Ofri Cnaani and Ruth Calderon in conversation, NYC, 2010.

A Tale Of Two Sisters


As story is told of two sisters who resembled one another.
One sister was married and lived in a city;
And the other sister was married and lived in another city.
The husband of one of them grew jealous
And wanted to bring his wife to drink the bitter waters in Jerusalem.
That sister went to the city where her married sister lived.
Her sister said to her: Why did you see fit to come here?
She said to her: My husband wants me to drink the bitter waters.
Her sister said: I will go in your stead and drink.
She said to her: Go.
She dressed in her sister’s clothes and went in her stead
She drank the bitter waters, and was found to be innocent.
She returned to the home of her sister, who came out happily to greet her.
She embraced her sister and kissed her lips
And because they kissed one another, her sister breathed in the bitter waters
And immediately died.

Midrash Tanchuma, Naso, 6

This is a story about sisterhood. Although it was written when the Sotah ceremony was no longer performed (if indeed it ever was), it served as a warning to women who might be tempted to collude against male power. The narrator of the story warns that anyone who tries to circumvent the law will pay with her life, and the final kiss will be a kiss of death. Feminine loyalty will not succeed against masculine rule of law. Actions must be met with consequences, and ultimately justice conquers all.

But I am not willing to read the story this way. I take the liberty of freezing the end of the story one moment prior to the sister’s arrival, just before the sisterly kiss turns to a kiss of death. I search within the Talmud’s paean to quiet obedience for the subversive story that lies hidden between the lines, between the letters. I seek out the story that was told in the scullery and the kitchens, that is awash with the smell of clean babies and the fragrance of spices and laundry. This story features sisters in solidarity and a God who is different than we imagine: Accepting, assisting, winking to the woman from behind the back of her jealous husband, like a mother who smiles at her eldest son from behind the back of his grumbling younger brother. Like an accomplice.

Sisterly solidarity in this story, as in the discourse of feminism, is a force that is stronger than blood ties, a force that cannot be overcome: the force of women who would not hesitate to violate the law for the sake of one another. The solidarity of the downtrodden.

The ability to maintain sisterly solidarity is a byproduct of generosity of spirit, the generosity of those who have little to give. This solidarity is not a given in an oppressive situation. A woman who challenges social convention endangers her life, and anyone who helps her is bound to be punished. Nonetheless, sisterly solidarity is alive and flourishing, not just against men but in its own right, as a force for life and as a way of challenging oppressive legislation.

The narrator of this Talmudic story, from his threatened perspective as a man, fails to appreciate the complexity of the relationship between the sisters. He regards their solidarity as a threat to the social order, and he is not sensitive to the fact that they are competing over a limited resource – the love of a man. As the story unfolds, the older sister also experiences this love, and thus she, too, tastes life in all its vitality.

A Tale Of Two Sisters1/4 Pages

A Tale Of Two SistersA film still from Ofri Cnaani’s ‘The Sota Project.

How will she restore this vitality to her sister, to whom it rightfully belongs? How will she return to the ordinariness of her own daily life? Solidarity is difficult to maintain in a harsh world with only scant resources.

The heroine of this story is devoted, above all, to the life that she chooses to preserve inside her, a choice that is not consistent with the social conventions of her day (as we see with the daughters of Lot, Tamar and Yehudah, and Ruth. It is possible that in each of these cases, the pregnancies happened first, and the explanatory stories came only later). But her loyalty to her unborn child and to God are all that she has left. It is what motivates her to ask her sister to endanger herself by setting out to Jerusalem in her stead. She should not have to die in the end; her story, in this sense, is one of martyrdom.

A woman has the power to create a human being, a power that is reserved to God in the Torah. In an act of

will she unites her essence with another being and gives birth to a child for him. She is capable of having children with many men; for her, monogamy is a conscious choice.Thus her ability to give birth and to choose the father of her child poses a threat to the entire masculine order. Men, in turn, try to rule over that which cannot be controlled. To be masters of the procreative capacity.

The ritual of the bitter waters is a ceremony that comes about in response to men’s primal fear of women. The womb of a woman is the most secret of interior chambers, the great enigma which can never be fully known. When a woman becomes pregnant, only she and God can know whose seed is inside her. Her child could be from her husband’s sperm, but it could also be from the sperm of another man. After all, monogamous norms are not a guarantee of monogamous practice.

A Tale Of Two Sisters2/4 Pages

A man needs sons in order to ensure that his name will live on. He who measures himself up against other men. And thus he can only wonder: How will he know whether it is really his children, and not those of another man, whom he is feeding and supporting?

Men, of course, do not hold themselves to the same standards to which they hold their wives. There is no Sotah ritual for men suspected of straying. Similar tests of loyalty are common in many cultures, such as tying a heavy stone to the feet of a suspected criminal who is then cast into deep water; but this kind of trial exists in the Bible only in the case of the Sotah.

“A woman has the power to create a human being, a power reserved for G-d in the Torah. She is capable of having children with many men. Thus, her ability to choose the father poses a threat to the entire masculine order. Men try to rule over that which cannot be controlled.”

It was possible for a woman to survive the ceremony. After all, the bitter waters were not necessarily fatal. But even if she survives, the Biblical ritual serves its desired function: A man is able to overcome his lack of control and the doubts that haunt him by turning his wife over to the priest. Moreover, by means of the Sotah ritual, the priest subverts that act of seclusion that the woman engaged in — if it ever actually

happened. Measure for measure, each aspect of the suspected act is reversed: Instead of taking place privately, the ritual is performed publicly. Instead of the woman beautifying herself, the priest dishonors her. Instead of a lover who treats her gently, the priest treats her coarsely. The potential act of seclusion, whose power lies in its secrecy, is dragged into the public eye. Even if the woman is eventually exonerated, the ceremony grants the jealous husband relief from his suspicions. With the Sotah ritual, society thus has a tool for calming the passions. Perhaps the existence of this ritual served to prevent incidents of violence and murder, but it also left half the population under constant threat.

“She shall be absolved and shall retain seed”: I picture the woman who dared to plead innocent, who came to Jerusalem and stood before God, facing the holy sanctum with her secret hidden from the entire world, drinking the bitter water mixed with dust and with letters erased from the scroll. Such a woman converts the Sotah ritual into a religious act. She who is not scared off by her husband or by the priests and their warnings will attain a position of power superior to theirs. She has undertaken a sort of feminine Hajj. When she arrives home, who would dare to defy her?

The Biblical ritual of the Sotah was later tempered by the sages. They tried to abolish the ritual as part of an attempt to replace dramatic divine intervention with pragmatic human solutions. The sages encouraged the couple to separate by means of a financial agreement, with as little hoopla as possible. The site of judgment was thus shifted from the temple to the courtroom. In an effort to limit the practical application of the ritual, the sages created an intermediate stage in which the husband is required to explicitly state, in the presence of two witnesses, the identity of the man whom he suspects. As a result, many women were saved from death and from the force of their husbands’ jealousy; and more important to the sages, the community was thus saved from unnecessary upheavals and disturbances of the peace.

A Tale Of Two Sisters3/4 Pages

A Tale Of Two SistersA film still from Ofri Cnaani’s ‘The Sota Project.

The sages, experts at communal leadership, were averse to supernatural forces and the crossing of boundaries. They preferred tranquility to truth, and they formulated principles that forged a new atmosphere in which jealousy was less rampant. These principles include: “Most sexual acts are attributed to the husband.” In other words, children of uncertain paternity are assumed to belong to the husband. In addition, they declared: “The man who raises the child, and not the man who conceives it, is considered the father.” That is to say, fatherhood is constituted by the act of child-rearing rather than procreation.

Thus the enlightened force of leadership won over primitive ritual. Did this indeed improve the situation of women? Hard to know. As this story suggests, a woman suspected of adultery in the time of the rabbis could find herself divorced with a child in her womb, abandoned and penniless without even a dramatic story to tell.

A Tale Of Two SistersOfri Cnaani and Ruth Calderon, in conversation, July 2010.

A Tale Of Two Sisters4/4 Pages

A Tale Of Two SistersOfri Cnaani and Ruth Calderon, in conversation, July 2010.

The Midrash: An Interpretation

Sometimes even Mother could not tell the difference between my younger sister and me. As children we used to dress in each other’s clothes and confuse the neighbors. Even so, she was always the prettier one. She got married before I did, even though this was not the custom where we lived. Because I am older.

Her husband was a wealthy Torah scholar from a good family. As she was wont, she captured his heart easily, without really trying. Swarms of suitors buzzed around our house, thirsty for the sweet nectar of her glance, for her laughter, for the shine of her flowing hair. When they saw me, they would merely nod politely. Only the shy men would pay attention to me, the older sister, the ever-patient virgin. Eventually one of them settled for me. I married without desire or pleasure, bearing the burden of the household on my shoulders. After her marriage my sister moved with her husband to the big city, and her letters teemed with excitement and energy. I did not see her for a while, from the day of her marriage until one day two months ago when she came to our town.

When my sister came to my home, my husband was away on business. I did not have any children yet. My sister entered, looking pale and thin. She shook like a baby, tears brimming in her eyes. When I sat her down on my bed, she told me about a man, a peddler of perfumes who had passed through her town. He had come to her house to display his wares; they spoke; and he returned several times. Her husband, immersed in Torah, was always in the study house. Their chatting led to more chatting, until she bared all her secrets and her soul became bound up in his. They were together alone, secluded.

My sister captured my heart with her words. She begged desperately for my help. She had not had her monthly courses for six weeks, “and my husband,” she added, “suspects me, or perhaps the neighbors whispered something in his ears. A wave of jealousy has washed over him and he wants me to drink the bitter waters given to all those suspected of adultery in Jerusalem.” She said that the local court had pressured her to confess and thereby gain release from her marriage, albeit without financial or legal protection. But she feared for the child within her who would be born without a home and without a father, and thus she would not confess.

