Forbidding the Permitted
In this week’s parashah, we meet two fascinating characters. First, we encounter the woman who is suspected of adultery, the Sotah (and her jealous husband). Immediately after the Sotah, we are introduced to the Nazir, a person who takes certain ascetic practices upon themselves, allowing their hair to grow wild, avoiding contact with death, and refraining from all wine and grape products. According to the Talmud, the placement of the laws of Nazir and Sotah right next to each other is by design. Comparing these two sets of laws can teach us even more about these characters and can reveal the dangers of taking an overly cautious approach in both religious and interpersonal matters.
תלמוד בבלי סוטה ב.
רבי אומר- למה נסמכה פרשת נזיר לפרשת סוטה? לומר לך שכל הרואה סוטה בקלקולה יזיר עצמו מן היין.
Talmud Bavli Sotah 2a
Rabbi1 says: Why was the section about the Nazir placed next to the section about the Sotah? To tell you that anyone who sees the Sotah in her disgrace should act as a Nazir [by not consuming] wine.
Rabbi’s teaching reflects the viewpoint that the Nazirite vow—at least as it applies to not drinking wine—is a reasonable and healthy reaction to witnessing the trial by ordeal that the Sotah undergoes in order to prove her innocence to her jealous husband.2 In his commentary to the Torah,3 Rashi quotes this teaching with an explanatory addendum, “because wine brings one to commit adultery.” Rabbi seems to view the Sotah as a sinful woman and the Nazir as a person who is trying to avoid sin by avoiding wine; the Sotah as a cautionary tale, and the Nazir as the one who learns the appropriate lesson.
However, elsewhere in the Talmud, the Nazir is seen quite differently—not as one who is reacting wisely to a sinful activity, but rather as one who is considered to be a sinner him/herself!
תלמוד בבלי נזיר יט.
ר' אלעזר הקפר ברבי אומר מה ת"ל (במדבר ו) וכפר עליו מאשר חטא על הנפש? וכי באיזו נפש חטא זה? אלא שציער עצמו מן היין.
Talmud Bavli Nazir 19a
R. Elazar HaKafar son of Rabbi said: What does the verse, And he will atone for him insofar as he sinned against the self/soul (BeMidbar 6:11), come to teach? Against which soul did he sin? Only in that he deprived himself of wine.
Is the Nazir acting wisely in refraining from drinking wine, or is the Nazir’s oath unnecessary at best, and sinful at worse?! Should one indulge in wine or studiously avoid it?
In order to chart a path here, we need to turn our attention to a passage in Massekhet Gittin, which deals with the laws of divorce, and a comment that Rashi makes on that passage. Massekhet Gittin assumes that divorce is initiated by a man because he has found some fault with his wife. In the discussion about finding grounds for divorce, R. Meir talks about three different attitudes that a man can have toward his wife’s displeasing behavior. The first attitude is most notable and is attributed to a man named Pappos ben Yehudah:
תלמוד בבלי גיטין צ.
היה רבי מאיר אומר- כשם שהדעות במאכל כך דעות בנשים. יש לך אדם שזבוב נופל לתוך כוסו וזורקו ואינו שותהו וזו היא מדת פפוס בן יהודה שהיה נועל בפני אשתו ויוצא…
Talmud Bavli Gittin 90a
R. Meir would say, just as there are three attitudes regarding eating, so too there are three attitudes regarding wives. You have one kind of person where a fly will fall into his wine and he throws out the wine and doesn’t drink it. This is the attitude of Pappos ben Yehudah, who would lock up his wife and leave...
Rashi “reveals the identity” and explains the attitude of Pappos ben Yehudah in his gloss to this passage:
פפוס בן יהודה - בעלה של מרים מגדלא נשייא היה וכשיוצא מביתו לשוק נועל דלת בפניה שלא תדבר לכל אדם ומדה שאינה הוגנת היא זו שמתוך כך איבה נכנסת ביניהם ומזנה תחתיו:
Pappos ben Yehudah was the husband of Mary Magdalene4 (Miriam Megadla Neshaya—Miriam, the women’s hair dresser), and when he would leave his house to go to the market, he would lock the door in front of her so that she wouldn’t leave. And this is not appropriate behavior, and because of this, hatred came between them, and she cheated on him.
