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Torah Sparks

June 14, 2003 - 5763

Annual Cycle: Num. 4:21 - 7:89 (Hertz, p. 586; Etz Hayim, p. 791)
Triennial Cycle II: Num. 5:11 - 6:27 (Hertz, p. 589; Etz Hayim, p. 796)
Haftarah: Judges 13:2 - 25 (Hertz, p. 602; Etz Hayim, p. 812)

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Discussion Theme: Women Studying Torah

"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: If any man's wife has gone astray and broken faith with him in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her-but a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself, the man shall bring his wife to the priestà. The priest shall adjure the woman, saying to her, 'If no man has lain with you, if you have not gone astray in defilement while married to your husband, be immune to harm from this water of bitterness that induces the spell. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and have defiled yourself, if a man other than your husband has had carnal relations with you may the Lord make you a curse and an imprecation among your people, as the Lord causes your thigh to sag and your belly to distend." (Numbers 5:11-14, 19-21)


Immediately upon drinking the water, her face would turn yellow, her eyes would bulge, and her veins would swell. And they would say: Take her out of the Courtyard. If she had merit, it would protect her from the effects of the water. Some merit protects for one year, some for two, and some for three. From here Ben Azzai learned: A man is obligated to teach his daughter Torah so that if she should drink these waters, she would know that merit will protect her. Rabbi Eliezer says: Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah teaches her lewdness. Rabbi Joshua says: A woman prefers one measure of lewdness to nine measures of separation. (Mishnah Sota 3:4)

Phew! Let's see what all this means to us - in our time.

  1. Ben Azzai feels that this ability to use Torah to ward off the devastation of the bitters waters is advantageous. Therefore he declares that every father should teach his daughter Torah. With that merit, the waters, if ever tasted, would be rendered null and void. Rabbi Eliezer responds by saying that Torah should not be used for such a purpose. Firstly, it would give women carte blanche to commit immoral acts, knowing that their Torah learning would make them immune to the effects of the bitter waters. Secondly, Rabbi Eliezer may have been saying that using Torah for this type of personal insurance policy would be an outrage and an abuse of the power of Torah. From this perspective, Rabbi Eliezer's statement is not a sweeping restriction of women's place in Torah study. The statement rather teaches us the important lesson that while all of us should continue to strive to learn more and reach higher, any Torah learning is valueless unless it is used to enhance our personal morality and foster a closer relationship to God. (Avi Weiss "The Sotah Teaches Us the True Purpose of Torah Learning")
  2. The word Torah ("whoever teaches his daughter Torah") does not here refer to the entire Torah, written and Oral. The word has very limited meaning in this Mishnah, referring specifically to the law of Sotah as outlined in the Mishnah's discussion. The Mishnah might, therefore, be understood as follows: if a woman drinks the bitter waters and does not immediately show signs of guilt, she may still be guilty but the signs may be delayed up to three years in concession to the meritorious deeds which she has performed in her lifetime. On this basis, Ben Azzai says that a man should teach his daughter the rules of Sotah so that if she should drink the bitter waters and not receive immediate punishment she should not think she has evaded the consequences of her sin. Rather, she may expect the signs of guilt to appear within three years if she is, in fact, culpable. Ben Azzai is concerned that a father should impress upon his daughter the importance of marital fidelity. She should be taught that she cannot escape punishment for immoral behavior even if that punishment is sometimes delayed. Opposing this opinion is Rabbi Eliezer, who holds that a father who teaches the law of this Mishnah to his daughter is teaching her obscenity. She will come to think that she can get away with immoral behavior, believing that the meritorious actions to her credit will defray any punishment. If her father explains that she may escape punishment for up to three years, it is possible for her to think she can escape altogether. Drinking the bitter waters might not then be seen as the terrible experience that it is supposed to be and a woman might think that she could behave immorally and still avoid retribution. This interpretation of the Mishnah would preclude the use of Rabbi Eliezer's statement as a general prohibition to teach Torah to women. Rather, there is here a specific opinion on a specific case and does not necessarily indicate that Rabbi Eliezer thought that women were "unfit for study." (Marc Angel, "Understanding and Misunderstanding Talmudic Sources")
  3. Ben Azzai presents the reason a man is obligated to teach his daughter Torah. If she studies Torah, she will know that if she commits adultery, her punishment will be postponed because of the good deeds she has done in the past. It is hard to imagine a more absurd rationale for teaching women Torah!à.It is doubtful that he is more forgiving of adultery. More likely, his statement indicates his repudiation of the entire Sotah ritual. Not only does merit protect, as already stated, but a woman should be entrusted with this knowledge in advance in order to alleviate her fear of what Ben Azzai considers to be an excessively harsh ritual. Interpreted this way, Ben Azzai's statement is yet another example of the rabbis' ability to reflect and comment upon women's unfair lot in life. He seems to say that this ritual is such a travesty of justice that the only way to rectify matters is to teach women Torah, so that they know that nothing will happen to them for a long time if they drink the water, even if guilty. (Judith Hauptman in "Re-reading the Rabbis: A Woman's Voice")

For discussion:

In the last century, a revolution has taken place in terms of women and Torah study. The prohibition against teaching women Torah has been ignored or counter-argued. The establishment of seminaries for girls, co-educational day schools, and Stern College for Women shows that even in the Orthodox movement radical innovations have taken place. In egalitarian circles, it is taken for granted that women may and should study Torah. Yet, if one's position is based in halachah, then that position must reconcile itself with traditional sources like Rabbi Eliezer's statement in Mishnah Sotah. Which of the arguments above seems most cogent? Is there another interpretation of the Mishnah that you would offer?

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