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Old-time religion: Jealousy


What to do if your wife/woman has gone astray? What to do if you strongly suspect – but can’t prove – this infidelity and bring upon yourself a giant, endless, fit of jealousy from which there is no escape?

Believers, we’ve got an app for that.

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, contains one of those fabulous reminders that Judaism was born when the world was a very different place, a world with sorcery, superstition, and visceral religious ritual. If, long before the birth of Christ, you found yourself in the unenviable position described above, the remedy was simple: go to a priest with a small offering of barley flour…

And watch as the priest mixes sacral water with earth from the floor of the Tabernacle. He bares your wife’s head and places the meal offering in her hands, then cautions her: if you’re innocent, you will be immune from the harm that the water of bitterness can induce. But if you’re guilty, then — look out! — your thigh will sag and belly distend. To which she will say “Amen, amen!” The priest writes down the curses and rubs them off into the water/sand mixture. A meal offering is made on the altar. She drinks. With that, the spell is set into motion and your wife will either be fertile and able to carry a child to term (is she already pregnant? Is that what set you off?) or forever a curse among her people.

At this point, I imagine you’re thinking Whoa! Hold on just a moment. That is the most blankety-blank misogynist ritual — humiliating and patently unfair. What if a woman is jealous? Why does the guy always get away scot-free? Does she really have to go home with this guy? Etc. Etc. Etc.

Points well taken. I have no quibble with any of them. This is/was a male-oriented religion (as are most). Women “belong” to men in a way that we (mostly) no longer tolerate. And yet: do we really think this curse will work? Maybe it’s just an outlet for powerful emotions, an alternative to honor killings or the other kinds of ancient world violence that might have ensued. Isn’t there something outrageously cool about the people of the book using words in this manner? An offering is made, words are literally taken in, the woman is likely to go about her life as before, and the quarreling is over. There is solid proof that he was a bit meshuggeh (even if the baby doesn’t look like him, there’s no way around it — it’s his. The water of bitterness doesn’t lie).

Couldn’t we all use a ritual like this in our lives from time to time?

So. This week’s offering, No Others Before Me, is a riff on this ritual of jealousy. It started out as a make-up-after-a-fight poem and was published in a lovely little book, Proposing on the Brooklyn Bridge, which contains lots of poems about marriage from first glance to last. Over the years, it morphed into something broader, a musing on infidelity and how we conspire not to see what we need to see. It was also inspired by another section in this week’s portion: the description of the Nazirite, men and women who dedicate themselves to God. Some days I read this poem as being in the purely human-to-human realm, and other days I read it as human-divine interaction and the confusion I often feel as an agnostic believer. Read it however it works for you.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 05/17/2010 1:23 pm

    The sotah ritual is bizarre, isn’t it? I like your point that there’s something powerful about using words in this way — and I agree that the ritual can be read as a way of exonerating the woman despite her husband’s jealousy.

    Your poem is lovely, and I love that it can be read as depicting a human/human relationship or a relationship between human and divine.

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