinks. And let’s be hyper-rationalist and say that no miracles ever really took place, but that these superstitious folks believed that one would if she was truly guilty. So she drinks and survives. Her husband now believes that she’s been faithful (even if she really wasn’t), and they can live happily ever after. Thus, the ordeal itself will always yield a peaceable outcome even if it’s never a miraculous one, as long as either the husband or the wife believes that the miracle may occur. The threat of a miraculous death is designed to appease his jealousy or force her conversion.

Thus, the true purpose of the Sotah ordeal is, as Rashi tells us based on the Gemara Sukkah 55b, to create peace between husband and wife. For that, God is willing to have His Name effaced.

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