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Women in Love

Like this week’s parasha, TV’s fall lineup—with shows about Playboy bunnies, sultry stewardesses, and pretty P.I.s in tight pants—offers women nothing but humiliation

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Matt DeCaro as Clyde Hill and Amber Heard as Maureen in The Playboy Club. (Matt Dinerstein/NBC)

This week’s parasha contains one of the most astonishingly strange moments in a book generally bursting with them. It merits being read in full, but for the hurried, here’s a condensed version: If a man, possessed by “a spirit of jealousy,” suspects his wife of being unfaithful, he is to bring the wayward woman to the priest. The priest is to expose the woman’s hair and warn her that if she’s indeed guilty of the deed, her thigh will rupture and her belly will swell up. Then, the priest is to take some holy water, mix in some dirt, write a curse on a piece of paper, immerse the paper in the sludgy mixture until the ink runs, and then serve the foul concoction to the suspected adulteress. She drinks it up; if she is innocent, the potion will have no effect.

Without much thought, one would be forgiven for thinking that the Torah has it backwards: Whether they dwell in dusty tents in the Sinai desert or in room 2806 of the Sofitel hotel in Manhattan, men—historically, psychologically, genetically—are the ones more inclined to cheat. The ritual, therefore, should have been awarded to women wishing to control their husbands; imagine, for example, Maria Shriver dragging Arnold away from the governor’s mansion and straight to the nearest kohen for a healthy dose of drinking drek.

But even reading the story on its own terms, much about the ceremony’s mechanics is difficult to explain. The curse, for example, contains the explicit name of God; when it is dipped in water, the name of God is blotted, a grave and expressly prohibited sin. But even more troubling is the logic behind the whole affair—why should something as profoundly intimate as a quarrel between husband and wife require divine intervention? And why should this intervention take on the peculiarly Byzantine form of a ceremony so forbidding it would not look out of place in a congregation of ritually minded pagans?

These are uneasy questions. The answers are uneasy as well. An entire Mishnah tractate is devoted to the matter: Sotah, or the wayward wife. It so baffles even the more astute of our observers that the preeminent Talmudic scholar Jacob Neusner, for example, wrote: “Sotah, for its part, shows us what a Mishnah tractate looks like when Mishnah has nothing important to say about a chosen topic.”

How, then, to read the whole convoluted affair? Here’s a start: To truly understand what’s on the minds of women, men better pray for a miracle. And to keep a relationship sound, it might help, every now and then, to bring in some magic.

None of this is meant to underplay the troubling bit about drinking inky mud; like so many thinkers far wiser than me, I can’t find any truly redeeming qualities to the demeaning and silly ceremony and can only take solace in knowing that even as early as the days of the Second Temple men seized by the spirit of jealousy were strongly advised to put the holy water aside, go home, and sort things out with their spouses. But the fundamental notion remains unchanged: Men see women as a great, big Other.

If this is news to you, you’ve likely not attended a college seminar, read a newspaper, or watched an episode of Oprah in the past 30 or so years. But this week’s parasha is far from irrelevant—everywhere you look nowadays, men, it seems, still wish there was some easy, foolproof, blessed way to keep women in check.

It’s tempting to discuss Dominque Strauss-Kahn in this context, or to bring up Arnold Schwarzenegger yet again, the beautiful soul who—as my colleague Michelle Goldberg recently noted—extolled the pleasures of his craft by saying of some of the more demanding moments in his role as the Terminator, “How many times do you get away with this—to take a woman, grab her upside down and bury her face in a toilet bowl?” To see the logic of the Sotah ceremony in action, look no further than the upcoming fall television lineup.

On NBC, The Playboy Club will depict the 1960s Chicago hotspot that, according to the network’s jazzy promotional language, is “the door to all your fantasies.” Lest us erstwhile male viewers have trouble remembering the female characters’ names, all women on the show are referred to simply as bunnies. Not to be outdone—and atoning, perhaps, for women-driven shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice—ABC is digging up Charlie’s Angels from the vault of long abandoned shows. The promo for the revamped version charmingly begins by identifying the show’s main protagonists, all women in their 20s, as “three little girls.” It’s all downhill and up-the-skirt from there. If you happen to like your little girls a bit more sedentary than Charlie’s karate-kicking badasses, ABC is also proud to present Pan Am, a bacchanal of sexy pilots and the sultry stewardesses who love them. And on CBS, home of the tender Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, a new sitcom called How to be a Gentleman focuses on a kind and sensitive newspaper columnist who must learn to unleash his inner dog-in-heat in order to keep his job and get the girl.

None of these shows, of course, features rituals or curses, but the effect is the same as the one of the Sotah ceremony: Rather than letting women speak for themselves as present and mindful and independent adults, television, for the most part, reimagines them as pretty little dolls; whether we drag them before a priest or into the Playboy Club’s bathroom for a quick tryst makes little difference.

We, alas, have already gotten used to our crass cultural artifacts and their facile way of humiliating women. But maybe a quick reading of this week’s parasha and its bizarre brutalities would shake us up a bit, and make us understand that men have always been particularly prone to jealousy, wary of women’s sexuality, and terrified by the possibility of a strong partner able to come and go and act as she pleases. And men have always wished for some kind of magic to help them know for certain that the women they love are theirs alone, faithful and pure and subdued. It’s been a couple of millennia since the rabbis realized just how problematic this approach truly is; we would do well to follow suit.

