There couldn’t be a greater contrast than that of the two extremes that are depicted in this week’s parashah.
There is the “sotah”, the woman who allows herself the extreme of licence, and the “nazir”, the person who is so strict that no transgression could ever arise on their radar screen.
Both types are found in the society around us – people who always go for latitude and leniency even when it is unwarranted, and people who retreat into fanaticism out of fear that they will tie the wrong shoelace. Judaism regards both as sinful.
Maimonides, writing in his Eight Chapters on Ethics, is not a great believer in extremes and urges the “sh’vil hazahav”, the golden mean.
He says that the only way a person can justifiably go to one extreme is if they have found themselves at the opposite one, and in order to correct their conduct they should move towards the other extreme and eventually settle down in the middle.
Some people hear this today and get the wrong impression. They think that there is a strain of religious politics in the “golden mean” idea and interpret it as saying, “Don’t be too orthodox, nor too reform”.
That’s not what Maimonides is talking about at all. He is not speaking about how observant one must be of the commandments: for him there is only one Judaism, orthodoxy (though the term had not yet been coined).
What he is talking about is ethical attitudes and character traits and the way towards personal equilibrium.
A PERSONAL BLESSING
The priestly blessing – “The Lord bless you and keep you” – is a major feature of the Jewish liturgical tradition. Enunciated in this week’s sidra (Lev. 6:23-27), it is invoked on the people by the kohanim.
Its scope has broadened and we encounter it on a range of occasions. It is customary to use the words when blessing children on Erev Shabbat, when launching a bride and groom into Jewish marriage, when wishing other people well.
Personally, I even used it on an occasion in Australia when meeting Pope John Paul II, who was probably more used to giving blessings than receiving them. He was such a remarkable spiritual leader that I saw nothing inappropriate in invoking the hallowed words upon him.
No translation can ever convey the exact meaning of the words (there is a saying, “A translator is a traitor”), but the generally accepted view is that we are asking three things from God – material support and protection, a generous attitude, and intellectual understanding.
Why does the text use the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter Divine name (“yod-hey-vav-hey”) and not the title which we often render as “God”?
The “God” title is understood by the rabbis as representing the Divine Judge, whereas the Name we have here symbolises the loving Lord of mercy.
The blessing we seek from Him is personal and loving.
WHAT ABOUT THE UNFAITHFUL HUSBAND?
When the sidra sets out the laws of the sotah, the woman suspected of adultery, we say,
“Quite right: marriage is sacred and no-one should be allowed to treat its obligations lightly”.
But then we wonder. What about the unfaithful husband? Is it only the wife who is liable to punishment for breaking the marriage bond? Do husbands get off unscathed?
It is all very well to try to give answers from history and to speak of the man’s greater power than the woman’s.
It is all very well to say that in a (theoretically) polygamous society a man who has relations with a single woman can be taken as making her into an extra wife.
It’s all very well to say “boys will be boys”.
But isn’t a man duty bound to be loyal to his wife?
Hertz says in his commentary on the seventh of the Ten Commandments,
“This Commandment against infidelity warns husband and wife alike against profaning the Sacred Covenant of Marriage”.
Husbands cannot exploit the words of the Torah to justify betraying their wives. So why the emphasis on the wife doing the wrong thing?
Possibly it is actually to strengthen their position in society and not the opposite.
It is so easy to escalate the social weakness of the wife.
What does the sidra do? It does not automatically believe every word the husband says.
If he accuses his wife of misbehaviour, she is told that the Torah will protect her. Only if she is really guilty will there be punishment. The husband must not leave his wife at a disadvantage.
What can be done if it is the wife who suspects her husband of being unfaithful?
That’s why there is a Beth Din. The wife can come to the rabbis, lodge her complaint and apply for a gett.
Once again the Torah protects the woman.