Human RightsNaso

Naso 5764 — bitter waters, bitter treatment

What’s the cure for an overwhelming case of marital jealousy?

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, recommends psychological torture and
sexual humiliation. That is exactly what the Sotah ritual, the ritual of
the bitter waters, amounts to.

If a man suspected his wife of having gone astray, and he was caught up in
a ruach kinah, a jealous spirit, he was to bring his wife to the priest.
The woman was told to bring an offering of barley—the lowest category of
offering, the most plain, most worthless possible offering. The priest
would then take the woman, loosen the hair of her head—the Talmud tells us
he would also expose her breasts, in public, for anyone to see—very much
against the values of modesty. He would then take a mixture of water and
dust from the floor of the Temple. The priest would tell the woman that
if she had gone astray, drinking the bitter water would cause her belly to
swell and her thigh to fall, and she would die. She was forced to say
“amen” to this curse. The priest would write the name of God on a piece
of paper, dissolve it in the water, and make the woman drink the water.
She was told if she was guilty of infidelity she would die a gruesome
death by the hand of God, after being shamed in public.

Can you imagine the terror a woman would feel being told this drink was
going to kill her? The humiliation of being stripped half naked in front
of the entire community?

Let there be no doubt that this treatment amounts to torture. The
definition of torture contained in a convention which the United States
has signed defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering,
whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for
such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a

By that definition, it is also quite clear that what has recently happened
in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison is torture. The US military seems to have
accepted a notion put forth in a book called “The Arab Mind” that Arabs
are especially vulnerable to sexual humiliation. This book was widely
discussed in Washington among pro-war Conservatives in the months leading
up to the war in Iraq. Whether the Arabs are more sensitive to this than
the rest of us is beside the point. I would certainly consider it torture
to be tied up naked in a cell, or chained to the bars, or forced to
simulate sex with another man. There are pictures of a man with wires on
him, standing on a small stool, who was reportedly told if he falls off,
and disconnects a wire he would be electrocuted. If that’s not
psychological torture, what is? One of the most disturbing aspects of the
pictures are the smiles on the faces of the tormentors. There is one
photo of an American female soldier grinning from ear to ear as she points
to naked Iraqi men in embarrassing positions.

Perhaps that grin is what led the notorious Conservative radio talk show
host Rush Limbaugh say “You know, these people are being fired at every
day. I’m talking about people having a good time, these people. You ever
heard of emotional release?”

Emotional release? By sexually humiliating prisoners? I’ve had some hard
days at the office. I had some hard days at work when I served in the US
military. But somehow I never felt like tormenting other people as a way
to release my tensions.

The US government’s official reaction to these horrifying events is to
claim that Rush Limbaugh is right. It was just a few lower level soldiers
getting their jollies. Those soldiers will be punished.

If that was really the case, punishing those few soldiers would hardly be
adequate punishment. How come the officer in charge of the prison didn’t
randomly wander around the prison, unannounced, to see what was going on
in her (yes, the general in charge of the prison was a woman) prison?
Everyone in the chain of command should have been severely reprimanded and
subject to at a minimum an Article 13 (non-judicial punishment) for their
actions. IF the problem was simply lack of supervision.

When I was in the US Army, we used to joke that the difference between the
Boy Scouts and the Army was that in the Boy Scouts you had adult

But the problem in Iraq goes much deeper than lack of supervision. This
kind of behavior never would have happened if it was not known that there
was official condonement of mistreatment of prisoners.

A May 24 article in the New Yorker entitled “The Gray Zone” paints a very
disturbing picture of US government policy regarding treatment of
prisoners. A report written by Major General Antonio Taguba says that
Major General Geoffrey Miller, commander of the detention facility at
Guantanamo, authorized the use of sleep deprivation, exposure to extremes
of cold and heat, and placing prisoners in “stress positions” for
agonizing lengths of time. Bad enough, but US Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld and Under-Secretary of Defense Stephen Cambone also authorized
treating male prisoners at Abu Ghraib roughly and exposing them to sexual

It could be that the people who took the incriminating photos that we’ve
all been disgusted by were not part of the “official” program. But it
could be that some of them saw what was going on, maybe some participated
in officially sanctioned torture, and decided to engage in some on their
own initiative. Once you tell someone that torturing prisoners is OK,
it’s hard to tell them that it’s only OK when the general says so.

The US government claims that torturing prisoners in this fashion is both
legal and necessary. This kind of treatment of prisoners clearly violates
the Geneva Convention, the basic rules of war signed by every country in
the world. The US gets around this inconvenient fact by arguing that the
alleged terrorists are not protected under the Geneva Convention. They
also argue they are not protected under US law. The US government seems
to be claiming that these prisoners have no rights or legal protections of
any form under local, US, or international law.

According to the New Yorker, the war—or rather, the peace—in Iraq was
going badly. There were all these attacks against US forces, and no leads
on the people behind it. Cambone felt something had to be done, so he
authorized this special top secret interrogation program.

According to a former intelligence official, the US Central Intelligence
Agency signed up for a similar program in Afghanistan—one that was
targeted at a few “high-value terrorist” targets. Supposedly the CIA quit
being supportive when the program was expanded from a few high value
targets to include “cabdrivers, brothers-in-law, and people pulled off the
streets;”—the sort of people who populate Iraqi jails. CIA’s legal people
objected, and the agency quit its involvement in the program at Al Ghraib.