Fear swept through the room like a cold wind. “Dear sister,” I said, “I will go to Jerusalem in your stead.” She fell on my neck and kissed me.

That night we were like two young girls again. We laughed, we cooked, and we ate together. In the morning she dressed me in her clothes, styled my hair like hers, and taught me about her relationship with her husband – their terms of endearment and how they relate when alone. I committed it all to memory.

Her husband would not know the difference between us. At their wedding he was drunk. Since they left, I hadn’t seen him at all. And anyway, how many times does a man look squarely into the eye of the woman who shares his home?

I left her in my home wearing my gown, and when they came to her home to bring her to Jerusalem, her husband escorted by two sages, it was I who set out instead. My escorts left enough space for me to hide myself among them. The journey to Jerusalem was lovely. The first signs of winter chilled the air, and it was pleasant to be outside. I had never before traveled so far from my town. The walk roused me. At the first rest stop I ate out of genuine hunger, as if I had just woken up from a long sleep.

My sister’s husband averted his glance; there was hatred in his eyes. I kept silent and walked by his side with my head bent. I worried that he would figure out that I was not his wife. When we stopped for the night, I took deliberate care with those labors that a woman performs for her husband. But the escorts would not let me make his bed or mix his wine. This was disappointing for me. With all my heart I wanted to win him over. The next morning I tied my kerchief neatly, washed my hair, and combed it straight. The smell of my perfume would be pleasant to him.

On the fourth day I sensed that he was drawing closer to me, pleased with the ruddy color that the walk had brought to my cheeks. For the first time my shyness and self-consciousness worked to my advantage. I saw that I found favor in his eyes. When we stood near the spring in Motza, home of the famous willows used in the holiday processions, and the two Torah scholars accompanying us had turned their faces away, he approached and began speaking to me. It was nighttime, and our convoy unloaded its store. A makeshift camp was erected around us. He spoke about forgiveness, about returning home. Under cover of darkness he took my hands in his. But I avoided looking at him. That night he wanted me. Had he come into my bed, the trip would have all been for naught. “It is forbidden to give the bitter waters to any woman whose husband sleeps with her after he accuses her.” So I had learned from our escorts. I was afraid of the emotions that were stirred when he came near me, since he was, after all, my sister’s husband. I pretended I was asleep, until his arm gave up on trying to caress me.

At the entrance to Jerusalem I blessed “That He has sustained me” and also “That so it is in His world.” The sages took us to the Gate of Nicanor, where women suspected of adultery are made to drink the bitter waters and where new mothers and lepers are purified. They took me alone to the holy sanctum. My sister’s husband parted from me with a sad look on his face. I saw him praying. Like a dreamer I passed through the Women’s Gallery and the Israelite Gallery, where the general public is forbidden from entering. The young priests kept their distance as I approached the place of the bitter waters. A priest dressed in a white gown with a stern look on his face recited formulaically, “My daughter” (how I liked that way of referring to me), “If you know that you are pure, then prove your innocence and drink, because the bitter waters will act like a dry remedy rubbed upon living flesh: If there is an injury, it heals; if there is no injury, then it has no effect.” I listened calmly to his words and declared, “I am pure.” I knew that God is a true God and would not allow me to die.

One of them grabbed hold of my garment and ripped it apart until my chest was bared. I was not ashamed. It seemed fitting to be exposed in such a holy place. My breath rose and fell and I did not lower my gaze. Afterwards they brought an Egyptian rope and tied it above my breasts. The priest tried to avoid touching me, but he brushed against me and trembled as he did. A large crowd had assembled, excited at the chance to witness the trial of a suspected adulteress upon their visit to the Temple. But I was hardly conscious of their presence. I turned my face towards the Holy of Holies. The most senior priest among them lifted a marble tablet using a ring affixed to it; and with a silver ladle he brushed dust into a clay cup that was already filled with half a measure of water from the Temple sink; and he took a parchment scroll that had the verses from the Torah about the curse of the adulteress written in ink upon it; and he lowered the scroll into the glass of water until the letters dissolved. Then he mixed the dust and the letters in the water. He brought the water to my lips and I closed my eyes, feeling as calm and content as a baby nursing at her mother’s breast. I sensed the eyes of the crowd on my face and I felt a new beauty spreading from my lips to my whole body like a wave of warmth, the taste of the water in my mouth as salty as sea water or as the taste of a man’s body.

Suddenly my face lit up and I opened my eyes.

“She is pure,” I heard the priest declare. Immediately my husband—her husband—embraced me and lifted me off my trembling feet to the space outside of the sanctum. His embrace was like a reward. “She shall be absolved and shall retain seed” – I hoped the blessing would be fulfilled and that I would give birth within ten months.

The days of the journey back to my sister’s husband’s home passed quickly. I was sad. I wished I had more time before I had to divest myself of this life and return to my sister the man, the home, and the new heart beating inside me. And behold, now we were approaching the gates of the city, the market square. She and I had arranged that she would wait in her house for me. We came through the gate to the courtyard. I heard her footsteps approaching. My heart was heavy with happiness. In just a moment she would come, and I would greet her with a kiss.