“O comfort-killing night, image of hell, dim register and notary of shame, black stage for tragedies and murders fell, vast sin-concealing chaos, nurse of blame!” – Shakespeare, “Macbeth”
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 mate. 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.”
The Bible discusses jealousy in the context of a broken marriage. A husband is so suspicious of his wife, whether justified or not, that he brings her to trial in the ritual of bitter waters (sotah) that establishes whether she has been faithful. Jews often read this portion, Naso (Num 4:21-8:89) around Shavuot holiday, when they also read The Book of Ruth, the story of the faithful woman. The contrast between the two is too good to pass up because Ruth also offers a cure for broken marriages that are as contemporary as they were three thousand years ago.
The sotah trial – really a ritual – is a spectacle. The priests take sacred water, mix it with dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle, and after plenty of elaborate stagecraft, ink curses and oaths 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,” make her into a curse to her people, and kill her.
But I want to focus on the other half of the drama. The ritual of bitter waters is also called the “Ordeal of Jealousy.” The two terms adultery and jealousy are entwined throughout this passage. Most popular descriptions of the trial emphasize the victimization of the woman. But the jealous husband’s fate also hangs in the balance and it is obvious that the Bible thinks he is also 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 will tell. That’s why when she is being tried, the wife holds in her hand “the meal offering of jealousy” that the husband has brought.
I’m not suggesting the husband is a 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 5:14)
His rage is the stage for the scene whether she is guilty or not.
The original Hebrew in the Bible for this dramatic seizure of jealousy reveals this more forcefully: it literally says something like:
“…and [the husband] is carried away high [by a] spirit or wind of jealousy doubled “
וְעָבַר עָלָיו רוּחַ־קִנְאָה וְקִנֵּא
I know that’s awkward to read, but you get the idea. The verb ohvar (עָבַר) has the sense of transgression, loss of self-possession. Alahv (עָלָיו) doesn’t mean spiritual heights but loss of groundedness, rootedness. The doubling of the adjective for jealousy (kinah v’kinei) is a common rhetorical device in Biblical Hebrew to indicate an extremity of a quality, and this ruach kinah v’kineh – blast of super-jealousy – occurs nowhere else in the Torah outside this drama. (It is repeated in the next verse and in the recap at the end of the section). 
Marriage counselors take note: the Hebrew word for jealousy (kanaw – קַנָּא) puns on the word for possession (kawnaw – 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, overcome by a need for ownership and control of his spouse. The wife either defiled herself OR has not, but the husband is definitely transgressive, lost, alienated, out of his head or too deep into it, and crossed a boundary into a jealous rage.
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. When the Talmud discusses it, it slides between the waywardness of the wife and the anger of the husband, implicitly equating them:
Reish Lakish says: A man commits a transgression only if a spirit of folly [shetut] enters him, as it is stated: “If any man’s wife goes aside [tisteh]” (Numbers 5:12). The word tisteh is written with the Hebrew letter shin, affording an alternative reading of tishteh, which is related to the term for folly, the word shetut. 
The pun, however opens a window onto how our tradition views this transcendentally irrational jealousy-adultery complex and, in fact, the moral structure of the Torah itself.
Shtuss. It was one of my bubby’s favorite words and I always assumed it was pure Yiddish because the way she said it was always with that unique mix of laughing dismissal and deep contempt. Little did I know she was invoking a profound Jewish concept embedded in the ancient Hebrew. And like that unique Yiddish flavor of contempt and irony in the word, there’s comedy implicit in the staging of the 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 extended 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 if the accused is guilty, she is just as likely to die of psychosomatic fright than the magic bitter waters which promise to “distend her belly and sag her thigh” and kill her. For some, that former fate might seem the worse threat.
Let’s keep our focus on the husband, though. Imagine being so deep in the grips of jealousy’s derangement that you are willing to air your dirty laundry in public. You’re going to expose yourself either as a cuckold, or insanely suspicious. Imagine subjecting your wife and family and self to this ordeal. 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. You probably know someone who fits the type. 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.” But by setting tongues wagging with vigilante gossip, it only makes things worse. Only the priestly ritual can rectify the cosmic, communal imbalance that a domestic drama creates once it flies out of the home, fueled by the husband’s suspicions.
By the way, marital Counselors Note #2: the husband’s jealousy often pushes his wife into the behavior he fears. Such is the paradox of paranoia. But you knew that, too.
The Maharal [Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, 16th century] expands on the Talmud’s pun. He says 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 shtuss (a deep spirit of foolishness) has entered him (or her).
