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Trial by Ordeal

06/09/2022 05:37:03 PM


On principle, I did not watch any coverage of the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard Trial that ended last week. Though I enjoy a media circus, perhaps even more than the next rabbi, I could not bear this one. Two movie stars had a brief marriage that ended with accusations of abuse and a restraining order, and the strife continued with public comments that led to mutual accusations of defamation. After a six-week trial, a jury decided that both were guilty of defamation, with Heard a bit more so, so she came out on the losing side financially. In fact, though, nobody won, with the possible exception of attorneys, late night hosts, and alpaca aficionados.

As I reflect on what might be the conclusion of this case, (though appeals and a made-for-tv movie are soon to follow), I realize that I a not in a position to opine on whether justice was served. Indeed, it seems as if the facts of what happened were secondary to how they were portrayed to the public. However, I am drawn to contemplate a rule that appears in our Torah portion this week. The ritual of the Sotah specifies that if a man suspected his wife of infidelity, but could not prove it, he could drag her to the Temple, where she would be humiliated and given a potion to drink. If she had been unfaithful, the potion would cause her death. If the accusations were false, she would be blessed with health and fertility.

Even 2000 years ago, our sages were uncomfortable with the implications of this ritual. The Talmudic tractate that describes the details of the ceremony indicates (Mishnah Sotah 9:9) that while many Biblical rituals were suspended with the destruction of the Temple, this one was suspended even earlier, because it had lost its effectiveness. Some sages struggled with the inequity of a woman undergoing a trial by ordeal at the whim of a man who faced no consequences. Some sages suggest that the waters of Sotah, while applied to the woman, tested the husband’s fidelity as well (cf. Rambam Mishneh Torah Sotah 3:17) or, if the wife were guilty, also caused punishment to her paramour (cf Talmud Sotah 27b).

Other legalists noted the contradictions inherent in this ritual. Normally, two witnesses, meeting very specific criteria, would be necessary to prove guilt. If there were witnesses to impropriety, what need was there for any further ritual? Conversely, if there was no proof, then why subject a woman to an ordeal? The ritual is an attempt to grapple with the reality that some accusations, though factually true, cannot be proven to the standard required to establish guilt in a human court. Our sages also recognized that there was a risk that the humiliating ritual, which involved uncovering the woman’s hair and tearing her clothing, would become a spectacle attracting people coming to gawk at her disgrace.

Perhaps what those who watched six weeks of the trial have learned is that our modern society still struggles with these same challenges, and has not made as much progress as we might have hoped. We still grapple with how to give appropriate attention to accusations of abuse, and there are particular stumbling blocks when those involved are public figures. Allegation of abused must be investigated, and justice served, but a public spectacle, by its nature, must either force a victim to be revictimized reliving their abuse in public, or else bring disgrace to a person wrongfully accused.

One aspect of the Sotah ritual which has always struck me is that Jewish law strictly forbids to erasing or destroying God’s name, and the Sotah ritual is the only time in Judaism when it is permissible to do so. As part of the ritual, a passage from the Torah is written on parchment, and then erased, with the dust of the erasure becoming the final ingredient in the potion that the woman is forced to consume. Some sages (see Jerusalem Talmud Sotah 1:4) suggest that this reflects God’s dismay at disharmony between husband and wife- that God would rather have the Divine name erased than see strife in a household. One might also see it another way: that when we cannot create an environment to address accusations of abuse in a just and sensitive way, the erasure of God’s name may be the least of our problems.



Fri, December 1 2023 18 Kislev 5784