Sunday, June 7, 2009

Naso: Trial by Ordeal

Parashat Naso is a popular Torah portion for b'nai mitzvah, mostly because its reading falls at a time when good weather may be expected.

It comprises four topics: certain duties of the Levites, the procedure for trial of a woman accused of adultery, Nazirite vows, and certain functions of the priests, including the Priestly Benediction. A bar or bat mitzvah almost always chooses to speak about the Nazirite vows.

So in giving a drash in the synagogue, I wanted to speak about the trial of a woman accused of adultery. In short, it's a trial by ordeal--something that does not comport wiith our modern ideas of justice or rules of evidence.

Since this procedure is not currently in effect, and hasn't been for a long time, we feel little urgency to master the details of it. Instead, we struggle with our sense of the wrongness of it. It's one of the clearest cases of a commandment of Torah that we all agree is morally objectionable.

So what do we do? Unlike rituals that require a functioning Temple in Jerusalem or that only apply in the land of Israel, it appears that we could reinstitute this procedure. Admittedly, courts wouldn't accept it as evidence, but few divorce cases today cite adultery as the justification. (There was a time when adultery was the only recognized reason for divorce in the State of New York, which is how divorce became an important industry in Reno and Las Vegas.)

One answer, characteristic of Reform Judaism, is simply to conclude that this commandment is contrary to our principles, and therefore we do not follow it. But where do we learn those principles?

Another, characteristic of Conservative Judaism, is to attempt to view the commandment in a historical context. In this case, we might conclude that it is a vestige of pre-Torah rituals that really does not belong in the Torah at all. To take this position, we must hold that the Torah is a compilation of many oral traditions and not a cohesive document given in its entirety through Moses.

For this passage, we need to take neither approach, because it was set aside centuries ago by our early rabbis--not on idealistic grounds, but on practical ones: the rabbis concluded that the procedure didn't work! Their explanation was that it worked when most of the people of Israel were righteous, but in generally immoral times such as theirs, it couldn't be relied on.

Back to the idea that this commandment is contrary to our principles. It is common in Hebrew school for students to reject a statement in Torah because it seems so plainly wrong. Sometimes that merely means that it's inconvenient or uncongenial. For example, an eighth-grade class that I taught about a decade ago was seriously interest in the rules of kashrut--until it became apparent that the observance meant no shrimp or lobster.

At other times, the Torah is genuinely at odds with some of our secular principles: the Constitution, or various anti-discrimination laws. To most of our students, a religious precept that makes any serious distinction between Jews and Gentiles seems objectionable, and in fact our general practice is to minimize such differences in daily life, making it seem odd to do so in religious life.

But the early Reform rabbis did not draw their principles solely from secular ideology. They also drew them from Jewish sources, but they did not take any precept in isolation. Influenced as much by the Prophets as by the Torah, they tried to place each commandment in a framework that reflected the entirety of the Tanach.

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