Just as the torture of prisoners in Iraq is for a good cause, the Sotah
ritual described in this week’s parsha was also for a good cause. The
Talmud uses this ritual as an example of how important the principle of
shalom bayit, peace in the home is. Because it allowed the erasing of a
name of God, a violation of the commandment not to take God’s name in
vain, in order to excise the demon of jealousy from the home. Of course,
they do not record how they excised the demon of the woman’s anger and
shame after having been subjected to this degrading ritual. An innocent
woman would not die from drinking the bitter waters. But perhaps she
would die of embarrassment.

If the Torah allowed this kind of psychological torture for shalom bayit,
what would the Jewish tradition have to say about applying this kind of
pressure in a time of war? Can the actions of the Americans, however
repugnant they may seem to us, be justified under Jewish law?

The biggest argument in favor of allowing these kinds of “interrogations”
is pikuach nefesh. According to the doctrine of pikuach nefesh, saving
lives is the highest Torah value of all. We are commanded to violate any
commandment—except three—to save a life. The three that we do not violate
are murder, violating a sexual law like adultery or incest, and public
idol worship. One might try to argue that if torturing prisoners can save
lives, it would be sanctioned by halacha.

There are a few principles that put limits on the pikuach nefesh. In the
first place, we are all created b’tzelem Elokim,in the image of God. Even
enemy combatants are created in the Divine image, and we are not allowed
to forget that. For example, if someone was executed for committing a
capital crime, we still had to bury the body promptly.

The rabbis in the Talmud equate embarrassing someone with killing them,
because both cause the face to go white from loss of blood. Humiliating
someone is treated as a very serious issue in halacha. The halacha does
not record that it is OK to humiliate some people and not OK to humiliate

Most significantly, the pikuach nefesh argument that trumps the normal
rules of behavior only applies in cases where a specific act will save a
specific person. For example, in general, autopsy is forbidden under
Jewish law. The body is supposed to be buried whole. However, organ
donation is permitted—because the organ being removed will save the life
of a specific person we can identify. An autopsy for research purposes—or
donating one’s body to science—is forbidden halachically because while the
information might be useful, we do not know for sure that it will be. We
do not know that any one particular person will be saved by the
information. The connection to saving a life is tenuous, not direct, and
a tenuous connection is not enough to overrule the normal rules of
following the Torah.

Interestingly, invoking this principle, we see that the CIA’s position is
actually a position that could be justified halachically. If you have a
terrorist that you know is a ringleader and you know he was planning an
attack, it very well might count as pikuach nefesh to apply unconventional
interrogation techniques. But to apply the same techniques to a random
population of “cabdrivers and brothers-in-law,” trolling for possible
information, would be a tenuous connection to pikuach nefesh, and hence
forbidden under Jewish law.

Even if it could be justified, is this kind of treatment a good idea?
What effect does it have not only on the people subject to the torture,
but on the people doing the torturing? According to halacha it is
forbidden to steal your own stuff back from a thief, because it gives you
a taste of being a thief. I am haunted by the image of the woman soldier
grinning. I can’t believe she was brought up to think this is the right
way to treat another human being.

And what about the message it sends to the rest of the world? Kenneth
Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch said “some JAGs (military
attorneys) hate this and are horrified that the tolerance of mistreatment
will come back and haunt us in the next war. We’re giving the world a
ready-made excuse to ignore the Geneva Conventions. Rumsfeld has lowered
the bar.”

I am usually proud to be an American. I don’t usually make a big deal
over this, recognizing I’m living and working in Canada. But America is a
great country, and it is built on some great values like respect for the
rights of individuals. Right now I’m ashamed to be an American. I’m
ashamed that such torture happened in prisons operated by the military I
once proudly served, and I’m even more ashamed that one of the top leaders
of my country authorized it. Perhaps if President Bush had instantly
fired Rumsfeld and Cambone when he found out about what happened I would
feel differently. But the American leadership seems to think what they
are doing is OK. They will prosecute a few low level soldiers, while the
leadership of the country treats it as a PR problem. When confronted with
the situation, President Bush said the pictures were very disturbing. Not
the torture was disturbing, rather the pictures. A telling difference.

The Talmud tells us that in the days of the Second Temple, they stopped
using the Sotah ritual because licentiousness had become too widespread.
Perhaps because of the immoral influence of the Greeks the ritual’s power
to shock and humiliate was not so great anymore, and it was no longer

Maybe that’s why there has not been even more outrage over the prisoner
abuse. Maybe we’ve become so used to seeing violence, murder and sexual
exploitation on TV and the internet that we’ve lost the ability to be
shocked. If the Arabs could cut off someone’s head in a video, how can we
be shocked by piles of naked prisoners?

Then again, maybe the rabbis in the Second Temple period stopped using the
Sotah ritual because they realized it was wrong to treat people that way,
because even a suspected adulteress is created in the Divine image.

It doesn’t matter that some Arabs cut the heads off of innocent people and
other Arabs sing and dance when disaster befalls Americans or Jews. It’s
not our role in life to descend to their level.

It’s not America’s mission to do what Rumsfeld has done and “lower the
bar.” America should be raising the bar.

Shabbat Shalom

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *