The wife suspected of adulterous behavior is forced to drink a cursed potion -- consisting of, among other things, a degraded parchment in which God's holy name has been obliterated with mud -- which tests her innocence.
If she is guilty of having illicit relations with a man other than her husband, the results are painful and mostly likely lethal (the Torah's description is metaphoric and therefore not clear).
If she is innocent, she is returned to her husband with the promise of future children.
The modern reader's sensibilities are also tested when we try to make sense of this parsha. Trial by ordeal, after all, is difficult to locate among the "family values" that many modern expositors identify with biblical teachings. In the biblical context, perhaps the best thing we can say about this practice is that it limited a husband's absolute control over his wife and imposed juridical process on patriarchy.
The rabbinic tradition also was uncomfortable with the Sotah, and ultimately abolished it as it became clear that society's norms had changed. Nonetheless, they felt drawn enough to the Sotah to try to understand it. It begins, the rabbis averred, with uncertainty, and the anxiety that followed. A husband uncertain about his wife's behavior was obliged to issue a formal warning, in the presence of witnesses, which enjoined her from secluding herself with a particular man. Only when she violated this injunction was the ritual allowed to go forward. Commenting on the "spirit of jealousy" that the Torah mentions, the rabbis maintain that the spirit that moves a man to inflict such degradation upon his family is a spirit of folly or, even more, an "unclean spirit" of dubious provenance. A man should resist the temptations of jealousy, they counsel, and avoid the whole sorry business.
The inequalities of the ritual also did not escape rabbinic analysis. If the man is guilty of improprieties, the ritual doesn't work, they ruled. And even if she were guilty but had other merits to her credit, the rite was not conclusive. The rabbis seem to have done what they could to discontinue, if not disparage, the biblical rule.
And yet, there was a noble impulse underlying the Sotah: It provided a way of dealing with gnawing, existential doubt when there was no other way. It was not the certainty of infidelity that required such draconian measures -- it was the impossible anxiety of uncertainty.
The Torah knows a lot about doubt. When Moses begs for God to reveal God's presence so that he (and all of Israel) would know for a certainty that God is with them, he was given less than he asked. When God says, "No one shall see my face and live," it can only mean that the certainty that comes from such an unambiguous encounter will never be possible. Even when we met God at Mount Sinai, it was amid darkness, cloud and fog. Our God is invisible for a reason: anything we can point to and say, "Aha! That's it!" is an idol. The relationship that God offers us -- a relationship of covenant -- is not one of certainty, but of trust.
Husbands, wives, lovers -- including those who love God -- always have, and will, crave certainty, the absoluteness that the one (or the One) in whom we have invested our trust and our very being will not betray us.
The good news is that God acknowledges our quest for certainty, even allowing God's holy name to be erased in the Sotah potion to help reconcile this husband and this wife. The bad news is: It doesn't work. It doesn't work in marriage any more than it works in theology. The more we try to possess what we love, the more elusive it becomes. When we stand before those we love, either in the privacy of our families or a moment of honest prayer, it is perhaps not such a bad thing that we have doubt in our heart.
"Am I worthy of the love I seek to share?" is a sentiment that can propel us to be more worthy and to share more unselfishly.
Why did Israel have to wander for 40 years in the wilderness for the relatively minor sin of listening to the scouts' disparagement of Israel, the Kotsker asks. Because, he answered, when they learned of their unfaithfulness toward God, they relaxed in the knowledge that God forgives. Betrayal can be forgiven, not so the sin of presuming that forgiveness is automatic.
We have invented many more instruments to give us the certainty we seek since the Bible offered us the Sotah ritual; none have been any more effective. The Torah -- and our own experience -- returns us each time to this commandment: We must trust the one we would love.
Rabbi Dan Shevitz serves Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice and teaches rabbinical students at the American Jewish University.