Wine and waywardness
Wine is regarded as the primary factor in leading a person to moral degeneracy, followed by laughter and frivolity, childish behavior and evil neighbors.
The magical ritual involving the sota, or wayward woman, is conducted in the case of a woman whose husband suspects her of infidelity despite her claims of innocence. The ceremony is held under two conditions: first, that a "spirit of jealousy [has] come upon" the husband (Numbers 5:14 ) and, second, that the wife has willingly agreed to submit herself to this trial by ordeal.
In the course of the ritual, the sota portion is written on parchment, holy water is mixed with the dust from the floor of the Temple and the text is immersed in it. Immersion in the liquid erases the words and the woman drinks the solution; in the Torah it is called mei hamarim hamerarerim, the "water of bitterness that causeth the curse" (Num. 5:18 ). The purpose of this is to discover the truth about the accused woman. If she is an adulteress, her abdomen will swell after drinking the solution, but if she is innocent, she will immediately become pregnant.
Nazirites voluntarily take upon themselves certain tasks. In addition to abiding by the religious laws incumbent on all Jews, they must abstain from drinking wine, their hair cannot be cut and they must remain ritually pure at all times. In contrast to the ritual pertaining to the sota, it is much more difficult to understand what motivates individuals to willingly accept the Nazirite vow of abstinence. The Gemara uses the juxtaposition of the sota and Nazirite passages in the Torah to explain this: "Rabi says, 'Why does the Nazirite passage immediately follow the sota passage? In order to teach us that all those who see a wayward woman in the nadir of her moral depravity should abstain from wine'" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot, p. 63a ).
The connection between wine and the sota's immorality is not explicitly described in the Torah, but is referred to in the Mishna, where a more detailed description of the sota ritual is given. Initially, the woman in question is brought before beit hadin hagadol - the supreme rabbinical court of justice - in Jerusalem, whose judges will appeal to her: If she is lying and did, in fact, commit adultery, she should immediately confess so that God's name, which appears in the sota passage that was immersed in the water-and-dust solution, will not be erased in vain. The judges say: "My daughter, Wine does much, frivolity does much, youth does much, bad neighbors do much. Do it for the sake of his great name which is written in holiness so that it may not be obliterated by the water" (Mishna, Tractate Sota, 1:4 ).
Wine is regarded as the primary factor in leading a person to moral degeneracy, followed by laughter and frivolity, childish behavior and evil neighbors. Whereas socially normative behavior is defined in terms of sobriety, wine is seen as the gate through which an individual exits the realm of what is normative. The sota passage in the Torah makes the possibility of removing oneself from the social order visible. The exposure of the woman's impropriety reveals her decision to be morally deviant in a dramatic way, which may spur an observer to become a Nazirite. The sota passage is a window or perhaps a mirror in which the "wayward woman in the nadir of her moral depravity" is publicly displayed. According to Rabi, the Nazirite passage reflects other people's reaction to this scene and their desire to distance themselves from the possibility of depravity.
The Temple is the sota's heterotopia (a phrase used by Michel Foucault that can be defined as a "place of otherness," which defines here social function ). She is suspected of having deviated from society's norms and is now brought before the official representatives of the social order, the judges of the supreme rabbinical court, so that she can either be refashioned as a faithful, fertile wife - or be identified as an accursed, barren woman. Similarly, Nazirites deviate from the bounds of social norms: They do not drink wine, cut their hair or come in contact with - or become ritually defiled by - the dead bodies of relatives. Like the sota, they are remolded in the Temple, during the period in which they have assumed their vows. They present a sacrificial offering there that signifies the end of that period, and to visibly indicate that it is indeed over, they may imbibe: "and after that the Nazirite may drink wine" (Num. 6:20 ).
These are two instances of human praxis in which persons are formulated by the wine - although in each one, the wine plays a different role. While, for the sota, wine is what leads to violation of the bounds of social order and removes her from normative society, in the case of the Nazirite, it represents society itself: The decision of Nazirites to keep away from wine is also a decision to distance themselves from society, while the renewed consumption of wine symbolizes the return to normative society.
Wine's "double" role stems from this ancient beverage's dialectical essence. In the Book of Genesis, for example, it is almost always connected to incest or to the act of stealing something from one's father. After planting a vineyard and producing wine, Noah become intoxicated, and his nakedness is "viewed" by one of his sons - a biblical term for incest (Genesis 9:22 ). Lot's daughters intoxicate their father with wine and have sexual intercourse with him (Gen. 19:30-36 ). Jacob gives his father wine in order to steal from him the blessing intended for his brother (Gen. 27:25 ). Because of its role in undermining the social order, priests are prohibited from drinking wine (Leviticus 10:8-9 ).
And yet wine also plays a main role in the Temple's ceremonies: Each sacrificial ritual there must be accompanied by wine, which is referred to as a drink-offering (nessekh ); a specified amount must be poured over the sacrifice and after dripping down to the altar's base, it flows through a system of holes into a drainage space. Such spaces are called the Shittin and have an unusual mythological significance vis-a-vis the Temple's architecture.
According to legend, the Shittin date back to the world's creation. They were situated directly under even hashtiya - the foundation stone for the whole world. When King David built the Temple's foundations, he discovered a shard of pottery that was left there by God when he created the universe, and which was intended to cap the rise of the groundwater. When David removed it, the water began to rise, threatening to flood the world. This was averted when he sang the 15 Psalms of Ascent (shirei hama'alot ), which restored the water to its original level. According to another version, he averted the flood scenario by writing the Tetragrammaton on a piece of pottery and placing it in the very same space (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Suca, pp. 53a-b, and parallel texts ).
The Shittin are thus a mythological space located in the world's foundations and they have the potential of destroying the world at any moment. It is into this Jungian shadow space, where the ground water is stored, that the wine accompanying sacrifices is poured. Like the Shittin, wine has the potential of undermining the world's limits. Like the Shittin, wine is stored under the very heart of the space that defines humanity's limits: the Temple. People can either surrender to wine and, like the sota in the depths of depravity, undermine the bounds of social order, or on the other hand they can undermine social convention by distancing themselves from wine.
Thus the functioning of society seems dependent on the anarchic potential lurking under its foundations in the form of wine. People will always return to the wine - as the Torah states about the end of the Nazirite vows of abstinence: "and after that the Nazrite may drink wine." Wine apparently embodies something that symbolizes the other side of what exists: the shadow that accompanies people everywhere and which both threatens to destroy them and delineates their limits.