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Steve Stein says:

Nice. (Well, maybe “nice” isn’t the word.)
But thanks for the heads-up on “Pan Am”. Alice Jacobsen (nee Alice Lemeiux), the flight attendant on Pan Am’s first round the world flight, is the mother of a friend. She’s got a fantastic scrapbook and a wonderful sharp memory of those early days of passenger aviation. And she’s still gorgeous. As far as I know, ABC didn’t contact her, but they should have. Maybe realism isn’t what they’re going for, though. I’ll let Alice be the judge of that.

Paul says:

Anyone who quotes Neusner about Mishnah or Talmud clearly doesn’t know what they are talking about.

Yeah Man, this is one whacked-out Parsha. I thought that if the woman who drank the bitter water was unaffected, and thus “proven” truthful, she would be able to take off her shoe and wing it at her jealous husband ala the scene from the levirate marriage story.

I like to think that, what with the current success rate for public acts of theurgy, it’s the /man/ who winds up being humiliated for having falsely accused his wife in front of G?d and everybody — and thus obviating false accusations from any other jealous schmucks. Then again, I’m something of an idealist.

Peter says:

Leaving aside the premise that women are property and that other potential mates must be kept away by force (a premise we share with many animals), this is actually a clever ritual. Consider the alternatives: the untrusting husband may be tempted to beat or torture his wife to make her confess; he may divorce her, impoverishing her and bastardizing their children; she may lie, ultimately undermining the trust between all wives and husbands; or she may betray him openly and jeopardize the social order founded on patriarchal marriage.

Thus, the priest has to threaten the wife with something so terrible that both she and the husband will be forced to believe that her answer is the truth. To us, the prescribed ritual seems disgusting, silly, and ineffectual, but as a safeguard against other outcomes, it’s brilliant: frightening but harmless.

Judy West Hollywood says:

Back in the 60’s I knew some of the women who worked at the Playboy Club in Boston. Interestingly, many of them were attractive graduate students who had found a lucrative way to continue their education. There was a strict rule about any “touching.” My friend who worked there went on to become a policewoman, detective, and finally a criminal lawyer.
Yes, it is easy to demean women when they are stereotypes rather than individuals.

Dror Ben Ami says:

“Sex” is a metaphor for “requesting information from God”, hence the Nebrew word for “sex” in the Old Testament is “to know”. We also see this in the New Testament when Jesus is described as “the word of God” and “the son of God”.

Thus when the Torah speaks of “a beautiful” 66 year old Sarai and then later on, “a beautiful” 89 year old Sarai what it is referring to is “her level of skill as a spiritual medium”.

In the Book of Genesis it speaks of “The fruit of the tree of knowledge”. Since we only eat the fruit and not the tree, this means that “fruit” is a metaphor for “knowledge”. Thus,Jacob tells the temporarily barren Rachel that he is not responsible that there is no fruit in her womb. We also see this conneection between “fruit”, “children” and “knowledge” during “tge Festivalof the First Frutis” which we will be soon celebrating. This holiday marks the giving of the law to the Children of Israel and the Hebrew word for “Ist born sons” and Ist fruits of the field” is the same.

Thus, even today we associate “the bed” with “communication with God” in that we receive dreams in bed and we pry near the bed (i.e. the bed is an altar).

As far as the punishment of the woman is concerned: “hair” is a metaphor for “devotion” (see stories of Samuel and Samson. “Water” represents “explanations about the laws”,since Moses said that “his words” were like “the rain”.

Basically the entire story has to do with a woman being an loyal medium between her husband and God and doesn’t really have anything to do with the French minster and the hotel maid in New York…..

Claire says:

Silly and superstitious on the face of it, but consider this: It’s far better than the honor killings which still happen today in many societies on a mere suspicion of wrongdoing.

I wonder (not knowing Talmudic Hebrew I can’t say if any of the Rabbis proposed this theory there — perhaps someone who does can let us know) if the elaborateness of the ritual, the fact that it *does* require both the evocation and destruction of the true Name of G-d, the threat of grave illness, etc, was given (or, to contemporary non-Orthodox thinking, was written down) with the intent of reducing if not eliminate such public accusations entirely. The husband, after all, has to go pester the High Priest, who surely has more important tasks before him than alleged adultery cases, and then convince him to carry out the whole thing. Surely, if the High Priest was any kind of tzaddik, he would have tried to talk the man out of this.

“Look, Shlomo, I’m busy here, what with these offerings and the holy days coming up, and look at your poor Yehudith here, who has labored for you for so many years while you’ve sat at the gates shooting the breeze with the other men, and borne you children, and baked you such delicious challah, ach! Are you sure you really want to do this to her? And don’t forget, the whole community will be talking about it, maybe they’ll be saying how you’ve been such a lazy schlub and how they’ve noticed those eyes you’ve been casting at Yosef’s daughter, and then, when it’s all over, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, demonstrates with her fine health that your suspicions were all wrong? You’re gonna look like a putz. Why don’t you go home, think about it for a while, maybe make love this Shabbos, then after the Day of Atonement, if you’re still so sure she’s an adulteress and it’s such an unforgivable thing to you, then, then we’ll do the Sotah. All right, Shlomo? It’s good.”

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Women in Love

Like this week’s parasha, TV’s fall lineup—with shows about Playboy bunnies, sultry stewardesses, and pretty P.I.s in tight pants—offers women nothing but humiliation

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