Most of us have experienced bouts of jealousy at some point in our lives. It’s not fun. Jealousy torments you and makes you torment the person you suspect, especially if it is your Significant Other. On the way to doing real damage, you are likely to make yourself look ridiculous to your loved ones and even your community. Jealousy is the devourer, a “green-eyed monster.”
Jews often read the portion of the Bible (Naso, Num 4:21-8:89) that contains the trial of the adulterous wife around Shavuot, when they read The Book of Ruth. The contrast between the depths of defilement and the exemplar of fidelity, Ruth, is too good to pass up. Ruth also offers a cure for the marital problems the ritual of adultery exposes that are as contemporary as they were three thousand years ago.
The so called ritual of bitter water – sotah in Hebrew – is a spectacle. The priests take sacred water, mix it with dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle, and after plenty of elaborate stagecraft, write curses on parchment, grind them up, and mix them into the water. The poor woman has to drink it, a kind of spiritual litmus test. If she’s guilty, the potion promises to “distend her belly and sag her thigh,” and she will forever become a curse to her people.
But I want to focus on the other half of the drama. The ritual is also called the “Ordeal of Jealousy.” The two terms are entwined through this passage, adultery and jealousy, something we often don’t hear in popular descriptions of the sotah trial, where the modern bias is to emphasize the victimization of the woman. But the jealous husband’s failure also hangs in the balance during the trial and he is equally worthy of condemnation. What if she’s innocent and he’s the one who deserves humiliation (and payment) to atone for his mistake? The bitter sotah water adjudicates his fate too. That’s why when she is being tried, the wife also holds in her hand “the meal offering of jealousy” that the husband has brought.
I’m not suggesting the husband is victim like his wife might be. Just the opposite. The only. thing he is a victim of is his own rampant emotion. The English translation often renders his state of mind something like this. He brings his wife to trial because
“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 him and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself.” (Num 5:13)
The Hebrew for this dramatic seizure of jealousy is וְעָבַר עָלָיו רוּחַ־קִנְאָה וְקִנֵּא which literally says something like: “…and [the husband] is alienated or carried or transgressed (ohvad) high (alahv) [by a] spirit or wind (ruach) of jealousy doubled (kinah v’kinei).” I know that’s awkward to read, but you get the idea.
This ruach kinah v’kineh – blast of super-jealousy – occurs nowhere else in the Torah outside these two verses. (It is repeated in the recap at the end of the section, Num 5:30). The wife either defiled herself OR has not. But the husband is definitely transgressive, lost, alienated, has crossed some boundary into a jealous rage. Marriage counselors take note: the Hebrew word for jealousy (קַנָּא) puns on the word for possession (קָנָה), as when you buy something. But you already knew that jealousy and possessiveness go together, and the husband’s suspicions may live in a realm where the facts are irrelevant.
So obviously yes, on the one hand, adultery is one of the gravest matters, disruptive to home, life, family and community, not to mention violating one of the Ten Commandments and therefore a capital crime.
But on the other hand, so is jealousy. The root of the Hebrew word to describe the adulterous wife, steh (שְׂטֶה), means “wayward.” Over the millenia it evolves into one of my bubby’s favorite Yiddish words, and also names a profound Jewish concept: shtuss: “foolishness.” And this opens a window onto how our tradition views adultery.
There’s comedy implicit in the staging of a sotah trial, despite its gravity, that comes from the public outing of the husband’s jealousy. Adultery and jealousy are twin foolishnesses. They both can unleash an orgy (maybe that’s the wrong word) of foolishness, gossip and disruption in the community if not rectified. The Bible is clear that it was just as likely that the husband was in the grips of crazed suspicion as the wife was guilty. No wonder Sotah is the title and subject of an entire tractate of the Talmud that ends with an apocalyptic vision of the descent of the generations (Yeridas HaDoros) into transgression and loss.
But the wife’s alleged adultery is at this point only a suspected act. There’s so much histrionics already in the Biblical ritual that suffice it to say, that if the accused is guilty, she is more likely to die of psychosomatic fright than the magic bitter waters which promise to “distend her belly and sag her thigh.” For some, that may be a fate worse than death.
Let’s keep our focus on the husband, though. Imagine being so extremely jealous, so deep in the grips of jealousy’s derangement, that you are willing to carry your private matter into the public. You’re going to expose yourself either as a cuckold, or insanely suspicious. Imagine subjecting your spouse and family and self to this ordeal. We all know someone who fits the type. The jealous husband is a common, ridiculous figure in comedies throughout time, from the ancient Greeks to Chaucer and Shakespeare to Hollywood. The entertainment industry would be out of business without jealousy. The jealous husband – if he’s not tragic like Othello – is usually met with ridicule, which one of my professors called “a kind of wild, communal justice.” The community acts to cure the plague that threatens its integrity through scorn and humiliation equal to the curse of the scarlet letter.
By the way, the husband’s jealousy often pushes his wife into the behavior he fears. Such is the paradox of paranoia.
The Maharal [Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, 16th century] explains that this sin of adultery comes to teach us that every sin has a bit of foolish adultery in it: “No one does any sin if they weigh the full implications of his actions … a sin is illogical, and so we say a ru’ach shtus (a deep spirit of foolishness) has entered him (or her).”
Faith and Faithfulness
All this contrasts with that paradigm of fidelity, Ruth. She chooses Judaism by choosing fidelity to her mother-in-law Naomi and her kin Boaz. Her fidelity is returned by Boaz’s belief in her. He redeems her in marriage.
The cure for sotah’s shtuss is Ruth’s peace of mind, commitment, faithfulness in every sense of the word. It’s in the feedback loop from inner psychic conviction, that manifests itself in trust in our spouses and behaving in marriage, back to trust of the higher kind, in a supernal destiny. Ruth knows – and acts as if – they are all connected. She chooses to be an Israelite passionately, which is why the line of King David and the Moshiach springs from her.
Ruth reminds us that we need to choose fidelity to being Jewish every day and it is coterminous with fidelity in the thoughts and actions that govern marriage and procreative acts. It is harder and more meaningful to make a deliberate, conscious choice and effort to believe in and study and follow Torah than it is to rest on our Laurels (and Hardys) and assume we’re covered just because we were born that way and happen to like bagels and lox.
Ruth’s marriage to Judaism is equivalent to any mortal marriage, a commitment to a principle that arises from husband and wife but exists as a third term. We call it the “institution of marriage,” but that sounds deadening. Rather, it’s a dynamic, active ever-unfolding creation that requires that we consciously and continuously choose it every day, not just to forestall the shtuss twins of lust and jealousy, but to keep the marriage vital and even, possibly joyful. I like to think that’s where true love comes from.