The Mikra Meforash5 makes a link between this comment of Rashi and the behavior of the Sotah. He says that the reason why the Sotah behaved in the way that she did is that her husband was acting in the way that Rashi says that Pappos ben Yehudah did. According to Rabbinic tradition, there are two stages that need to occur before a woman can be forced to undergo the Sotah ritual. First, the husband has to state his jealousy and forbid his wife from spending time with a specific man. Then, if the woman disobeys her husband’s wishes by secluding herself with the man who is the object of her husband’s suspicions, he can test her to see if she has been unfaithful. However, there is no limit to the number of men that the husband can warn his wife against. He could, theoretically, forbid her from talking to anyone and everyone, the equivalent of, God forbid, shutting her into the house and locking the door.
The connection that the Mikra Meforash draws highlights this possibility and demonstrates how cruel, destructive, and dangerous the approach of a controlling husband is. A man might think that he is being appropriately cautious and that he is protecting his wife and their relationship by limiting her movement. He might think that by restricting whom his wife can speak to, he is preventing her from straying from him. But the opposite is true, and his approach is counter-productive. By restricting her movement and exploiting his power he is not being responsible, he is being abusive. His wife will recognize that and she will do whatever she can and whatever she needs to in order to undermine him in order to escape. The Mikra Meforash acknowledges that, in this case, the blame on the wife who strays belongs entirely to her insecure husband. The Mishnah in Sotah (5:1) corroborates the fact that the Sotah ritual is not only a referendum on the behavior of the wife, but also on the behavior of her husband, “כשם שהמים בודקין אותה, כך היו בודקין אותו, Just as the waters inspect her, so too the waters inspect him.”
This tension is also present in the way we treat ourselves and the approach that we take toward complex and challenging situations. We, too, often take a completely forbidding and absolutist approach toward things that might appear dangerous, fearing the slippery slope and favoring restriction over accommodation. The mistake that Pappos ben Yehudah made with his wife is a mistake that we repeat, saying “no” to everything, when we could try to be flexible and accommodating instead. The Nazir makes the same choice. He or she decides that because wine can be an enabler of bad decisions, alcohol and wine have to be cut out entirely, “from the skins to the pits.”6 This is a sin against the self, not only—or even primarily—because wine is pleasurable, but because when you cut yourself off from what is permissible, it makes it harder to resist what is truly forbidden. If everything is prohibited without exception and without regard for what is reasonable, then people will need to sin in order to survive. If what is permitted becomes forbidden, then what needs to be forbidden may end up becoming permitted.
There is a time for restricting oneself from wine, as Rabbi said. When you feel yourself slipping into temptation and you witness its ill effects, that is the time to sober up. But if there is no reason to restrict yourself from wine, and it is merely a form of self-deprivation and a manifestation of an overly-ascetic attitude, then, it is time to partake in wine lest the restriction itself become—or at least lead to—a sin.
Attempts to kill the evil inclination entirely abound in our tradition and they are always met by defeat. The most famous attempt occurred during the Second Temple period, at the time of the prophets, Zekhariah and Nehemiah:
תלמוד בבלי יומא סט:
ויצעקו אל ה' אלהים בקול גדול (נחמיה ט, ד). מאי אמור? אמר רב ואיתימא ר' יוחנן- בייא בייא היינו האי דאחרביה למקדשא וקליה להיכליה וקטלינהו לכולהו צדיקי ואגלינהו לישראל מארעהון ועדיין מרקד בינן כלום! יהבתיה לן אלא לקבולי ביה אגרא- לא איהו בעינן ולא אגריה בעינן.
נפל להו פיתקא מרקיעא דהוה כתב בה אמת…
אמרו הואיל ועת רצון הוא נבעי רחמי איצרא דעבירה בעו רחמי ואמסר בידייהו.
אמר להו- חזו דאי קטליתו ליה לההוא כליא עלמא! חבשוהו תלתא יומי ובעו ביעתא בת יומא בכל ארץ ישראל ולא אשתכח. אמרי היכי נעביד? נקטליה כליא עלמא! ניבעי רחמי אפלגא- פלגא ברקיעא לא יהבי. כחלינהו לעיניה ושבקוהו...
