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   by Jacob Solomon

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G-d spoke to Moses saying, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them, ‘A man or a woman who shall dissociate himself by taking a Nazerite vow of abstinence for the sake of G-d… shall abstain from wine… and a razor shall not pass over his head’” (6:1-4)

The long central section of Parashat Naso includes the sections dealing with Sotah (the suspected unfaithful wife) and Nazir (taking on an additional personal status of holiness, prohibiting having a haircut or drinking wine).

The Talmud (Sotah 2a) brings the tradition that the reason the topic of Nazir follows that of Sotah is to teach that anyone who saw the harsh, degrading ordeal that the Sotah was put through should abstain from wine because it can bring a person to commit adultery.

Several problems appear in this very famous and much-quoted statement from Chazal.

Firstly the ordeal of the Sotah ought to have the reverse effect: it should deter, not promote further adultery. The person saw the adulteress’ dramatic death from the bitter waters within the Temple precinct, causing ‘the thigh to collapse and the stomach to swell’ (5:22). That would make the most hardened participant in adultery think twice before ever doing it in the future. Why should he, of all people, have to take on that additional status of being a Nazir?

Secondly, as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains, the reason a Sotah is put through such a difficult process is for the purpose of restoring trust in the marriage. Since the husband suspects his wife, there is no longer trust between them, and a marriage without trust cannot stand. He proves this with the law that if the husband dies before the woman drinks the bitter waters, she no longer has to go through the process. That shows that the Sotah ordeal has less to do with determining her guilt or lack of guilt, and more to do with restoring the trust and peace between the husband and wife. So if wife died through the ordeal, the witness saw the gravity of breaking the bond between husband and wife. And if the wife survived the bitter waters, the witness likewise saw the seriousness with which the Torah treats an adulteress – even a suspect one. Why does he need that extra reinforcement by being recommended to become a Nazerite?

Furthermore, the Torah appears to view that a Nazerite is holy; to the extent that the ‘crown of G-d is on his head’ (6:7). Yet when a Nazerite brings an offering for inadvertent ritual contamination, the priest effects atonement for his ‘sinning against the soul’ (ibid. 11). The Talmud (Nazir 19a) brings the tradition that the actual sin was his own self-deprivation of wine, by becoming a Nazerite in first place. How can the Torah describe something as holy on one hand and as a sin on the other?

In looking at the issues raised by these questions, there is a certain type of sin in the background. This is elaborated below.

Take the case of Chatzke, a traditional Yeshiva bachur, who is also a heavy smoker. He yearns for a cigarette on Shabbat. Such is Chatzke’s background that will wait until after Shabbat to light up, even if desperate. It would never occur to him to do anything else – least of all to go inside his room and light up when no-one is looking.

Let us imagine that his chavruta (learning partner) – also addicted to smoking - did actually succumb to the extreme temptation, and – just once - smoked on Shabbat. He was found out, ostracized, disgraced, and thrown out of the Yeshiva. No doubt that would adversely affect any of his future shidduch (matchmaking) prospects. But on the next occasion Chatzke gets the urge, he himself will be tempted to stray from the straight and narrow for the first time. He will think, ‘well – my best friend did it’ – so the option to actually ‘have a quick drag on the quiet’ on Shabbat had been brought into existence.

This idea helps us to understand the Torah’s endorsement of people taking on the stringency of becoming Nazerites when they saw the consequences of adultery. However dreadful the death was, what lingers in people’s minds is the very fact that marital infidelity took place. It exists in the community. It affects the general public as a strike at the very heart of the Torah way of life – the unity of the family and home life – the source of security for the children – with potentially disastrous results.

This situation is far from ideal, but it is the reality. In order to prevent the existence of adultery sliding into a toleration for adultery, the Torah recommends those who saw the sotah’s ordeal to ‘go the other way’ – even to the degree of sinning against the soul - by depriving oneself of legitimate pleasure and activity.

This principle is unfortunately with us today – in an enlarged form. One example: today many people in the wider community recoil at the current practice of mechitzot and segregated seating at weddings within strictly Orthodox circles. [Indeed, to my knowledge, such practices were virtually unknown in the German-Jewish Orthodox community until a generation ago.] Especially since the 1950s, however, the standards of public morality in the general community have fallen. A person today easily contacts messages condoning fornication and even adultery through the mass media, and in the public immodesty of dress and behavior. Given this background, it could be suggested that however sad and regrettable it is to divide families at weddings, it has to be done to avoid other contacts between the sexes for the wrong reasons.

So these mechitzot, it may be argued, reflect a very sad state of affairs in our society. Those who impose them make themselves holier by doing so – creating ‘happy gatherings that divide people’. That may be understood in the light of the previous discussion. But it is still a negative product of the moral state of the times we live in… It is a ‘sin’ – though a necessary imposition – against the soul of the Jewish people.

May we merit in building a Torah society where self–control based on the Learning of Torah and Fear of Heaven, rather that sanctions, guide social relationships and individual practices.



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