The Seventh Commandment seems straightforward enough: “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:13). But nothing in Judaism is simple.
Technically the Seventh Commandment refers to a man having sexual intercourse with a married woman, an act that carries with it a death sentence for both of them: “If any man commit adultery with the wife of another and defile his neighbor's wife, let them be put to death both the adulterer and the adulteress" (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22).
While the Bible does not specify the means by which adulterers are put to death, the rabbis ruled it was to be death by strangulation. As with all capital crimes, to be convicted of adultery two witnesses who interrupt you and explain to you the grave consequences of your behavior must witness your transgression. If, after you and your partner both affirm that you understand the rules and the consequences for breaking them, you choose to persist in the crime, well its your hanging. Chances are, however, the moment has passed, and you go home to watch a ball game on television instead.
By the way, a married man having intercourse with an unmarried woman is not, according to the Torah, committing adultery. So, while his wife may wish to strangle him, the court does not. Obviously we are dealing with a society in which women were the property of their men, and the real crime here is against the husband whose wife has sex with another man.
Because some believe Judaism is all about actions rather than thoughts, it is sometimes said that Jesus expands the idea of adultery in a very unJewish way: “every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:28), but the ancient rabbis made a similar argument saying that a man who gazes lustfully upon a married woman is also an adulterer (Leviticus Rabbah 23:12). Jesus just expands the field to include all women, not just married ones.
When dealing with adultery, the Book of Numbers (5:12-31) introduces one of the oddest practices in biblical Judaism, sotah (“goes astray”). When a man suspects his wife of adultery she is given a choice. She can accept a divorce or drink “bitter waters” into which the Name of God has been dissolved. If she opts for the latter and is guilty of adultery, the water will kill her instantly. If she is innocent of the charge she will live.
Notice that it is up to the woman how to handle her situation. She is not required to admit her guilt or prove her innocence. In fact, her innocence is, in a sense, presumed, as the first words of the priest to the woman are, “"If no man has lain with you, if you have not gone astray in defilement while married to your husband, be immune to harm from this water of bitterness that induces the spell." (Numbers 5:19). The woman can simply say, “You know what? I don’t want to be married to some jerk who accuses me of cheating on him. I'll take the divorce.” Or she can drink the bitter waters and prove her innocence; in which case she is then stuck with her suspicion-prone mate.
Chances are the origins of Sotah go back to the Code of Hammurabi which states that a woman whose husband accuses her of adultery should, on her own volition and to protect the self-esteem of her husband, throw herself into a river. If she survives she is innocent. If she drowns she is guilty. Hammurabi and Numbers together probably motivated the good Puritans of Salem to take women accused of witchcraft, weigh them down with chains, and toss them into the river to see if they float. If they do, they are witches. If they don’t, they are not. Of course they are dead, but that seems to be a price men are willing to pay.
My people were not totally blind to the injustice of focusing only on the woman, however. According to the rabbis of the Talmud (Sotah 27b) the bitter waters works on both parties involved in an adulterous relationship. Although it is the woman who is under suspicion, and it is she who must drink the water, the magic works on her lover as well. If she is guilty, he dies instantly right along with her. But, if she is innocent, she is rewarded for her loyalty by becoming pregnant even if she is barren.
To illustrate this point, the rabbis say that Chana, wife of the prophet Samuel, was barren, and prayed constantly for God to give her a child. When God seems to ignore her and she remains childless, the rabbis say she threatened God telling Him that she would make Samuel suspicious that she was having an adulterous affair, drink the bitter waters and, because she was innocent, thereby force God to give her a child (Brachot 31b). God, like most men, gives in and Chana gets her baby.
Nachmanides, an early medieval rabbinic sage (1194-1270), points out that of all the commandments in the Torah, only this one requires the active intervention and participation of God. The water kills only by an act of divine intervention. There is no poison in the drink, only the Name of God. If the woman is guilty God intervenes and kills both her and her lover. And if she is innocent, she lives and He gives her a baby. It is also interesting that sotah is the only commandment requiring the desecration of God’s Name, a fact that argues for the importance of marital fidelity in Judaism.
I am sure you didn’t expect all this, and that you will masterfully get us back on track, but this is what rabbis do, and I felt compelled to do it.