The Adultery-Jealousy Complex and its Cure: The Sotah and Ruth

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.

Shtuss

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.

What does “virus” really mean? A pandemic etymology

The etymology of virus has gone viral

According to the Internet god of all things virtually true, the word virus comes from the Latin root meaning “snake’s venom.”

snake-venom
From “The Fig Tree”

This viral etymology is repeated in one form or another on all the major sites about words –  wiktionary, dictionary, wordorigins, merriam-webster, etymonline, oxfordlearnersdictionaries. 

They’re all cribbing from the mother of all English dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary.

Virus: [L(atin) ‘slimy liquid, poison…] 1. venom such as emitted by a poisonous animal.”

It makes perfect sense as far as it goes. Viruses are sorta poison-spewing evil little animalcules, right? But all these free online sources are, like most thieves, lazy and simply repeat each other’s smash and grab larceny of the OED. No one owns words, but discovering their origins and sources is hard work. See “The Professor and the Madman” (2019). It’s free on Netflix. Thieves like free, right?

If we dig a little deeper – perform a more serious archeology on virus using the OED as our guide – we uncover in its sinuous history a message for our current coronavirus pandemic.

Virus and virtue

The second definition of virus in the OED is “path,” also deriving from the Latin. What’s the connection? It’s probably not the toxicity of snakes but a deeper shared origin having to do with their shape. A snake is shaped like a curvy path.

Sure enough,  if we wend our way next door to virus‘s neighbor word virtue, we see another clue: the original root of ‘virtue’ is vir, a Latin root for ‘man’. In ancient Rome, virtus meant courage on the field of battle. Virtue was inherently virile, masculine. Julius Caesar in Book I of The Gallic Wars, his macho historical narrative, advises that we should

Rely more on virtue than on artifice and stratagem.

But if you’re a logomaniac like me, you’re not content with a mere 2000-year-old source. You want to dig deeper beneath the Roman ruins to find the oldest possible origin. Where did that word come from? Why do those three letters come to mean something as elemental as ‘maleness’? [1]

So strip away yet another layer and you discover vir comes from an even earlier root, probably Hindo-Sanskrit or early Greek, for stick, twig, or rod. That’s the fundamental root connection: rod is a phallus or vice versa, and thus manly virtues like virility carry genital freight. The Latin word virga preserve this root: it also means rod. I will leave it to your imagination how it penetrated to the concept of virginity.

At the very root of language?

What etymologists fantasize about is traveling back in time to eavesdrop on the first burbling articulation by the first genius hominid who first invented the word they’re studying. Maybe – and this is a real fantasy – vir was the very first word, there at the aboriginal creation of language, of wording itself, where sounds came to represent and signify external things instead of only verbalizing hominid reactions to transitory events or warnings or coded warblings or states of existence.

So imagine with me a linguistic Adam and Eve alone in their grove. Fueled by the urgency of desire, a sound erupts from one or the other of them and she (or he) points at what they both want,

“Vir!” he (or she) said, nodding at it, and they look down and they smile in a flash of telepathy, for it was obvious that they agree this was a capital way to indicate that thing.

“Vir,” the other repeats, and “vir,” they would coo to each other from now henceforth, forever after referring to it in the kind of fond secret vocabulary that couples everywhere invent, pillow talk.

But somehow the secret gets out and catches on. Someone eavesdropped, the snake perhaps, and as it spread, this viral app of pointing with sound, especially this happy signifying meme, and folks applied it nimbly to other things like stick and rod, and eventually, surely by the time of the Latins, to snake. We’ve made the same slangy sling of meaning. Shlong means “snake” in German, to take only one of hundreds of examples of the conflation.

The essence of virus 

Language isn’t a computer code but a stew. Dictionaries shouldn’t be lists of algorithms any more than cookbooks are chemistry manuals. As the pot of culture simmers, convenience, contingency, inspiration, necessity and even humor throw in new ingredients and flavors. A good chef would never follow a recipe slavishly. Dictionaries are by definition definitive, making pronouncements on fluid meanings as if they’re fixed. We can see how the conflation between venom and virus creeps in. It’s not really an error, but a cluster of images and metaphors that crowd and seep – I might say infect – each other. A snake emits venom like the penis spews semen. A vir is the source of fluid essence, it is seminal. This is how we get to virus.

Snake down the path to yet another neighboring word in the Oxford English Dictionary, virtue, and the hidden route to virus appears.