Talmud Bavli Yoma 69b
And they cried with a loud voice to the Lord their God (Nehemiah 9:4). What is being said in this verse? Rav said, and some say it was R. Yohanan who said: Woe, woe. It is this (the evil inclination) that destroyed the Temple, burned its Sanctuary, murdered all the righteous ones, and caused the Jewish people to be exiled from their land. And it still dances among us! Didn’t You give it to us solely for the purpose of our receiving reward for overcoming it?! We do not want it, and we do not want its reward.
A note fell to them from the heavens upon which was written: Truth…
They said: Since it is an auspicious time, let us pray also concerning the evil inclination for sin in the area of sexual relationships. They prayed, and it was also delivered into their hands.
[Zekhariah] said to them: See and understand that if you kill this evil inclination the world will be destroyed. They imprisoned [the evil inclination] for three days. At that time, people searched for a fresh egg7 throughout all of Eretz Yisrael and could not find one. They said: What should we do? If we kill [the evil inclination], the world will be destroyed. If we pray for half [of it to remain], nothing will be achieved because Heaven does not grant half requests! What did they do? They gouged out the eyes [of the evil inclination] and set it free...
The Jews in this story were traumatized by the destruction of the Temple and wanted to kill the evil inclination toward idol worship and toward improper sexual behavior, but they saw that the drive toward improper sexual behavior was also part of the drive for licit sexuality.8 They could not kill the evil inclination and still survive. They needed to be willing to live with the danger and the possibility of sin in order to be able to live at all.
The fear of the slippery slope is persistent, but the Nazir and the husband of the Sotah point us to the dangers of living in fear, of blowing things out of proportion, of not being able to strike a balance and to be willing to run the risk that is part and parcel of a small amount of freedom. They also deprive themselves of the advantage of living on the slippery slope. When you are on the slant you have to take care not to slide down. Living with some ambiguity keeps you vigilant and wary, keeps your muscles engaged, and keeps you alive and participating in your own moral choices and personal development.
The jealous husband restricts the yetzer hara by imposing restrictions on someone else and the Nazir tries to impose restrictions on him or herself. But in both cases, these overly harsh restrictions can backfire. It’s important to have rules and boundaries. And it’s also important to have space to breathe, to trust ourselves and to trust others.
1 R. Yehudah HaNasi.
2 The suspected adulteress has to drink a potion in which the ink of the rubbed out name of God is mixed, and if she is guilty, her body will be distended. See BeMidbar 5:16-28.
3 This statement by R. Yehuda HaNasi is brought in the Talmud in order to address the question of why the two Talmudic tractates of Nazir and Sotah are adjacent to one another. Of course, Rabbi’s statement was actually meant to account for their adjacence in the Torah, which Rashi assumes when he quotes this passage.
4 Rashi’s comment participates in the anti-Christian polemic accusing Jesus’s mother, Mary, of cheating on her husband and getting pregnant thereby. The conflation of Mary (Miriam), Mary Magdalene, who was an adorer of Jesus, and Mary of Bethany, who was a prostitute, contributes to this narrative. Interestingly, there is a legend that Mary Magdalene’s body (or parts thereof) came to Provence, where Rashi lived, and were buried there. These legends are first recorded in the 11th century, when Rashi lived, so perhaps this contributes to Rashi’s preoccupation with Mary Magdalene, who might have been much discussed in Rashi’s environs.
5 R. Yitzhak Yehudah Trunk, 1879-1939, Poland.
6 BeMidbar 6:4.
7 Since there was no evil inclination, there was no procreation, and therefore no reason for chickens to lay eggs.
8 There is a story on Talmud Bavli Sukkah 53a-b with a similar theme about the construction of the Temple, rather than the aftermath of its destruction. When King David digs the Temple’s foundations, the waters of the abyss attempt to overthrow the world. King David gets the water to subside by throwing a shard, on which God’s name is written, into the water. The efficacy and legitimacy of this strategy is based on the Sotah ritual which also casts God’s name into the water. This strategy is too effective and the waters of chaos recede too far. David has to summon the waters back to “just beneath” the surface. This story demonstrates the necessity of finding the right balance. When the forces of chaos and the abyss are given free reign, they can submerge the world and wreak terrible havoc. However, when the forces of chaos are too far away from the surface, we become unable to channel their power and passion.