In other words, though it is aberrant and has aspects of both high tragedy and low comedy, the adultery-jealousy complex captures an intrinsic integrity of the Torah’s entire moral system. While most secular and modern views of the Bible suggest it presents a system of faith that is the opposite of reason and logic. But the foundation of its traditional moral order is rational. The behaviors it warns us against, its laws, mark the sharp boundaries between animal impulses like lust and lizard-brain rage and civil, orderly behavior. Violating its laws makes no sense. Behaving yourself creates order and civic harmony, which are also holy. Plato and Aristotle knew this. Shakespeare did too, for all the fun he has with human frailty and misbehavior. It’s just a lesson we’ve seem to forgotten in a secular age.
Foolishness, fidelity and choice
The sotah contrasts with that paradigm of psychic strength and self-possession, Ruth. Naomi, her husband and two sons leave Israel to find their fortunes in Moab. The sons take Moabite wives, sisters Orpah and Ruth. But the father and two sons all die. Broken by loss and poverty, Naomi decides to go back to Israel. Orpah a stays, which makes sense. But Ruth accompanies Naomi in one of the great pledges of selfless love and fidelity: “Where you go, I will follow. Your G-d will be my G-d.” Back in Israel, they barely survive as paupers on the pickings of barley crop left in the field after harvest. Here, Ruth is only a Moabite woman, statusless, an alien, taunted and molested by the crop pickers. But her modesty and grace catch the eye of the rich landowner himself, Boaz. He protects her and ultimately redeems her in marriage. It’s one of the great happy endings in the Jewish canon.
Juxtapose the two stories and we see that the cure for sotah’s shtuss is Ruth’s strength. The remedy for foolishness is faithfulness, in every sense of the word. Counselors Note #3: Commitment to a higher code, outside our self-absorption in our own troubles, grants us an amazing calm and grace even in the face of humiliation. How does that work, exactly? There’s a feedback loop between devotion to something that is not-self and orderly in ourselves and order in the world we create around ourselves, between inner psychic conviction and trust in a higher order, in a supernal destiny. This confidence in comportment, in restraining our passions in the face of all challenges, manifests itself in things like trust in our spouses and behaving ourselves in marriage and beyond to treatment of our family and our society. Ruth knows – and acts as if – they are all connected. Perhaps that is why the line of King David and the Messiah springs from her, a woman who begins as a widowed, beggared Moabite stranger in Israel, attached to her embittered mother-in-law.
As a convert, Ruth reminds us that we choose our behaviors. She chooses to follow Naomi. She chooses her public and private demeanor. She chooses to be a Jew, reminding us that fidelity to being Jewish requires a constant conscious choice. It is harder and more meaningful to make a deliberate, conscious choice to be a Jew 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.
Husbands and wives choose how to behave themselves in matters of marriage and procreation. Any mortal marriage is equivalent to Ruth’s marriage to Judaism. A husband and wife commit to each other and to a third principle that arises from their tie to each other but exists outside and above them. We sometimes call that third entity “the institution of marriage,” but that sounds deadening. “Holy matrimony” is a politically incorrect cliche, but it comes closer by invoking the source of healing of the jealousy-adultery complex. Marriage is a dynamic, active ever-unfolding creation. It requires that the spouses consciously and continuously choose it, 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, bringing heaven onto earth.
Dedicated to my wife, Sally
San Mateo, 5790/2020
This perambulation was inspired by one of the many seemingly off-handed spontaneous remarks during class by my teacher, Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman, that had profound learning and depth of insight behind it. He said, “sotah is connected to shtuss.’
 The Talmud debates the meaning of this phrase as possibly meaning we shouldn’t get witnesses and warnings involved because it will arouse the anger in the domestic dispute, but it concludes by confirming the shared responsibility: “And the husband is he who will come to act in anger with her, as they will have mutual antagonism toward each other.” (Sotah 2b)
 Reish Lakish in (Sotah 3a) is playing on the fact that one sign signifies two sounds – ‘sin’ and ‘shin” ( שְׂ ) – note the dot on top moves from right to left).
The pun has many layers of linguistic complexity relating to this discussion of Sotah. First, there’s a pun between s’teh spelled with a ‘sin’ (wayward) and sotah, the name for the ritual, spelled with a ‘samech’ ( ס ). The letter ‘sin’ was interchanged with the letter ‘samech’ in early Hebrew but is more or less fixed by the time of the Mishnah. Second, the word “sot” and “shot” are virtually equivalent, both meaning “to turn aside from the path” (see the entry for שׁוטKlein Dictionary, Carta Jerusalem; 1st edition, 1987).
In other words, the ritual is named after or at least sounds the same as the label for the wayward woman, which unfortunately fixes the focus on the woman’s culpability, not the man’s, and thus fuels the feminist indictment of it.