OED’s very first definition of “virtue” is

the power or operative influence inherent in a supernatural god or being

Virtual means “to be possessed of the power to influence, to have the potential to affect.” Caesar’s exemplary man influences us to manliness by his valor. Divinity influences us to virtue metaphysically.

From here it is now one more small step to that other kind of invisible influenza, organic virus and virulence. The very word flu is a contraction of influenza. We now know that a microscopic pocket of weaponized genetic material causes flu pandemic. It sits astride the limbo between living and not, helping all-too-many souls to cross it, ubiquitous but invisible like G-d Himself. Through most of history, to most humans, it must have seemed metaphysical.

Pandemic as transcendental flu

Millions of words have already been written about the terrible virtues of this virus, how nature or the divine is exerting its superior influence over human affairs through the invisible Covid-19 flu pandemic, correcting our hubris, changing civilization in the blink of an eye, forcing us to inspect and re-evaluate assumptions about work, play, family, love, even self. Even if you cannot be persuaded that this – or anything else – has metaphysical origins, you have to admit the coronavirus pandemic is doing a good imitation of what a metaphysical being would do: making us consider the meaning of virtue as if we had indeed lost our path.


NOTE:  This is an extension of the etymology of virtual  that I wrote a few years ago: Almost Really Real: How the word “virtual” deconstructed itself and what its curious etymology tells us about the future of virtual reality and truthiness

 

Too Many Aarons

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and they offered before the LORD alien fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire came forth from G-D and consumed them, so they died in front of G-D. (Lev 10:1-2)

Rosh Chodesh Nissan, 1312 BCE: It’s one of the most mystical days in our calendar. Kabbalah tells us it’s the anniversary of G-d’s very conception of Creation. The trans-dimensional portal that enables Him to visit us, the mishkan, is complete. Moshe, Aaron and his sons have tested it for a week. Everything works. It’s show time.

In an excess of wine-induced ecstasy or zeal or chutzpah, these two princes enter the most transcendent and dangerous place in the cosmos to offer that most esoteric of sacrifices, incense. Rather than accepting the incense as it did two verses before, G-d’s fire instead eats their souls, leaving their bodies still in their tunics. Moses tells Aaron, with what feels like incredible sangfroid, “G-d warned us this is how His glory works to bring us near,” and commands Aaron not to mourn his sons openly.

Was it a Divine kiss or punishment? Did they transcend or transgress? At this miraculous interface between the supernal and mundane, all is beyond comprehension, suprarational.

I began writing this on Nadav and Abihu’s yahrzeit 2020. In these days of plague that will include Pesach, our mystical calendar is talking to us across the millenia. Too many have become Aarons, enduring the unimaginable pain of burying loved ones without proper mourning.

Yet, perhaps there’s solace for us. The function of the mishkan was to sublime the physical into transcendent holiness. Today, while we wait to rebuild it, its invitation to elevate matter into spirit through sacrifice is everywhere, if we look for it.

Joseph at the Crossroads: Torah’s Godot Moment

There’s a murky encounter between two strangers in the middle of the Joseph story. It comes at a pivotal moment in the drama of Joseph and his brothers, but it’s really weird and begs us to shed light on it.

Two men in field foggy
Joseph meets the angel Gabriel in a field outside Shechem

Continue reading “Joseph at the Crossroads: Torah’s Godot Moment”

The First Media Revolution in Egypt and the Finger of God

If you don’t accept the story of miracles and divine intervention as the reason, then on sheer rational grounds it’s hard to explain why Pharaoh lets the Hebrew slaves go. When else in history has a powerful ruler let his slave population leave in the middle of a large public works project, one dedicated to his glorification, no less? Imagine the impact on the economy, let alone the damage to his public image and vanity.

If you do believe the central story has some roots in historical events – and accumulating archeological evidence shows some mysterious population emerged from somewhere to conquer Canaan around 1200 BCE – then what awesome event could possibly have compelled Pharaoh to submit to Moses’ demand to let his people go?

To delve the mystery, let’s look at the third plague, which is the first hint of victory for the Hebrews in their prolonged struggle against Pharaoh. Continue reading “The First Media Revolution in Egypt and the Finger of God”

A couple of small questions about science and religion: Is a Cosmic Consciousness Involved Every Time an Egg is Fertilized? Can science and religion fertilize each other?

“A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton,” – Charles Darwin on God
 “We should not immediately refute any idea which comes to contradict anything in the Torah, but rather we should build the palace of Torah above it.” – Rav Avraham Yitzchok Kook, the first chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Palestine

Moment of fertilazation
“Moment of fertilization,” from 123rf.com

The fertilization tango

When does human life begin? Are there divine implications in the process? Before you make up your mind, how much do you know about what really happens when an egg is fertilized? It’s almost beyond belief in its complexity and mystery. When we delve it, right down to the part that gets mysterious, it invokes a metaphysical explanation.

Continue reading “A couple of small questions about science and religion: Is a Cosmic Consciousness Involved Every Time an Egg is Fertilized? Can science and religion fertilize each other?”

VAYIGASH: Wagonloads of Poetry

רַב עוֹד־יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי  (Gen 45:28)

The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of the most novelistic passages in the Bible, filled with hidden motives, deep emotion, staged revelations, ambiguous plots and a happy – if portentous – ending. After Joseph finally reunites with the eleven brothers in Egypt after their kabuki, he can’t wait to see his father, so he sends his brothers back to fetch him.

COLORFUL+WAGON+(1)

The Bible lavishes ten verses on Pharaoh’s and Joseph’s eagerness to get all of the Hebrews to Egypt. They load donkeys and wagons with clothing and goods and gold to bring back the families and Joseph’s father, Jacob.

To sweeten the deal, they reserve the fattest part of Egypt to settle the whole tribe when they come – the land of Goshen down river towards the Nile delta where the soil is rich. We can spend a lot of time delving all their motives. The plain sense is that Joseph wants to see his father and secure the future of his family in Egypt, especially as they face a famine in Canaan also. Pharaoh is all too eager to secure the permanent service of his magical CEO Joseph and, perhaps, genuinely wants him to be completely comfortable. But we know how that goes for the Hebrews. We read the scene a little like a horror story when we know the ghost is lurking in the closet and we want to shout to the characters, “No! Don’t!”

Continue reading “VAYIGASH: Wagonloads of Poetry”

What is a Jew? (short)

Last week, President Trump extended Title VI protections to Jews on campuses that receive federal funding, alongside other students of race, color or national origin. This kicked off what the media called “a firestorm.”  It was actually two controversies for the price of one. First, do Title VI rules restrict freedom of speech (which only came up as a protest when Trump protected Jews, even though it’s a 1964 ruling). And second, are Jews like the other protected classes? What are Jews, exactly?

Are we a race, a nation, an ethnic group, an extended family, a religion, or just a bunch of folks who like bagels and lox? All of these fit some Jews, but none of these fit all Jews, so what is going on? Jews themselves debate it. Continue reading “What is a Jew? (short)”

Are Jews a race, religion, nation, ethnicity, tribe, or … what?

This week, President Trump extended Title VI protections to Jews, alongside other students of race, color or national origin on campuses that receive federal funding. This kicked off what the media called “a firestorm.”  It was actually two controversies. First, do Title VI rules restrict freedom of speech (which only came up as a protest when Trump protected Jews, even though it’s a 1964 ruling. No comment). And second, are Jews like the other protected classes? What are Jews, exactly?

This is a debate even among Jews: Are we a race, a nation, an ethnic group, an extended family, a religion, or just a bunch of folks who like bagels and lox? All of these fit some Jews, but none of these fit all Jews, so what is going on? The question is particularly poignant because whatever Jews are, they keep popping up on the stage of history for over 3500 years.

There is a document that defines the essence of Jewish identity, a charter for membership in the gang we call Jews, if you will. It’s called the Torah, and it insists it originates in a divine ideal of what people and the world can be. Jews call this concept “holiness,” but the word is too loaded. Whether you believe it is literally true or not, the proposition that this document originates from God explains the transcendent power and persistence of Jewish identity, even among Jews who reject it. Something mystical seems to be going on that preserves the Jews against all odds. The fact that this essence doesn’t fit any of the usual categories may also explain why Jews are also so persistently reviled and persecuted among other nations. Continue reading “Are Jews a race, religion, nation, ethnicity, tribe, or … what?”

Jacob and the Cosmic If

Esau’s Clever Pun

Genesis doesn’t have many witticisms. It has ironic laughter (“What? Am I going to get pregnant at the age of 90?”) and defensive sarcasm (“What? Am I my brother’s babysitter?”) and passive aggression (“What’s 400 shekels between old friends like us?”). But witty wordplay is rare.

So it’s surprising that one of the more brooding and athletic characters, Esau the bloody hunter, gives us a great instance of eloquent punning, and in a moment of high drama, too. Continue reading “Jacob and the Cosmic If”